Another diplomatic spat broke out between South Korea and Japan this month after the public opening of the Industrial Heritage Information Center in Tokyo.
Contrary to what Japan said it would do, the center mostly focused on highlighting achievements of Japan’s industrial revolution while giving hardly any retribution to the sufferings of Koreans during the time period as forced wartime laborers.
Seoul’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs accuses Japan of breaking its own promise. When its 23 Meiji-era industrial sites were designated as UNESCO’s World Heritage, Japan promised to the international body that an information center would be made to recognize “Koreans and others who were brought against their will and forced to work under harsh conditions in the 1940s at some of the sites.”
Yuji Hosaka, a political science professor at Sejong University, says Korea should have already seen Japan’s move miles ahead. The 63-year-old go-to expert on Korea-Japan relations argues that Japan has never been willing to be upfront about its wartime wrongdoings for fears of potential financial and diplomatic risks.
“In a short-term goal, Japan wants to reverse its reputation of being an aggressor of Korea and its people during the colonial rule,” Hosaka said in an interview Friday with The Korea Herald.
“Japan eventually wants to create a convincing narrative that the country actually helped Korea industrialize and modernize and that the two countries worked collaboratively for the same goal, which will help it avoid compensating for wartime forced labor not only in Korea but also in a number of other countries throughout Asia.”
Hosaka, a naturalized Korean born and educated in Japan who dedicated his career to the study of Korea-Japan relations, believes that Japan would be faced with billions of dollars to pay back to victims by recognizing the issue at the industrial center.
The admission of guilt would serve as a catalyst to open fresh lawsuits against Japan and Japanese companies involved in the industrialization move during the period, on top of the rulings made so far in Korea.
In 2018, Korea’s Supreme Court ordered Nippon Steel & Sumitomo Metal to compensate four Koreans for their forced labor and unpaid wages during the World War II. As the firm refused to comply with the ruling, a local court allowed a seizure of 194,794 shares worth around 973 million won of PNR, a joint venture set up by Nippon Steel & Sumitomo Metal and Korean steelmaker Posco.
“Japan is a country already loaded with huge national debt, and the situation has been getting worse due to the ongoing coronavirus outbreak and delays in hosting the Olympics originally planned for this summer,” Hosaka said.
“Once Japan starts recognizing its long list of faults during the World War II, there will be a series of lawsuits. Do you think the Japanese government is ready for that? Absolutely not.”
While Japan argues that it treated every worker equally regardless of their place of origin during World War II, as is claimed by the heritage information center, Hosaka said there are at least dozens of sound, concrete pieces of evidence showing how workers from the Japanese inland were treated much better than Koreans forcibly brought to the industrial sites.
“There were already testimonies in the 1970s from those at Hashima Island (who spoke of the) clear line of discrimination that existed between Korean and Japanese laborers,” he said.
“There is also evidence of supervisors fleeing the island before any others fearing they would be avenged by Korean laborers, after the war ended. If Koreans were treated equally, why would the supervisors run away?”
Hashima Island, which Japan cites as a site that propelled the country to become the global economic powerhouse, is inversely a tragic place in the eyes of many Koreans.
The island is one of seven sites consisting of mines, foundries and shipyards that drafted a total of around 33,400 Koreans for slavery-level wartime labor.
“Hashima Island was a place that even Japanese people didn’t want to go to, even though the Japanese government promised high wages and some benefits,” he added. “It was one of the most dangerous places to work in, so Japan had to forcibly bring people from its colonial territories to fill up the roster.”
While Japan blatantly broke the promise with UNESCO with the establishment of the controversial information center, Hosaka said he is unsure what to expect with the World Heritage site designation, as Japan is one of the largest contributors to UNESCO’s annual budget.
“It is possible that UNESCO could come up with some follow-up measures to make Japan keep its 2015 promise, but we will have to wait and see,” he said. “Japan is a huge financial supporter of UNESCO, and that could make things difficult for agency to make a bold move.”
This year, Japan was the second-largest financial contributor among member nations, taking up 11.05 percent of the 315.4-billion-won budget paid by 193 member nations. Korea, on the other hand, supported 2.93 percent of the total.
And as it is evident that Japan is sticking to its “innocence” narrative, not just to the domestic but global audience, Hosaka said that Korea should take bolder steps to inform the world about Japan’s wartime atrocities.
“Korea needs to be loud and stay loud to inform the international community that Japan is not keeping its promise,” he said.
“The country should work across ministries, government agencies and private partners to criticize Japan’s blatant wrongdoings during the colonial era and show how Japan never was upfront about its faults.”
While Korea does a good job at sharing news on Japan’s efforts to justify and glorify its past transgressions among its people, it is not doing enough to let the world know, the professor said. Making more people aware of the issues will eventually work in Korea’s favor in dealing with continued spats with its neighbor, he added.
“Japan has been very good with spreading its faulty stance to the international community with diverse marketing platforms and languages, and Korea was largely behind Japan in such efforts,” he said nearing the end of the interview.
“Spreading Korea’s message isn’t just the job for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs; everyone in Korea and those with interest in the well-being of Korea should be involved.”
By Ko Jun-tae (firstname.lastname@example.org