William Underwood: Reparations for Korean Forced Labor in Japan

QUESTION: Choose the correct statement about Korea under Japanese rule.

1) A government-general was established and Ito Hirobumi was the first governor-general.
2) Korea was the first foreign territory acquired by Japan after the Meiji Restoration.
3) The system of giving Koreans Japanese names was implemented at the time of annexation.
4) Koreans were forcibly transported to Japan during World War II. [1]

Four is the correct answer to the world history question, according to the test administered across Japan by the University Entrance Examination Center in January 2004. The uproar was predictable and instantaneous, reflecting the advance made in recent years by deniers of Korean forced labor in Japan. Fujioka Nobukatsu, a Tokyo University professor and central figure within the Japanese Society for History Textbook Reform (Tsukurukai), the influential group that pushes history textbooks minimizing or rejecting Japanese culpability for war and colonialism, went on the offensive in the conservative Sankei newspaper and Seiron opinion journal. Fujioka labeled the national entrance exam a “leftist test,” charged that it was hindering resolution of the North Korean abductions issue, and demanded to know the identities of the test’s question makers.

Fujioka stressed that the term “forced transportation” (kyosei renko) came into use only during the 1960s and depicted the entire Korean forced labor program as a falsehood intended to weaken Japan. By February 2004, a group of young Diet members belonging to the long-dominant Liberal Democratic Party was demanding that all references to Korean forced labor be removed from textbooks, a trend already well under way. “They have been extremely masochistic,” Education Minister Nakayama Nariaki observed about history textbooks in November 2004, “so it’s really good that there are now fewer references to the so-called comfort women and forced labor.”[2]

Even leading Japanese researchers have refined their language and redrawn distinctions regarding the diverse circumstances of “group importation,” an evolving process through which 700,000 Koreans were coerced into working for private companies in Japan between 1939 and 1945. Consider, for example, an edited Japanese volume published in 1996 under the title “An Appeal from Neighboring Countries: Corporate Responsibility for Forced Labor.”[3] The next book in the same series appeared in 2000 and was called “Corporate War Crimes: Corporate Responsibility for Forced Labor.”[4] However, the 2005 book by three veteran members of the research group (Yamada Shoji, Kosho Tadashi and Higuchi Yuichi) bore the notably more circumspect title of “The Wartime Labor Mobilization of Koreans.”[5] But despite the shift in terminology on the cover of the latest book, put out by one of the country’s most prominent left-leaning publishers (Iwanami Shoten), the trio makes extensive use of official records to refute the denial theorists, whose several recent works typically contain words like “myth” and “fabrication” in their titles.[6] The historical record, carefully considered, makes clear that Japan’s “labor mobilization” programs for Koreans involved forced deportation from Korea and forced labor in Japan, with the degree of coercion increasing over time.

Because Japanese society is sharply divided about the nature of Korean forced labor and labels for describing it, and because there is no strong consensus regarding Japan’s colonial rule of Korea from 1910 to 1945, Japanese remain far from agreement with Koreans about how to come to terms with this major aspect of their nations’ shared past. However, doing nothing about the legacy of forced labor, the prevailing approach for the past six decades, is no longer an option. The singularly complex and dynamic Korean forced labor reparations movement is being empowered by the direct involvement of the South Korean state and the activities of a transnational civil society that are without parallel in Asia or perhaps anywhere....

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