FUKUOKA – A group of Osaka-based activists hunting for public records on Koreans who were forced to work in Japan during the war has helped uncover information on missing workers and bring closure to their families in South Korea.
The group says its efforts have been aided by the Japanese government’s move to overhaul its pension records following a massive scandal in 2007 that involved lost records and payments.
Before and during the war, many Koreans were brought to Japan by force following the 1910 annexation of the Korean Peninsula and forced to work at private companies or serve in the Japanese military.
Among them was the father of Kang Jong-ho, who recently traveled from Seoul to Shimonoseki, Yamaguchi Prefecture, to pay tribute to a man he never knew.
“Father, I have finally managed to come here,” the 73-year-old shouted, as he looked over the ocean in Shimonoseki port on May 18.
Kang said his late father was a fisherman in Korea until he was brought to Japan by sea soon after Jong-ho was born. Kang’s family never heard from him again.
“Growing up without my father beside me was really hard,” Kang said.
To make matters worse, his family wasn’t notified of his father’s death, leaving Kang unable to commemorate the anniversary of his passing.
However, the Osaka-based activist group, which is seeking redress for Korean citizens pressed into wartime service, managed to locate the pension fund records of Kang’s father.
The group’s 10 members have been reviewing records at Japanese companies to help return the remains of deceased laborers to surviving family members and compensate them for their relative’s contributions under Japan’s brutal colonial rule.
The activists managed to trace the records of Kang’s father by making inquiries at Japan Pension Service offices in across Japan. The Japan Pension Service searched the archives of the company that Kang’s father reportedly worked for, and cross-referenced them with information provided by the activists, such as Kang’s adopted Japanese name and profession.
That led pension service staff to a seafood company that was founded in 1880 and renamed Nishi Taiyo Gyogyo Tosei K.K. in 1943. The company has since become Japan’s top seafood producer, Maruha Nichiro Corp.
The insurance records of Kang’s father included information on his employment history at the company, which was based in Shimonoseki, Yamaguchi Prefecture, paving the way for his family to hold a memorial service there.
Kang’s case was one of three recently traced by Japan’s pension service. On May 15, officers handed public pension records to Choi Rak-hun from Uijeongbu, South Korea, who had been looking for his father, Choi Chon-ho, for more than 20 years. He visited Japan in 2013 hoping to discover what became of him after the war.
The records showed that Choi Chon-ho worked at the Kaijima Coal Mine in Miyawaka, Fukuoka Prefecture, which closed in 1976.
Rak-hun was 2 when his father went to Japan. He received letters from his father every month, but lost contact in 1945 after getting a final letter saying that he planned to return in a month.
The activists from Osaka claim the government’s recent efforts to correct and integrate pension records have helped to uncover information about such forced laborers.
In the wake of the public pension scandal, which involved the loss of some 50 million accounts in 2007, the central government established the Japan Pension Service to replace the tainted Social Insurance Agency.
One of the activists said that the pension service has since added most of the wartime records to the new database and that they’re available for searching.
Records pertaining to about a dozen South Koreans have also been found in the archives of Japan Post Bank, which handled military postal savings during World War II. Among the documents were pension and other records of accounts opened by workers in the military, including the so-called “comfort women” forced into prostitution in wartime military brothels.
The Osaka group has asked the bank to verify records of more Koreans after data on tens of thousands of postal savings accounts opened for Korean laborers brought to Japan during the war were found in the bank’s archives last year.
The group has also been verifying other war records and wading through documentation from areas surrounding the coal mines.
Their efforts bore fruit last year when they traced a Korean civilian military worker, whose troop was wiped out in Itoman, Okinawa Prefecture. This allowed his family to visit the place of his death last November.
The activists said when they first asked government agencies to help verify the records and search for missing wartime laborers from South Korea, officials refused to investigate the documentation, saying there was no information on their workplaces.
“Since we could not get the agencies’ help, we started the search on our own, and records started coming out one after another,” said Keishi Ueda, a 56-year-old member of the group.
“If the state investigated those cases, the families would have received information much earlier,” he added. “I hope the government officials will double their investigation efforts, as the workers’ family members are aging.”