While Taro Aso’s public statements as foreign minister have done little to help ease tensions between Tokyo and the rest of Asia, a family connection to wartime forced labor has raised further questions over his ability to oversee good relations with Japan’s neighbors.

During World War II, the Aso family’s mining company used thousands of Koreans as forced laborers.

The legacy of Koreans, Chinese and other Asians being forced into slave-like working conditions across the region during the war, has become an issue in Tokyo’s maintenance of normal diplomatic relations with its neighbors.

Aso’s family background has led some to suggest that his position as foreign minister is untenable.

Meanwhile, a recent study by a group of historians in Kyushu has shed new light on the role of the Aso family in using Korean labor before and during the war.

The Korean pit workers, according to the historians, were systematically underpaid, underfed, overworked, and confined in penury. The workers were under 24-hour watch and released only with Japan’s 1945 defeat.

Aso himself ran the Fukuoka company from 1973-79, when he entered politics. During that time he did not address its history of using forced labor, nor has he since. The Foreign Ministry did not respond to inquiries on the issue.

According to one German Embassy official in Tokyo, speaking on the understanding of anonymity, while family lineage on its own would not be held against an individual, the foreign minister’s actions make him an unsuitable foreign minister.

“Because Aso’s family connection gave him the opportunity to address wrongs in the firm, and he did not do so,” as well as comments that “seem to defend criminal policies of the past,” Aso would “not be acceptable” for a post such as foreign minister. “He might get into Parliament,” said the official, “but not the government.”

Japanese media scholars have expressed concern at the the lack of detailed reporting on Japan’s corporate forced labor, and Aso’s family’s role in particular.

“As Aso is a candidate for prime minister in September his attitudes and his behavior are political issues,” says Tatsuro Hanada of Tokyo University. “The question of his qualifications is an important subject that should be opened to the Japanese public.”

Takesato Watanabe, of Doshisha University in Kyoto, finds it alarming that Japan has kept in office a minister with links, however distant, to such a contentious issue. “He should be replaced,” he says.

Hanada, Watanabe, as well as Ofer Feldman, an author and Japan political scholar, blame Japan’s kisha club system for media silence on the issue.

The Aso family coal mining business dates back to the 19th century in Kyushu’s rich Chikuho coal fields in Fukuoka. Aso’s great-grandfather, Takakichi, founded the Aso mining firm in 1872. At one time it owned over half a dozen pits in Kyushu and was the biggest of three family corporations mining an area producing half of Japan’s “black diamonds.”

The Aso Group has changed names more than once and in 2001 entered a joint venture with Lafarge Cement of France, the world’s largest cement maker. Aso’s younger brother Yutaka remained president of what became Lafarge Aso Cement Co. Last December, the French ambassador in Tokyo awarded Yutaka the Legion d’Honneur at a champagne reception. Guests of honor were Taro Aso and his wife, Chikako.

The issue of the foreign minister’s family links to Korean wartime slave labor has already arisen in meetings between Japan and South Korea.

Choi Bong Tae, a member of a bilateral commission studying the issue of forced labor, told reporters in November that the Japanese side had provided no information on the Aso company and others it had named. A spokesman for the Aso Cement Co., a successor company of Aso Mining, said that it would be difficult to provide such data since records aren’t available from that long ago.

However, the study conducted by the Kyushu historians has documented new information on the role of the Aso family in using Korean labor before and during the war. Eidai Hayashi, Takashi Ono, and Noriaki Fukudome have used official and local library resources to gather contemporaneous statistics and reports on the conduct of the Aso family’s mining operation.

According to the company’s own statistics, by March 1944, Aso mines had a total of 7,996 Korean laborers, of whom 56 had recently died. Some 4,919 had managed to escape. Across Fukuoka, the total fugitive figure amounted to 51.3 percent. At Aso Mines, the figure was 61.5 percent.

According to data seen by the historians in Kyushu, Korean workers at Aso Mines were paid a third less than equivalent Japanese laborers to dig coal. It amounted to 50 yen a month, but less than 10 yen after mandatory confiscations for food, clothes, housing and enforced savings (to discourage attempts at escape, though which often remained unpaid) were deducted. Workers toiled for 15-hour days, seven days a week, with no holidays.

A three-meter high wooden fence topped with electrified barbed wire ringed the perimeter. Workers were guarded.

In 1939, the Japanese government passed the National General Mobilization law, which forced all colonial subjects, including Koreans, and those in Taiwan and Manchuria, to work wherever needed by Tokyo. According to the historians, however, Aso mines was shipping Korean laborers to Kyushu as early as the mid-1930s, before the law was passed.

Although precise numbers are unknown, an estimated 12,000 laborers passed through the company, some necessitated by a strike of 400 miners in 1932. After 1939, the historians calculate, the number of Asians kept in forced labor in the Chikuho region swelled to over a million.

Aso has hit the headlines of late with a string of comments that have enraged Japan’s neighbors. In January, he said that Emperor Akihito should visit Yasukuni Shrine.

He has also been seen to espouse rightwing tenets of Japanese racial supremacy.

Speaking at the opening of the Kyushu National Museum in Fukuoka last October, he described Japan as “one nation, one civilization, one language, one culture, and one race, the like of which there is no other on earth.”

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