On Sept. 18, the remains of 115 Koreans forced to labor in Hokkaido in the 1930s and ’40s were finally returned to South Korea, 70 years after the end of World War II. The news went largely unreported in Japan, which was preoccupied with the progress of new security laws loosening postwar restrictions on the country’s armed forces. The legislation was enacted just hours after a boat carrying the remains docked at Busan.

The repatriation was the culmination of years of work by civic groups in both South Korea and Japan united under the umbrella of the Committee for the Commemoration and Return of Forced Laborers in Hokkaido, which planned the 10-day trip tracing the 3,500-km route the laborers were forced to take generations ago. It was the largest-scale repatriation operation yet involving wartime remains from Hokkaido.

The first step toward the repatriation came in December 2004, at a bilateral summit between Roh Moo-hyun, then the South Korean president, and the Japanese prime minister at the time, Junichiro Koizumi. However, relations between Tokyo and Seoul have since soured amid territorial and historical disputes, leaving wartime labor issues — from the return of remains to unpaid wages and compensation — in limbo. This left Korean civic groups facing a dilemma: Should they wait for an unequivocal apology from Japan for its wartime actions before engaging or prioritize the return of the remains to their homeland as quickly as possible?

“Concerned about aging families longing for the return of the remains of their loved ones, we could not wait any longer. We regret that it has taken so long — 70 years — for this to happen. This repatriation is a step toward reconciliation between the peoples of East Asia,” said Yoshihiko Tonohira, one of the founding members of the committee.

More than 670,000 Koreans were conscripted into forced labor by Japan to aid the war effort. Among them, some 145,000 — 20 percent of all the Korean laborers in Japan — were sent to work in mines and on construction projects in Hokkaido.

Although it is unclear exactly how many people died, a roster assembled by the Investigation Team on the Truth about Forced Korean Laborers in Japan lists 2,292 names of those who died while working in Hokkaido.

Some sets of remains of forced laborers were transferred by the companies they died working for to Buddhist temples around Hokkaido, where they lay undisturbed until recently. Most others were buried in unmarked graves without having been cremated. For the past four decades, citizens — including forensic experts, historians and students — from South Korea and Japan have worked to exhume and identify the remains of these forced-labor victims. Among the 115 sets of remains repatriated in September, 38 were unearthed during these excavations.

Thirty-four sets of remains were uncovered in the district of Asajino in Sarufutsu, the northernmost village on the island of Hokkaido, in a series of excavations that began in 2005. Those long left neglected in the freezing ground were believed to be Koreans who died while working on the construction of an Imperial Japanese Army airfield in the area.

In Shumarinai, Horokanai-cho, in the mountainous north of the island, four more sets of remains were found during excavations supervised by academics, religious groups and students from both countries that began in 1997. There, Korean workers were deployed between 1938 and 1943 to build the Uryu Dam.

Six sets of remains placed in Jokoji Buddhist temple in the city of Bibai were also identified as those of Korean workers at a coal mine operated by Mitsubishi Bibai Coal Mine Hokkaido (now part of Mitsubishi Materials Corp.).

The bulk of the remains transferred to Korea — 71 sets — were found at the Honganji Buddhist Temple in Sapporo, also known as Sapporo Betsuin. More than 10 corporations deposited the remains of 101 Korean, Chinese and Japanese laborers there during or after the war. As the remains were buried together in the 1980s and ’90s without their families’ knowledge, they were no longer identifiable. According to a book of records found at the temple, 71 among the 101 workers buried there were Koreans, so the committee decided to transport 71 randomly selected sets of remains to Korea as a symbolic gesture.

On Sept. 11, some 30 members of the remains committee and a group of relatives of the deceased Koreans assembled at Tenyuji Temple in Hamatonbetsu, at the northern tip of Hokkaido, to receive the 34 sets of remains recovered from Asajino. The group then traveled the breadth of the island, stopping to retrieve the rest of the remains at three more locations in the prefecture before heading south to Tokyo. Leaving the capital on Sept. 14, the entourage then stopped at Kyoto, Hiroshima and Shimonoseki for memorial ceremonies. The remains were then stowed aboard the Pukwan Ferry, which plies the same route the Koreans conscripted to Japan took between Busan and Shimonoseki all those years ago.

At around 8 a.m. on Sept. 18, the remains, stored in 18 wooden coffins decked in white cloth, arrived at Busan International Port. After a memorial service at the portside Sumireu Park, the remains were transported to Seoul and temporarily laid in state at an Anglican church in Seoul.

On the evening of Sept. 19, a joint funeral ceremony was held at Seoul Plaza in front of City Hall, attended by relatives of the deceased, civic group members and public figures including Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon. A procession of Seoul citizens, each carrying one of 115 urns, marched by, as passersby paused to pay their respects at the ceremony.

The following morning the remains were buried at the city-run cemetery in Paju, Gyeonggi province. The monument in which the remains were placed was designed by Kim Seo-kyung and Kim Eun-sung, the artists behind the controversial statue of a “comfort woman” that sits defiantly in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul.

While the descendants of the deceased were pleased to see the return of the remains, they also had to grapple with conflicting feelings.

“We, the families of those whose remains were kept in the Sapporo Betsuin temple, feel aggrieved that the remains were transferred together,” said a statement released by the relatives. The remains, which had been originally kept in individual wooden boxes, were buried together 1984 and 1997, thereby making it impossible to ascertain which remains were which.

“The corporations that left the remains in the temple should have tried to track down the families first,” said Kim Gyeong-soo, 65, whose uncle was taken by Japanese soldiers to Hokkaido in 1942.

Kim made the journey to Hokkaido upon hearing that the remains had been found in 2004. Since then he, like the families of many other victims, has refused to take the remains home with him, insisting that the repatriation must be carried out by the Japanese government and corporations, accompanied by an official apology.

Only three corporations — Iwata Chizaki Inc. (previously known as Chizaki-gumi), Sugawara Kensetsu (formerly Sugawara-gumi) and Hishinaka Construction (Nakamura-gumi) — agreed to contribute money toward the repatriation. Mitsubishi Materials Corp., which apologized in July to a former American POW for using him for forced labor shortly after UNESCO agreed to grant 23 industrial sites in Japan World Heritage status, declined to donate to the project, even after a nephew of one of the Koreans who died working at the Mitsubishi Bibai Coal Mine came to Hokkaido to collect the remains of his uncle.

On Oct. 11, the UNESCO World Heritage Committee published on its website the minutes of its meeting in Bonn, Germany, in July, including a statement by Japan’s ambassador to UNESCO, Kuni Sato. “There were a large number of Koreans and others who were brought against their will and forced to work under harsh conditions in the 1940s at some of the sites,” Sato said, referring to the 23 sites designated by UNESCO. “Japan is prepared to incorporate appropriate measures into the interpretive strategy to remember the victims, such as the establishment of an information center,” she added.

Immediately afterward, a Japanese official attempted to play down Sato’s remarks, insisting that “forced to work” did not mean “forced labor.”

The South Korean government is reportedly planning to put forward its archives on forced labor during Japanese colonial rule as a candidate for inclusion on the UNESCO Memory of the World heritage list. The deadline for the next round of submissions to UNESCO is March 31 next year, and final decisions will be made in June or July 2017.

“Not only Koreans were victims of forced labor,” Jeong Byeong-ho, head of Steppingstone for Peace, a Korean organization that is a member of the remains committee, pointed out during the repatriation trip. “Through the excavations at Shumarinai and other activities, I came to understand that a lot of Japanese also suffered. The problem is the system of forced labor.”

Before the wartime mobilization of Koreans, similar large-scale coercive labor practices had been carried out since 1850, picking up steam in the Meiji Era (1868-1912) as Japan embraced modernization and industrial expansion on its way to becoming a major colonial power.

Especially in Hokkaido, which suffered acute labor shortages, a slave-like labor system known as tako-beya (meaning “labor camp”) was widely used in mining, the development of rail infrastructure and other construction projects. The brutality of the tako-beya system was compounded by the opaque web of contractors and subcontractors involved, with workers treated like prisoners or worse, subjected to beatings and held in debt bondage. Brokers recruited these laborers by lending them money and then forcing them to sign up for contracts to pay off their debts. Workdays at tako-beya sites often exceeded 12 hours, with extortionate fees deducted from wages for substandard food and board.

After full-scale war broke out between China and Japan in 1937, demand for coal and metals from mining in Hokkaido soared. According to a 1999 prefectural government report into Korean forced labor, by 1938 Hokkaido accounted for 28 percent of the country’s total coal production. In response to the sharply rising demand for raw materials, the number of laborers working in mining across Japan multiplied sevenfold between 1931 and 1938. Construction of military and other infrastructure also rapidly increased.

This caused a serious labor shortage, and under heavy pressure from industry, the systematic forced recruitment of Koreans into the harsh tako-beya system began in earnest.

The tako-beya system was abolished under the Allied Occupation in 1946, but some critics of modern-day employment practices argue that vestiges of the system live on in Japan, pointing to the conditions endured by foreign trainees, nonregular workers and laborers toiling under multiple levels of contractors and subcontractors on “demeaning, dangerous and dirty” projects such as the post-Fukushima nuclear clean-up.

“We must regard the forced labor as a current, not a past, issue. It is not only Japan vs. Korea or China, but authority vs. disadvantaged workers. There are a lot of Japanese workers suffering,” says Masaru Tonomura, a professor at the University of Tokyo who specializes in the issue of forced labor. “Looking back at the history of the mobilization during wartime can also reveal problems with the way economic systems work in the world today.”

Kayoko Kimura is a freelance journalist. Your comments and story ideas: community@japantimes.co.jp

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.