News photo
Chon Sing Yol –
and two other South Koreans seeking information on relatives who were slave laborers in Japan during the war take part in a ceremony Friday in Tokyo as others hold photos of three North Koreans who were denied visas.

The only information he has found so far is that his father was forced to be a coxswain on a wooden ship that moved supplies for the Imperial Japanese Army in the South Pacific.

“I was once told by Japan’s welfare ministry that it does not have any records on my father,” Kang said. “I think Japan should disclose all documents” it has on the Korean slave laborers.

Kang is one of eight South Koreans visiting Japan whose relatives were brought here as slave laborers in the 1930s and 1940s. They are urging Tokyo to increase its efforts to collect the remains of their relatives and information on them.

They took part in a memorial ceremony Friday in Tokyo organized by a group of scholars, civic groups and members of the administrative headquarters of the Soto Zen Buddhist sect, which has about 14,000 temples in Japan.

The group is bringing 20 South Koreans here as part of a monthlong program in August to increase public awareness of the slave-labor issue.

It tried to bring in five North Koreans — three relatives of slave laborers, their caregiver and an interpreter. However, the government earlier this week refused to issue them visas, citing Tokyo’s sanctions over Pyongyang’s July 5 missile launches.

A senior official said the government has information that some of the five are strongly involved in North Korean intelligence activities, according to Kyodo News.

“It was regrettable that the North Koreans couldn’t come,” said Chon Sung Yol, one of the South Korean group. “They are also victims of the war. I wonder what is wrong” with allowing them to come to Japan.

Chon said Japan should apologize to the relatives of the slave laborers, find out what happened to them and promptly hand over their remains.

Chon’s father was forced to work at a naval facility in Aomori Prefecture. He died in August 1945 when the ship Ukishima Maru, which he boarded to return home, blew up under mysterious circumstances off Maizuru, Kyoto Prefecture. His father’s body was found and the remains are at Yutenji Temple in Tokyo.

There are no official figures of how many Koreans were forcibly brought to Japan to do hard labor, including mining coal and building military installations. Many died in the harsh conditions they were forced to work under.

Satoshi Uesugi, a professor at Kansai University who has studied the issue and belongs to a slave-labor awareness program, said academics have estimated between 10,000 to 40,000 Koreans died here during the 1930s and 40s. Uesugi puts the figure at 20,000 to 30,000.

Uesugi said the remains of about 10,000 of them were sent to Korea in the early years after the war.

In December 2004, Japan agreed with South Korea to collect and hand over more remains.

According to the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry, the remains of 1,669 Koreans have been located. Tokyo and Seoul plan to discuss how to hand them over to their kin, a ministry official said.

The 20 South Koreans will tour Japan in August to talk about their experiences and feelings on the issues surrounding the slave labor. The public-lecture tour has been organized by the Japanese group.

Several of them will also take part in the group’s project to dig up a cemetery in the village of Sarufutsu, Hokkaido, in late August, where many Koreans were forced to build a runway there between 1942 and 1944.

Professor Uesugi said finding and handing over Korean remains is important for Japan to regain trust from its neighbors.

Despite political problems with the two Koreas — the North’s missile launches and Japan’s territorial dispute with the South — the government should not hinder the group’s activities or try to change direction in its own program to locate remains, Uesugi said.

The government sees the project as a humanitarian activity and is strongly behind it, one welfare ministry official said.

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