The government plans to make public testimony denying Koreans were forced to work under harsh conditions during World War II at what is now a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage site, government sources said Thursday.
That could draw rebukes from South Korea, which maintains that workers from Korea were forced to work in the Hashima Coal Mine off Nagasaki, or what is known as “Battleship Island” because of its shape. The Korean Peninsula was under Japanese colonial rule between 1910 and 1945.
When the island was listed as a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage site in 2015, Japan promised South Korea to exhibit the history of such workers. Japan may continue to collect more testimony, potentially including acknowledgements of forced labor.
The move comes as the two Asian neighbors need to cooperate in addressing the North Korean nuclear and missile threats, and as Tokyo aims to host a trilateral summit also involving China in the near future.
The Japanese government plans to open in Tokyo by 2019 an information center for Japan’s World Cultural Heritage sites, where the testimonies will be exhibited, according to the sources.
The testimonies denying forced labor are part of 200 hours of recorded memories by around 60 former islanders, including Korean residents in Japan.
One says “I believe Korean people were not forced to do dangerous work,” while another says “Japanese and Koreans were treated the same way in the coal mine.”
All these witnesses live in Japan, but the government is considering compiling testimonies from former mine workers now living in South Korea, the sources said.
Tokyo has told the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization that it would collect former islanders’ testimonies and other materials to exhibit, the sources said.
South Korea had initially opposed adding the island to the World Cultural Heritage list under “Sites of Japan’s Meiji Industrial Revolution,” saying Koreans were forced to work at some sites. But it dropped its opposition on condition that Japan publicly acknowledge that Koreans were coerced to work at such sites.
However, Tokyo and Seoul have been at odds over the definition of forced labor.