Many accounts of Gunkanjima stress its industrial and human achievements, reflecting Japan’s modernisation. Burke-Gaffney stresses, though, it had a darker history. Many urban poor Japanese and their families were sent there to work during the Japanese government’s plan to increase their coal production. The workers on the island were to mine the coal underneath the ocean that surrounded it. In addition, during the 1930s and 1940, Japan turned it into a forced-labour camp for Korean and Chinese men, where hundreds of victims were worked to death. A Korean survivor, Suh Jung-Woo, recalled: “The digging places were so small that we had to crouch down to work. It was excruciating, exhausting labour. Gas collected in the tunnels, and the rock ceilings and walls threatened to collapse at any minute. I was convinced that I would never leave the island alive.”
Hence, one of the more colourful monikers of the island was given to it by the Korean and Chinese – “Hell island”.
Most reports about the life on Gunkanjima come from the Korean workers. Koreans, being the direct victims of WWII, were brought to the island by force together with other Chinese war prisoners to work in the mine. They were working with the bare minimum protection, and were malnourished (with the boiled brown rice mixed with leftover beans and sardines) and overworked with the impossible to finish heavy labour. They were sent to 1 kilometer underground in the temperature over 45 degrees, pressed against each other in dangerous tunnels and crouching most of the times. You could easily count up to 4 to 5 deaths per month. The dead bodies were then shipped and burried in the neighbouring island, Nakanoshima. After work, they all live in the buildings lined up along the southern wall of Gunkanjima island. Seven or eight of them were confined in one small room, where nothing can be seen besides the sea. According to survivors’ testimony, the coal mine reached a depth of 1,000 meters, allowing seawater to sometimes seep into the pits where they worked, consequently exposing them to skin infections. Various gases including methane accumulated and condensed in the mines further exacerbating the already hazardous terrain. Even more worrying was the fact that Korean and Chinese laborers were often assigned to the most toxic gaseous sections.
“The Island was a living hell. You could not dare to escape it because of high breakwaters and huge waves. By the end of the war, Koreans were involved in dangerous work and they were often vulnerable to violence of mine supervisors,” recalled Park Jun-gu, 87, a victim of the mine.
In the peace museum at Nagasaki, testimonies from Korean forced laborers line the walls, collated by museum director Yasunori Takazane. “The common stories I heard from Korean and Chinese laborers was that they are enormously hungry. The meals were miserable and when they could not go to work they were tortured, punched and kicked.”
Hideo Kaji’s best friend at school was Korean. He says he didn’t see much discrimination against Koreans but he remembers his parents talking about one episode when a Korean worker was beaten. “My father and mother were saying how sorry they were but my Dad said it was inevitable because it is wartime.” He remembers resenting the Chinese as a child because they were “locked up in the southern part of the island, right where we used to play baseball. We were so upset they took our place to play, but after the war ended I learned they were forced to work there.”
Separated from their families and wives (most of whom were taken to become sex slaves for the Japanese army), they mutilated themselves in order to be expelled from the island; some swam to the nearest island (with the risk of getting caught and beaten), others simply committed suicide by jumping out the window. Approximately 120 out of the 500 Koreans working on the island between 1939 and 1945 died there. During the same period, in 1941, the Hashima mine produced its greatest amount of coal, as a result of the heavy demand from the war. Those who somehow survived the difficult years were then sent to Nagasaki to clean up the mess caused by the atomic bomb.
Tomoji Kobata only lived on Hashima for a year in 1961, and now he works for Gunkanjima Concierge, one of the tour operators that bring tourists to the island. He says he’ll tell visitors about the forced labor issue but he won’t dwell on it. “There were so many other sides to life on the island beyond that,” he said.
Japan was required to pay reparations to the countries it wronged during World War II as part of a series of post-war treaties. On the 50th anniversary of the end of the war, Japan’s Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama offered a general apology for the “tremendous damage and suffering to the people of many countries, particularly to those of Asian nations’ caused by its ‘colonial rule and aggression.'” But there have been several recent lawsuits, filed by Chinese workers against Mitsubishi, demanding compensation and a specific apology for their enslavement in facilities across the Japanese empire during the war. All have failed.
Following these facts, it is not surprising that the “Truth Commission on Forced Labor under the Japanese Colonial Rule” of South Korea disagrees with the attempt to register several of Hashima’s buildings on the UNESCO Heritage list.
A government investigation committee, unveiled a report on Japan’s forced mobilization of Koreans on Hashima Island during its colonial rule (1910-1945). The findings of the report is the culmination of research carried out by the Commission on Verification and Support for Victims of Forced Mobilization under Japanese Colonialism, an affiliate of the Prime Minister’s Office. The research, which began in May, highlights the inhumane conditions under which Korean laborers worked in coal mines on Japan’s Hashima Island. “We were able to verify through cremation-related records that poor working and living conditions caused frequent fatalities and scores of diseases that increased the mortality levels amongst the laborers,” said Yoon Ji-Hyun, a member of the commission.
One of the commission’s arguments was that the crimes against Koreans were being covered up in order to make the island a more appealing tourist destination.
Lee Jae-cheol, spokesperson of the commission, said, “Nagasaki’s attempt to put Hashima Island where Koreans suffered so much on the World Heritage List is in line with the Japanese government’s attitude of whitewashing its history. We will take appropriate actions in relation to Nagasaki’s moves.”
The claim is not new, but new research has been delivered by a governmental agency created in 2005, the Commission on Verification and Support for Victims of Forced Mobilization under Japanese Colonialism, which already revealed last summer that, of the 7.8 million Koreans mobilized under Japanese rule (1910-1945), over 226,000 have been registered as victims.
Lately, Korean authorities have been toying with Godwin’s law, and the parallel between atrocities committed across Asia under Imperial Japanese rule, and the Holocaust perpetrated by their Nazi friends in Germany. Like that “Do you remember?” campaign in the US demanding official apologies for sex slavery / “Comfort Women”. Some members of the commission claim that in the same way, a UNESCO listing of Hashima as a simple “industrial site” would be equivalent to the listing of Auschwitz-Birkenau under the same category.
Meanwhile, in startling closing arguments last September, Mitsubishi issued a blanket denial of historical facts routinely recognized by other Japanese courts, while heaping criticism on the Tokyo Trials and openly questioning whether Japan ever “invaded” China at all. Mitsubishi has ominously warned that a redress award for the elderly Chinese plaintiffs, or even a court finding that forced labor occurred, would saddle Japan with a “mistaken burden of the soul” for hundreds of years.
Burke-Gaffney, Brian, (1996). “Hashima: The Ghost Island”, Crossroads: A Journal of Nagasaki History and Culture (UWOSH). 4:33–52.