Legacy of forced labor haunts Japan's ties with its neighbors

The history that massive people brought into Japan to work as forced labor, is a modern legacy of the leading companies of Japanese economy after World War II.

For years, Yeom Chan-soon was haunted by the cracking sound of a leather belt eating into the flesh of a fellow Korean mine worker being punished for trying to escape from forced labor in Japan.

That dark chapter in Japan’s history, when hundreds of thousands of people were brought from the Korean Peninsula and other Asian nations to work in logging, in mines, on farms and in factories as forced labor, lives on as a modern legacy in the companies that came to dominate the Japanese economy after World War II.

Survivors, their families and supporters are still seeking compensation and atonement. The companies, among the biggest names in Japan, such as Mitsubishi and Mitsui, say such issues were settled by a treaty decades ago. Critics say Japan has failed to fully reckon with those wrongs that date back to the late 1890s. The legacy still overshadows Tokyo’s relations with its neighbors and helps perpetuate mistreatment of its own minorities.

“Japanese have never seriously faced up to the realities of the devastating abuse Japan brought to neighboring nations and their people,” said Masaru Tonomura, a professor of history at the University of Tokyo.

The number of survivors of forced labor before and during World War II is dwindling. But their stories can be found in oral histories compiled by the late Eidai Hayashi, a researcher who spent his career unearthing facts about Japan’s wartime mobilization of laborers and other wrongdoings.

“When the wooden stick broke, the beating went on with a shovel that was picked up. He was beaten until pieces of torn skin stuck to the metal. His face got twisted, and he collapsed, not even able to scream,” Yeom was quoted as saying in Hayashi’s 1981 book, “Forced Into Forced Labor.”

Some of the biggest companies began in industrial groups called “zaibatsu,” that relied on forced labor, especially during war, when labor was scarce. Mitsubishi, Mitsui and Sumitomo have denounced continuing demands for reparations.

“We think what happened during the special circumstances of war is unfortunate. But we were not behind that system as a company, and we were not in a position to respond,” said Akira Masuda, a spokesman for Nippon Coke & Engineering Co, formerly Mitsui Mining Co.

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