Foreign Minister Taro Aso’s Dirty Secret

in Tokyo

Japan’s “top priority” in new talks with North Korea opening Saturday, February 4, in Beijing, will be the case of 15 of its citizens abducted to Pyongyang between 1977-83. But absent from Tokyo’s agenda will be another unresolved disgrace: decades of enforced removal to Japan for work-slavery of a million Koreans — including 12,000 laborers compelled to work under grotesque conditions in coal mines owned by a firm still run by the family of Japan’s foreign minister, Taro Aso.

The kidnappings of Japanese men and women to teach their language at North Korean spy schools could eventually total 70, it is suspected. The outrage, constantly covered by the Japanese media, continues to upset people and is an international scandal by any standards. The older, but incomparably worse mistreatment of Koreans over three decades, is hardly mentioned in Japan, and the foreign minister’s connection remains taboo. Yet in other countries such an episode would be regarded as intolerable in such an important government official.

The Korean pit workers were systematically underpaid, overworked, underfed and confined in penury. They suffered chronic ill-health, frequent death from insanitary conditions or work accidents, were under 24-hour watch by brutal secret police, yet still managed to escape out of desperation. Only with Japan’s 1945 defeat in war were they finally released, to be sent home uncompensated. Neither they nor their surviving families have since received a penny in personal reparations, despite pleas from both Koreas.

Aso cannot argue that a generation separates him from such family odium, for he shares Japan’s national lack of atonement for the brutalities and atrocities committed against Asian people during its imperial war of aggression from 1931-45. Even in his remarks before becoming foreign minister last October and since, he displays unfeeling insensitivity to Korean feelings — as well as expressing unabashed racial supremacy. (Last year in a remark echoing 1930s fascism, Aso described Japan as “one nation, one civilization, one language, one culture, and one race, the like of which there is no other on this earth.”)

He ran the Aso Cement Company, as the former Aso Coal Mines was then called, in Fukuoka prefecture in the southern island of Kyushu from 1973-79, when he entered politics. During that time never addressed its terrible corporate legacy of peonage labor. He remains connected to the company today. In 2001 it entered a joint venture with the French cement manufacturer, Lefarge, but remains under the management of his younger brother, Yutaka Aso. Only last December, the French ambassador in Tokyo presented Yutaka with the Legion d’Honneur at a ceremony where honored guests were foreign minister Taro Aso and his wife.

It seemed a fitting tribute to a family steeped in the finest traditions of Japan’s recent history. Aso prominence goes back to his great-great grandfather, Toshimichi Okubo, a samurai and one of five powerful nobles who led the 1868 overthrow of the centuries-old shogunate era that ushered in modern times. His great grandfather Takakichi founded the Aso mining firm in 1872 and at one time it owned eight pits in Kyushu’s rich Chikuho coal fields and was the biggest of three family corporations mining an area that produced half of Japan’s coal.

As the scion of landed gentry, Aso graduated from the university that traditionally educates the imperial family, spent time in London at its university, joined what was then Aso Industries, and quickly became a director before moving to the top. Completing the aristocratic tradition, he was part of the Japanese rifle shooting team in the 1976 Montreal Olympics.

Following his samurai ancestor, a grandfather was Shigeru Yoshida, prime minister of Japan five times between 1946 and 1954, and an autocratic conservative who, conveniently for the Aso family, conducted a 1950s purge of “reds” in the coal mining unions. Taro Aso’s wife adds to the family’s power luster as the daughter of Zenko Suzuki, Liberal Democratic Party (conservative) prime minister from 1980-82. There is even a royal link. Aso’s sister Nobuko married Prince Tomohito of Mikasa, the emperor’s cousin, who recently hit the headlines over his opposition to the proposal — for an imperial family starved of male heirs — to allow a woman to occupy the chrysanthemum throne. Tomohito suggested continuing the male line through concubines, an imperial tradition that would move Japan back several centuries.

Despite the fine lineage, it does not seem to have turned Aso into a gentleman. He not only ignores his company’s history, but has insulted the Korean people who sacrificed so much for his family’s fortune.

By force of arms, Japan annexed the entire peninsula in 1910 and ran it as a colonial property for 35 years, with the people serving as inferior citizens and servants of their imperial masters. In 1939 as Tokyo’s grip tightened in the escalating war, its parliament passed a law forcing Koreans to adopt Japanese names, penalizing those and their children who declined to do so. Yet not long before he became foreign minister, Aso referred to these forced name changes as “voluntary” and further suggested that the Republic of Korea’s people had fared better under Tokyo’s iron heel.

Perhaps Aso’s attitude derives from having at the family’s disposal thousands of servile Koreans for so many years. The exact history of this time is not officially recorded — certainly not in the Aso-Lafarge version, where the years from the 1930s to 1950s are blank. But three local amateur historians in the Fukuoka prefecture of Kyushu, Eidai Hayashi, Takashi Ohno, and Noriaki Fukudome, assisted by a Korean living in Japan, Kim Guan-yul, have put together the relevant facts and figures to present a shocking picture, much of it recorded in their various books.

Although Tokyo did not pass until 1939 the National General Mobilization law that forced all colonial subjects, including those in Taiwan and Manchuria in China, to work wherever it suited Japan, the historians found that well before that year, Korean laborers were being shipped to Aso mines in Kyushu. Precise numbers are unknown, but it was several thousands, especially after a famous strike of 400 miners at an Aso mine in 1932. In the years after 1939, the historians calculate, the Korean numbers in Japan swelled to over a million — their figure is 1,120,000 — although Tokyo’s official government number is only 724,287. The miners’ task was to descend into difficult seams to dig coal shipped exclusively for military use.

They were paid a third less than equivalent Japanese laborers. For the Koreans it amounted to about 50 yen a month, but less than 10 yen after mandatory confiscations for food, clothes, housing and enforced savings for unmarried workers. Young single men were thus fined to prevent them joining the large numbers that frequently escaped, but even then, the “savings” often remained unpaid and just missing from their pockets. All workers toiled underground for 15-hour days, seven days a week, with no holidays at all.

Their “housing” was cramped and dirty dormitory huts with six to seven tiny rooms in each, and single men living and sleeping on one tatami mat, measuring three by six feet. There was no heating and no running water. Lavatories were in earthen pits. A nine-foot high wooden fence topped with electrified barbed wire ringed the outside. So they were prisoners, scrutinized by their keepers, the hated kempei-tai secret “thought” police who terrorized both Japan and its colonies during the fascist period.

But the kempei-tai did keep statistics, which the three historians obtained. They found that in March of 1944, Aso mines had a total of 7,996 Korean laborers of whom 56 had recently died, and a staggering 4,919 had escaped. Across the province of Fukuoka, the total fugitives amounted to 51.3 per cent but at Aso Mines it was 61.5 per cent because conditions there were “even worse”, said Fukudome.

Most workers suffered malnutrition, as they received only a handful of rice a month supplemented by inferior cereals. No meat was provided, for what is a more carnivorous people than the Japanese, who to this day prefer fish.

What of the dead? In the Chikuho region, where the last Aso mine closed in the late 1960s, the Hoko Buddhist temple still stands. Here a lonely priest tends hundreds of nameless graves where the remains of the dead Koreans lie. Elsewhere hundreds more resting places are mostly unmarked, according to the historians.

But this is Confucian country, where the remains of ancestors is a deeply important matter. It is here that international relations have intervened. In 2004 the Seoul parliament voted unanimously, with one exception, to form the Truth Commission on Forced Mobilization Under Japanese Imperialism, headed by its chairman, Dr Jeon Ki-ho, and composed of eight others, including two government ministers. It began inquiries early last year and toured 234 cities in 16 Korean provinces to find survivors or their families, conducted hearings, and took evidence from many witnesses. Dr Jeon also visited Japan to investigate and clarify what he boldly called its “atrocities”.

In what at first appeared to be a political master stroke, the Koreans also reported that they had compiled a list of 2,600 Japanese companies that exploited forced Korean labor, and would have knowledge of the remains of those who died. One firm prominently on the list was Aso Mines, but the company has declined to answer the request. A spokesman says only that the firm could not investigate the whereabouts of the remains, adding in what may have been an accidental truth, that “even if we could”, the records were not available. “There were dozens of mining companies in Kyushu at the time and all used forced labor,” said spokesman Akira Fujimoto.

The commission, which is also investigating the scandal of “comfort women”, the insulting euphemism that describes thousands of Asian women forced into sex slavery to service the imperial warriors of Japan’s army, has yet to issue its promised report. So far Japanese media have almost entirely ignored its proceedings.

A major argument of those seeking redress from a shamefully reluctant Japan, is that while it has made numerous “apologies” of varying sincerity, none amounts to proper atonement. And atonement includes financial compensation of which, it is estimated, Japan has paid one per cent of Germany’s disbursements.

One example of a glib apology came from Taro Aso himself in December last year, on the 40th anniversary of normalization of diplomatic ties between Japan and South Korea. He said: “Japan seriously takes to heart the sentiments of South Korean people involving the past and will sincerely deal with various issues originating from the past from a humanitarian standpoint. We believe that in the process of making such efforts, mutual understanding and a relationship of trust for building a future-oriented Japan-South Korea relationship will be reinforced.”

Note that this does not contain the all-important word “apology” and of course there is no mention of atonement or anything on the vital issue of reparations. Here, the argument Japan uses constantly is that the normalization treaty signed in 1965 agreed on what was to be paid — a paltry $800m, but this was mainly for grants and low interest loans. Nothing went to personal payments for injury or harm suffered. Perhaps most important, in 1965 much knowledge about the extent of Japanese atrocities was still unknown. Two examples: Neither its biological warfare attacks in China through its notorious Unit 731, nor the vast army of “comfort women” were public information then.

Meanwhile, the world is left with Japan’s foreign minister and his “sincere dealings” over his nation’s unresolved war crimes. From his record there can be little expectation he will help to clear the shame. He eagerly supports the Yasukuni war shrine visits in Tokyo that have caused severe disruptions to its foreign relations with China and the Koreas, in particular, since prime minister Junichiro Koizumi made his fifth trip there last October. Just the other day, Aso made this worse by urging the emperor to visit, something the imperial household has sensibly avoided since the 1970s.

What makes nonsense of claims by Aso and Koizumi is that they are just paying their respects to war dead, like a US president intoning a prayer at Arlington national cemetery. However, Yasukuni shrine is shinto, so the souls of its 14 class A war criminals enshrined there are regarded as “kami”, which means gods. One is wartime premier General Hideki Tojo, who approved Unit 731 among other crimes, and another the general in charge at the Rape of Nanking, where in 1937 Japanese soldiers hideously butchered over 300,000 mainly civilian Chinese in a seven-week bestial rampage.

In the Beijing “normalization” talks with Japan, the People’s Democratic Republic of Korea may well raise the question of the enforced laborers, while the Japanese emphasize the abductions. Just two days before the talks began, its media identified a North Korean kidnapper wanted for extradition. The war of propaganda continued.

But for any semblance of what is normal in our modern world — in a nation like Germany for instance — surely there are minimum requirements? Would not one of these be a foreign minister with hands clean of vile associations with a war atrocity, especially one so dangerously close to another kind of abduction, but on a mass scale?

CHRISTOPHER REED is a journalist who lives in Japan. His email