Revealing Japan's dirty secrets

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 21 March, 1998, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 21 March, 1998, 12:00am

Japan's War Memories - Amnesia or Concealment? Japan's Hidden Apartheid: The Korean Minority and the Japanese Both by George Hicks Both Ashgate, each $380 Although the seeds of these two books are rooted in World War II, the material presented is made relevant to Japanese society now.

George Hicks, known for his ground-breaking study of women enslaved for sex by the Japanese during the war, puts Japan's Korean minority and the country's role in the war in historical perspective and, through contemporary problems such as discrimination against third- and fourth-generation Koreans and censorship of textbooks, examines the issues as they have developed today.

Japan's Hidden Apartheid is the better of the two, as it comes to firmer conclusions and contains more illustrative anecdotes that personalise the Koreans' battle for recognition within Japan. However, the book is overly reliant on the work, research and thoughts of Korean activist Yumi Lee.

The Koreans comprise about 700,000 descendants of the hundreds of thousands of Koreans who were forced to Japan in the 1930s and 1940s, during Japan's colonial rule, to work as virtual slaves in mines and factories. Later generations grew up speaking Japanese, but many feel out of place both in Japan and Korea.

Many have remained and fought for their rights, with some success. Many can now become Japanese citizens, compulsory finger-printing has been eliminated, and Koreans have spearheaded the movement to expose Imperial Japan's forced sexual slavery of Asian women. But the Korean minority is not a cohesive unit. Some have opted for assimilation by using Japanese versions of their Korean names and becoming Japanese citizens - partly to avoid facing prejudice at school and in the workplace - while others have tried to retain their links to their past by attending autonomous Korean schools. There are also deep divisions within the Korean community based on alignment with North Korea, South Korea or groups independent of both.

Japan's War Memories examines how many aspects of the country's role in the war were conveniently ignored during the Cold War. It deals extensively with litigation on the censorship of Japanese textbooks.

It is a shame Hicks was unable to wrap up the section on textbook litigation because, at the time of writing, the final Supreme Court decision had not been made on professor and textbook writer Saburo Ienaga's case. This means the book needs updating: the Supreme Court on August 29 last year ended Professor Ienaga's 32-year legal battle by ruling the screening out of specific passages in his textbooks was unconstitutional. Among the changes demanded by the Education Ministry was the deletion of a description of the activities of Japan's Unit 731, which tested biological warfare agents on political prisoners.

The section considering this unit's work - which was covered up by the US after the war in exchange for data - is one of the book's highlights. Approximately 3,000 members of the unit experimented on political prisoners, or logs, who were part of the resistance, including Chinese, Korean and some Mongol guerillas as well as Soviet military personnel.

Prisoners would go through a series of inhumane treatments such as being tied naked to stakes where bacteria-infected fleas would suck their blood in a study of the propagation of plague.

Those who survived disease experiments were put outside in freezing weather with hands and feet exposed and doused with water to study frostbite; the victims were later killed in poison gas tests.

Hicks maintains a balanced view to produce worthwhile books, without sermonising.