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South Korean protesters tear a Japanese rising sun flag during a rally denouncing Tokyo’s wartime forced labour. File photo: AFP

Will a Japanese memorial to Chinese victims of wartime forced labour further anger South Korea?

  • The monument at a Nagasaki park, set up with funds given by Mitsubishi Materials, also features an apology from the company over human rights violations
  • Analysts say the move could infuriate Seoul where Japanese firms like Mitsubishi Heavy Industries have refused to apologise to Koreans and compensate them for wartime excesses
The unveiling of a stone memorial to Chinese who were forced to labour for a Japanese company before and during World War II in southern Japan could enrage South Korea as it seeks to reset strained relations with Tokyo, analysts said.

The monument, set up in a park in Nagasaki in November last year, was built by a civic group with funds provided by Mitsubishi Materials Corp as part of an agreement reached in 2016 with a number of Chinese who were forced to work in mines operated by Mitsubishi Mining Corp – the predecessor of Mitsubishi Materials, South Korea’s Yonhap news agency reported.

The epitaphs on the memorial, in Chinese and Japanese, state that more than 39,000 Chinese labourers were forced to come to Japan in the 1930s and 1940s and that 3,765 were put to work in “dire conditions” at facilities operated by firms that are now part of Mitsubishi Materials.

Some 845 of those workers were at mines and other sites in Nagasaki, with 94 dying before the end of the war.

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The inscription also featured an apology from Mitsubishi Materials, saying it “sincerely acknowledges” the fact that Chinese workers’ human rights were violated.

The details of the monument were agreed in June 2016 after the company reached a deal with three Chinese former labourers, apologised and paid each of them around US$15,000 in compensation. It also established a fund in China to locate other wartime workers or their descendants so that they can also get reparations.

“Several groups that support former labourers and the families of deceased former labourers have also welcomed the settlements and indicated their intention to support further related activities.

“MMC continues to seek a comprehensive and permanent solution with all its former labourers and their families,” Mitsubishi Materials said in a statement.


Berlin orders removal of 'comfort women' statue

Berlin orders removal of 'comfort women' statue

The monument, however, attracted little or no attention.

“I imagine that the company wanted to keep a low profile for any number of reasons, not least because they were afraid of a reaction from conservatives in Japan who might well ask why Mitsubishi Materials felt it should apologise for mistreating workers,” said Robert Dujarric, co-director of the Institute of Contemporary Asian Studies at the Tokyo campus of Temple University.

“Other companies might also be unhappy that this could potentially open them up to similar claims for compensation and memorials from other parts of mainland Asia.”

Dujarric said Mitsubishi Materials may be trying to pre-empt any potential problems with partners, suppliers or clients in China, adding a line could be drawn under the issue by acknowledging what had happened, apologising and compensating the victims.

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But the company’s move has not gone unnoticed in South Korea, where its subsidiary Mitsubishi Heavy Industries is locked in a bitter legal dispute with former forced labourers. It has declined to apologise or pay compensation to a group of Koreans on the grounds that all claims to redress between Tokyo and Seoul were finalised in the 1965 agreement that saw the two nations normalise diplomatic relations.
South Korea’s courts have in recent years ordered assets seized from Mitsubishi Heavy and another Japanese firm, Nippon Steel, must be sold to pay compensation to the workers.

Yuji Hosaka, a professor of Japanese-South Korean history and politics at Seoul’s Sejong University, said Seoul will be furious when Mitsubishi Materials’ decision becomes more widely known because its affiliated firm has refused an apology and compensation to Koreans.

“The Japanese government insists the situations are quite different,” Hosaka said.

“Tokyo’s position is that Japan was at war with China until 1945 and that therefore compensation can be paid. But the Korean peninsula was a colony or a part of Japan, there was no state of war and therefore compensation does not need to be provided.”

Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida (front right) and South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol (front left) attend the Nato summit in Madrid on June 29. Photo: Kyodo

He added that South Korea interprets the 1965 agreement differently. The country argues it was a victim of Japanese imperialism, so compensation should be paid and Tokyo needs to apologise from the bottom of its heart.

But it is not clear what South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol plans to do in terms of following through on the court rulings as he works toward bringing the frayed Seoul-Tokyo ties back on track.

Analysts warned that with Yoon’s approval rating declining, any attempt to interfere in the judicial process is unlikely to be received well by the public.

Japan, meanwhile, appears to be waiting for a decision from Seoul on the court cases and may be unwilling to grant Yoon any concessions if he is unable to solve the issue to Tokyo’s satisfaction.