Japan's ‘Battleship Island’ hides history of wartime forced labor

Hashima ("Battleship Island") UNESCO heritage site

Tourists visiting Hashima (“Battleship Island”) in 2017. The island, a former coal mine, was approved as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in July 2015, as part of Japan's Sites of Japan's Meiji Industrial Revolution. In July 2021, UNESCO gave Japan a deadline to address the “insufficient” information available about the history of forced labor on the island. Photo by Nevin Thompson. Image license: Creative Commons Attribution 3.0

In July 2021, the Japanese government and UNESCO briefly engaged in a war of words over heritage sites and Japan's legacy of forced labor. When UNESCO reprimanded Japan for failing to acknowledge the use of forced labor during wartime at a UNESCO heritage site, the Japanese government promised to issue a formal rebuttal, and said that it is “sincerely making good” on the promise to remember victims of forced labor.

On July 12, 2021, UNESCO issued a draft decision stating that Japan still needed to improve the way it talked about the historical use of forced labor at former industrial installations now recognized collectively as a World Heritage Site. UNESCO followed this with a formal reprimand on July 22, 2021, over Japan's seeming unwillingness to tell the “full history” of the former industrial sites.

The row centres around “Sites of Japan’s Meiji Industrial Revolution: Iron and Steel, Shipbuilding and Coal Mining,” 23 historical sites on the western island of Kyushu that are designated collectively as a UNESCO Cultural World Heritage Site. The 23 sites are recognized as the birthplace of Japan's rapid industrialization in the latter half of the 19th century.

The UNESCO reprimand came after an information center, built in Tokyo specifically to explain and celebrate the Meiji Industrial Revolution UNESCO World Heritage Site on Kyushu, failed to inform visitors that some of the locations were the scene of wartime forced labor of Koreans.

Prior to the reprimand, the draft decision on July 12 had noted that the Japanese government, as part of its original UNESCO submission in 2015, said it was:

[…] Prepared to take measures that allow an understanding that there were a large number of Koreans and others who were brought against their will and forced to work under harsh conditions in the 1940s at some of the sites, and that, during World War II, the Government of Japan also implemented its policy of requisition. Japan is prepared to incorporate appropriate measures into the interpretive strategy to remember the victims such as the establishment of information center.

The UNESCO reprimand noted that Japan had not fulfilled this obligation and focused specifically on forced labor that occurred on Hashima, a coal mine located on an island off the coast of Nagasaki Prefecture in western Japan. Best known around the world as “Battleship Island,” Hashima, also the site of one of Japan's first coal mines, was featured in the James Bond movie “Skyfall.

Japan has until December 1, 2022 to implement UNESCO's recommendations about acknowledging forced labor.

The mine on Hashima was operated by giant conglomerate Mitsubishi, which relied on forced Korean labor during World War II to extract coal. At least 800 Koreans were sent to Hashima during the war, 134 of whom reportedly died while working there.

Another fact so far officially unacknowledged by interpretive materials is that other industrial facilities in UNESCO's “Sites of Japan’s Meiji Industrial Revolution: Iron and Steel, Shipbuilding and Coal Mining” also relied on forced labor. For example, Mitsui, another industrial conglomerate, relied on prisoners of war slave labor to operate its Miike coal mine in Omuta, Kumamoto.

Even before World War II, or even before Japan engaged in colonialist expansion in Asia at the start of the 20th Century, the Miike mine relied on forced convict labor to extract coal.

Despite its status as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, there is no acknowledgement of this part of Miike's history.

Japan's transformative Meiji period Meiji period followed the end of the Edo period in 1867 and more than two centuries of strict control over nearly all aspects of everyday life.

With a new government and political system, Meiji entrepreneurs in Japan quickly capitalized on new opportunities to trade with Europe, the United States, and other places around the world.

These local entrepreneurs and the new Japanese government itself also imported new industrial technologies from abroad, including mining, steelmaking, manufacturing, and shipbuilding, in an effort to match the capacity of Western powers and in the process, jump-starting an industrial revolution.

While the center of Japanese economic and political life was in Tokyo, in the east, in the early Meiji era the western island of Kyushu is generally regarded as the cradle of Japan's industrial revolution. This was due to established trade routes with China stretching back more than a thousand years, and with relatively newer oceanic trade connections with Europe.

For example, the city of Nagasaki and the surrounding regions were the scene of Japan's first drydock and shipyards, which were powered in part by coal mined from nearby Miike and Hashima. The shipbuilding facilities in Nagasaki would eventually produce some of the biggest and most complex warships in the world, and would be targeted for atomic attack by the United States in August 1945.

Japan's “Sites of Japan's Meiji Industrial Revolution” initiative, as well as the controversial UNESCO Heritage submissions seek to memorialize and celebrate this heritage.

Nagasaki Harbor

Nagasaki Harbor. Illuminated in the center of the picture stands the Giant Cantilever Crane at the Mitsubishi Heavy Industries shipyard, which, as a major naval shipyard, was targeted by B-29s for atomic attack on August 9th, 1945. Mitsubishi Heavy Industries conscripted at least 3,400 laborers to work at various facilities in Nagasaki during the war. Australian, British, Dutch and U.S. prisoners of war were also forced to work in Japanese war industries in Nagasaki. Mitsubishi Materials, a mining company, conscripted yet more laborers to work at various mines, including Hashima, now a UNESCO World Heritage site. Photo by Nevin Thompson. Image license: Creative Commons Attribution 3.0

“Very little of Japan's history of industrialization presented at their new UNESCO Heritage sites is true,” says historian Mindy Kotler in a July 2021 newsletter. Kotler is the director of Asia Policy Point, a Washington, D.C. research center studying the U.S. policy relationship with Japan and Northeast Asia.

In a July 2021 article about Japan's UNESCO initiatives, Kotler points out that the mines, foundries, and wharves that form the core of the Japan's UNESCO World Heritage list typically omit a key historical detail:

The Japanese, however, left out any mention of […] forced labor and abuse, which was the substance of the hundreds of war crimes trials throughout the postwar Pacific.

UNESCO approved the designations in 2015 but conditioned the designations on a promise to provide a “full history” of these sites. Yet, six years later, Japan has not fulfilled this promise.

While Japan has until December 1, 2022 to implement recommendations about acknowledging forced labor, there is little chance that the UNESCO designation will be rescinded, according to a South Korean government official.

A South Korea foreign ministry representative said:

UNESCO withdraws inscriptions only when the site has been altered beyond its original state and character that made it worthy of inscription […] UNESCO has informed us that the current issue regarding the sites in Japan is not something that calls for re-evaluation of the inscription decision.

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