Here’s this week’s Media Mix about the local press reaction to the two South Korean Supreme Court verdicts that found in favor of workers who sued Japanese companies for mistreatment during World War II. The main thrust of the column is that both the Japanese government and the Japanese media have condemned these rulings because they violate the 1965 treaty between Japan and South Korea, which says that all wartime claims against Japan had been settled finally and completely. By sticking to this presumably airtight rationalization Japan gets to avoid talking about the legality of its colonial rule over the Korean peninsula. The Japanese scholars and experts cited in the column make legal arguments that say the treaty does not preclude an individual Korean’s right to sue a private company in Japan for something that occurred during the war, but, more to the point, these men say that it is morally beholden on the defendants to compensate their former Korean workers for the indignities they suffered under their employ.
Though the connection hasn’t been made by any media so far that I have seen, the debate over the Supreme Court rulings has special resonance now in light of the more immediate matter of allowing a greater number of foreign workers into Japan. Regardless of all the hair-splitting involved in determining which of the Korean workers during the war were “forced” to toil in factories and mines, it is obvious that the majority, if not all, were misled before they started work and mistreated afterwards. One of the few media pieces I saw that seems to have provoked feelings of wholesale remorse among Japanese readers was a letter from a 90-year-old Japanese man published in Tokyo Shimbun explaining his adolescence living in a mining community on Sakhalin in 1944. He describes Korean workers rummaging through sewage for scraps of food that were thrown out, and how the image has haunted him ever since. During the nine months he lived there, he saw many Koreans die of starvation and exposure, and nobody cared. The situations at other mines or factories may not have been as dire, but there are enough stories like this, told by both Koreans and Japanese, to convince anyone that Koreans were at best second-class citizens despite the fact that the Japanese authorities considered the peninsula part of Japan. In fact, Yasuto Takeuchi, a scholar cited in the Asahi article, said that one of the ways recruiters convinced Koreans to come to Japan to work was by telling them they’d “become the Emperor’s subjects” if they took these jobs, the implication being that they would remain inferior to native Japanese if they didn’t.
A similar attitude informs the acceptance of foreign laborers into Japan right now. Though the conditions are not as terrible as those suffered by Koreans during the war, there have been many cases of technical trainees not being paid and having their passports withheld by employers in order to keep them under control. And after it was reported last week that several dozen trainees died during their working stints in Japan, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe refused to even discuss the matter, much in the same way that the administration he represents doesn’t want to talk at all about Korean laborers during the war. Foreign workers will presumably now be treated better, but by refusing to acknowledge their rights as members of the community and, by extension, their human rights as individuals, the Japanese government absolves itself of responsibility in the long run. The media harps on the “popular” belief that these foreign workers will not be accepted by the average Japanese person and/or will not be willing to assimilate, a presumption that would appear to be self-fulfilling. In any case, things don’t seem to have changed as much as you might expect after 70 years.