Japan’s foreign minister, Taro Aso, has made so many embarrassing and asinine remarks, several betraying racist-colonial attitudes, that he was attacked in a New York Times editorial as “inflammatory.”
But he is connected to a much nastier ghost from Japan’s imperial past.
Unmentioned by the NYT and deliberately under-reported in the Japanese media is the story of the aristocratic Aso’s connection, through his family coalmining firm, with the cruel and degrading exploitation of thousands of Korean laborers in slave-like conditions. Indeed this scandal, together with Japan’s reluctance to confront other past atrocities, remains its primary foreign policy obstacle.
In other countries, a link with slave labor would be intolerable for 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 unsanitary conditions or work accidents and were under 24-hour watch by brutal police. Their release came only with Japan’s 1945 defeat. Neither the survivors nor their families have received a penny in personal reparations, despite pleas from both Koreas.
Aso, 65, cannot plead generational separation. From 1973-79, when he entered politics, he ran the family company in Fukuoka Prefecture. He did not then address its history of peonage labor nor has he since. The Foreign Ministry did not respond to my inquiries.
The Aso company changed its name more than once and in 2001 entered a joint venture with Lafarge Cement of France, with Aso’s younger brother, Yutaka, remaining president of Lafarge Aso Cement Co. In December, the French ambassador in Tokyo awarded Yutaka the Legion d’Honneur at a champagne reception.
Guests of honour were Taro Aso and his wife, Chikako.
It seemed a fitting tribute to a family steeped in Japan’s recent aristocratic traditions. The Aso line includes a noble samurai, one of five who led the 1868 overthrow of the centuries-old shogunate that ushered in the modern era.
His great grandfather, Takakichi, founded the Aso mining firm in 1872. 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 producing half of Japan’s “black diamonds.”
As the scion of landed gentry, Taro Aso graduated from the university that traditionally educates Japan’s imperial family, spent time at London University, joined what was then Aso Industries, and quickly became a director. Completing the aristocratic tradition, he joined the Japanese rifle shooting team in the 1976 Olympics.
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. Aso’s wife adds to family influence as the daughter of Zenko Suzuki, prime minister from 1980–82.
There is even a royal link. Aso’s sister, Nobuko, married Prince Tomohito of Mikasa, recently in the headlines over his opposition to a woman occupying the chrysanthemum throne. Tomohito suggested continuing the male line through concubines, an imperial tradition that would move Japan back several centuries.
The Aso connection to forced labor — unmentioned in its official website history — has been catalogued by three amateur historians in Fukuoka assisted by a Korean living in Japan. The four present a shocking picture with local library references, and documented in their books.
Tokyo’s National General Mobilization Law that forced all colonial subjects to work wherever it suited Japan, was not passed until 1939, but the historians found that before then, Korean laborers were shipped to Aso Mines. Precise
numbers are unknown, but it was several thousands, especially after an Aso Mine strike of 400 miners in 1932. After 1939, the historians calculate, the number of Koreans in Japan’s labor force swelled to over a million; their figure is 1,120,000. Tokyo’s official number is 724,287.
The 12,000 Aso miners were paid a third less than equivalent Japanese labourers to dig coal to fuel Japan’s war.
It amounted to ¥50 a month, but less than ¥10 after mandatory confiscations for food, clothes, housing and enforced savings that often remained unpaid. All workers toiled underground for 15 hours a day, seven days a week, with no holidays at all.
“Housing” was cramped, dirty dormitory huts with six to seven tiny rooms in each. Single men lived and slept on a single tatami mat. There was no heating or running water. Lavatories were in earthen pits. A three-metre high wooden fence topped with electrified barbed wire ringed the outside. Workers were prisoners, guarded by police.
They kept statistics, however. In March 1944, Aso Mines had a total of 7,996 Korean laborers of whom 56 had recently died. A staggering 4,919 had escaped. Across Fukuoka, total fugitives amounted to 51.3 percent but at Aso Mines it was 61.5 percent because conditions there were “even worse,” said Noriaki Fukudome, one of the historians.
Most workers suffered malnutrition with no meat or fish provided. Early last year in Seoul the government-appointed Truth Commission on Forced Mobilization Under Japanese Imperialism began inquiries, toured 16 Korean provinces, conducted hearings, and took evidence from witnesses. Its chairman, Dr Jeon Ki-ho, also visited Japan to clarify what he boldly called its “atrocities.”
The Korean commission compiled a list of hundreds of Japanese companies that exploited forced Korean labour, and likely would have knowledge of remains of the dead. One firm prominently on the list: Aso Mines. But a spokesman said the firm could not investigate the whereabouts of remains as no records were available.
The commission continues to press for information.
As if this record was not bad enough, Aso has continued to offend Japan’s neighbors — and the world — with a series
of offensive and inaccurate remarks.
Fundamentally he seems to share Japan’s racial supremacy ideology of the 1930s, encapsulated in his remark last October at a museum opening, that Japan was “one nation, one civilization, one language, one culture, and one race, the like of which there is no other on earth.”
This ignored the presence of the indigenous Ainu in Hokkaido, and the natives of Okinawa, both of whom have their own languages, and the Ainu, different racial characteristics. But Aso-style genealogical mythology was scientifically discredited decades ago. It remains the currency only of the racist inclined.
Aso also suggested that Koreans “voluntarily” changed their names to Japanese ones, thus ignoring a Tokyo law compelling them to do so. Above all he remains a Yasukuni enthusiast, but his remark that the emperor should visit the shrine and its sanctified war criminals — he has conspicuously avoided doing so — was too much for the LDP establishment.
Aso’s blunder was belittled. But is he just a political loudmouth of the kind many nations occasionally produce? His continued presence in office suggests he may be more than this. What the New York Times’s editorial described as
“inflammatory statements about Japan’s disastrous era of militarism, colonialism and war crimes that culminated in the Second World War,” runs contrary to the new Old Right version of those events.
In this scenario Japan was a pitiful victim of western imperialist aggression and the war was merely defensive. Is this now the accepted version, and is Aso merely its stalking horse? If so, the Japanese (again) embark on a self-destructive foreign policy.
The whole issue should be opened for debate, but here the media are lamentably deficient. Two Japanese media scholars, Takesato Watanabe of Doshisha University in Kyoto and Tatsuro Hanada of Tokyo University, identified the cause as the dead hand of Japan’s kisha clubs.
The closely-knit journalist specialists of the kisha clubs conspire to keep out of the news anything they think will embarrass their department, and thus make their jobs more difficult. In this they abnegate the prime requirement of the press: to report without fear or favour.
As Hanada said: “As Aso is a candidate for prime minister, his attitudes and behaviour are a political issue with the question of his qualifications an important subject that should be open to the Japanese public.” As for Aso himself, Watanabe came briskly to the point.
“He should be replaced,” he said.