Hard labor for Japan's foreign minister
While Foreign Minister Taro Aso's statements have only exacerbated tensions between Tokyo and the rest of Asia, a family connection to wartime forced labor has raised further questions over his ability to oversee good relations with Japan's neighbors.
The Aso family's mining company used thousands of Koreans as forced laborers during World War II. This legacy of Koreans, Chinese and other Asians being coerced into slave-like working conditions across the region more than six decades ago has become an issue in Tokyo's maintenance of normal diplomatic relations in East Asia. Reports that 300 Allied prisoners of war (POWs) also performed forced labor at an Aso coal mine are now spreading in Western countries. Aso's family background and his personal refusal to engage the issue have led some to suggest that his position as foreign minister is untenable.
Meanwhile, recent research by a group of historians in Kyushu has provided new details on the role of the Aso family in using Korean labor before and during the war. The Korean pit workers, according to the historians, were systematically underpaid, underfed, overworked and confined in penury. Forced to toil underground, they were watched by guards 24 hours a day. Their release came only with Japan's 1945 defeat.
Aso ran the Fukuoka company from 1973-79 until he entered politics. He did not address its history of using forced labor, nor has he since, while he continues to maintain his relationship with the firm. This stance forecloses the possible argument that at 65, Aso has the excuse of a generational separation.
According to one German Embassy official in Tokyo, speaking on the understanding of anonymity, while family lineage on its own would not be held against an individual in his nation, Aso's actions here make him an unsuitable foreign minister by German standards.
"Because Aso's family connection gave him the opportunity to address wrongs in the firm, and he did not do so," as well as comments that "seem to defend criminal policies of the past", Aso would "not be acceptable" for a post such as foreign minister, said the official. "He might get into parliament but not into government."
The Foreign Ministry in Tokyo did not respond to inquiries on the issue.
Chinese Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing also recently quoted a German government official's puzzlement over the "silly act" of Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's continuing visits to the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo, where 14 Class A war criminals are honored. A German leader, the government official told Li, would never worship at memorials for Adolf Hitler or convicted Nazi war criminals.
Such thoughts from Germans are reinforced by Aso's espousal of Japanese racial supremacy, such as displayed in a remark in a speech at the opening of the Kyushu National Museum in Fukuoka in October. He described Japan as "one nation, one civilization, one language, one culture and one race, the like of which there is no other on Earth". It was an observation that echoed Japan's fascist period of 1930-45.
Japanese media scholars have expressed concern at the lack of detailed reporting on Japan's corporate forced labor, and on Aso's family's role in particular.
"As Aso is a candidate for prime minister in September, his attitudes and his behavior are political issues," said Tatsuro Hanada of Tokyo University. "The question of his qualifications is an important subject that should be opened to the Japanese public."
Hanada and Ofer Feldman, an author and scholar of Japanese politics, blame Japan's kisha press club system, in which journalists keep quiet about controversial issues that might harm their contacts, for media silence on the Aso connection.
The Aso family coal-mining business dates back to the 19th century in Kyushu's rich Chikuho coal fields in Fukuoka. Aso's great-grandfather, Takakichi Aso, founded the firm in 1872. At one time it owned more than half a dozen pits in Kyushu and was the biggest of three family corporations mining an area producing half of Japan's "black diamonds".
The issue of the foreign minister's family links to wartime Korean slave labor has already arisen in meetings between Japan and South Korea. Choi Bong-tae, a member of a bilateral commission studying the issue of forced labor, told reporters in November that the Japanese side had provided no information on the Aso company and others it had named. A spokesman for the Aso Group, the successor company of Aso Mining, said it would be difficult to provide such data since records aren't available from that long ago.
However, research conducted by Kyushu historians has provided new information on the role of the Aso family in exploiting Korean labor before and during the war. Eidai Hayashi, Takashi Ono and Noriaki Fukudome, all now retired, drew on official and local library resources to gather contemporaneous statistics and reports on the Aso family's mining operation, some of which Hayashi published in books.
According to the company's own statistics, by March 1944, Aso mines had a total of 7,996 Korean laborers, of whom 56 by then had died. Some 4,919 had managed to escape the forced labor regime. Across Fukuoka, the total fugitive figure amounted to 51.3% of the forced laborers. At Aso Mines, the figure was 61.5%, "because their record was worse", Fukudome said.
Data compiled by the Kyushu trio show that Korean workers at Aso Mines were paid a third less than equivalent Japanese laborers to dig coal. It amounted to 50 yen a month, but less than 10 yen after mandatory confiscations for food, clothes, housing and enforced savings. The enforced savings, to discourage attempts at escape, often remained unpaid. Workers toiled 15 hours a day, seven days a week, with no holidays. A 3-meter-high fence topped with electrified barbed wire ringed the perimeter.
In 1939, the Japanese government passed the National General Mobilization law, which forced all colonial subjects, including Koreans and those in Taiwan and Manchuria, to work wherever needed. The Kyushu historians have documented that Aso Mining was shipping Korean laborers to Kyushu as early as the mid-1930s, before the law was passed. Although precise numbers are unavailable, an estimated 12,000 laborers passed through the company, some necessitated by a strike of 400 miners in 1932. After 1939, the historians calculate, the number of Asians kept in forced labor throughout the Chikuho region swelled to more than a million.
The Aso Group has changed names more than once and in 2001 entered a joint venture with Lafarge Cement of France, the world's largest cement maker. Aso's younger brother Yutaka remained president of what became Lafarge Aso Cement Co. In December, the French ambassador in Tokyo awarded Yutaka Aso the Legion d'Honneur (an order of chivalry established by Napoleon in 1802) at a champagne reception. Guests of honor were Taro Aso and his wife, Chikako.
It seemed a fitting tribute to a family steeped in Japan's recent aristocratic traditions. Aso is the scion of a family of landed gentry throughout the 19th century. His great-great-grandfather, Toshimichi Okubo, was a samurai and one of five powerful nobles who led the 1868 overthrow of the centuries-old shogunate era that ushered in modern times in Japan.
Taro Aso graduated from Gakushuin University, which traditionally educates Japan's imperial family, spent time at London University, joined what was then Aso Industries, and quickly became a director. Appropriate to his high-born antecedents, he joined the Japanese rifle-shooting team in the 1976 Summer Olympics in Montreal.
Aso's grandfather, Shigeru Yoshida, served as prime minister of Japan five times between 1946 and 1954. An autocratic conservative, conveniently for the Aso family, he conducted a 1950s purge of "reds" in the coal-mining unions. Chikako adds to the family's upper-class luster as the daughter of Zenko Suzuki, Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) prime minister from 1980-82.
There is even a royal link. Aso's sister Nobuko married Prince Tomohito of Mikasa, the emperor's cousin, 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.
With his history of relatives who occupied senior political positions, Aso follows both a tradition and a type of thinking largely unchanged for many decades. Including the prime minister himself, Koizumi's cabinet contains six men directly related to former premiers, government ministers or diet (parliament) members. A seventh, regional minister Koki Chuma's father, was mayor of Osaka. Koizumi's grandfather and father were ministers, and his cousin a kamikaze pilot who dived to his death in 1945. He shares the "divine wind" relationship with chief cabinet secretary Shinzo Abe, but his kamikaze-trained father never made his ultimate flight. Instead he rose to be foreign minister from 1982-86.
Abe, front-runner to succeed Koizumi as prime minister next autumn, is also the grandson of Nobusuke Kishi, who spent three years in Sugamo Prison as a Class A war-crimes suspect. Remarkably, Kishi went on to become prime minister from 1957-60, when he blocked efforts by Japanese activists and the diet to obtain government records about Chinese forced labor - the war crime that Kishi himself helped perpetrate as a wartime cabinet minister in charge of economic production and munitions.
These backgrounds may help to explain the frame of mind that has produced the series of provocative, neo-nationalist remarks by Aso, such as the museum-speech claim about Japanese uniqueness. These have angered Japan's neighbors, particularly China and the Koreas, through their reiteration of colonialist attitudes.
The museum remark ignored Japan's actual racial origins, and its lack of the homogeneity that many falsely claim. Aso appeared oblivious to the presence of his country's aboriginals, the Ainu of Hokkaido, who bear physically different biological characteristics, and the people of Okinawa. Both these populations have their own languages, and anthropologists and archeologists have long agreed that the mainland Japanese owe their origins to several areas of Asia.
Aso recently claimed that Koreans who changed their names to Japanese ones under colonial rule by Tokyo from 1910-45 did so voluntarily. This claim ignored a law passed by Japan that compelled them to do so and imposed penalties and direct pressures on those who refused. In early February he added that Taiwan's present high educational standards resulted from compulsory education, "a good thing" imposed by Japan during its colonial rule over the island from 1895-1945.
An ardent supporter of honoring Japan's war dead at Yasukuni, Aso did appear to overstep what was acceptable to his LDP colleagues in January. Emperor Akihito should visit the shrine, he said. But this was immediately played down by political colleagues who clearly wished to dissociate themselves and the party from his urgings. The current emperor has never visited Yasukuni and his continued absence is surely (though not stated publicly) related to the war criminals, who are honored - a better word might be "sanctified" in view of their divine status kami - in Yasukuni since 1978. The late Emperor Hirohito never visited the shrine after that.
Aso has also publicly supported the Yushukan Museum, which adjoins Yasukuni and proudly advances a revisionist historical narrative. Yushukan, remodeled in 2002, glorifies Japanese war conduct through relics such as a locomotive from the notorious Thailand-Burma railway, the forced-labor construction of which caused the death of 16,000 Allied POWs and 100,000 Asians.
Aso's persistently provocative remarks prompted the New York Times, in an unusual move, to editorialize against him on February 13. Under the headline "Japan's offensive foreign minister", the newspaper accused him of being "neither honest nor wise in inflammatory statements about Japan's disastrous era of militarism, colonialism and war crimes that culminated in the Second World War". It added that "public discourse in Japan and modern history lessons in its schools have never properly come to terms with the country's responsibility for such terrible events as the mass kidnapping and sexual enslavement of Korean young women, the biological-warfare experiments carried out on Chinese cities and helpless prisoners of war, and the sadistic slaughter of thousands of Chinese civilians in the city of Nanjing [December 1937-February 1938]."
It was perhaps an oversight that the Times did not mention enforced serf labor in its list of Japanese war crimes, but like every other major mainstream newspaper it has ignored the Aso family's involvement in this.
Still, the subject will not go away, but will grow larger. In fact, Aso seems to be doing his best to keep the process going.
Christopher Reed is a British freelance journalist who lives in Japan, where he was first a correspondent in the 1970s. He worked for many years as the correspondent in California for The Guardian of Britain.
(Republished with permission from Japan Focus)