Hashima film reveals dark history of Japan

By Chen Yang Source:Global Times Published: 2017/8/2 19:58:39

Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

The Battleship Island, a film narrating the story of a group of about 400 Korean workers who risked their lives to escape from their forced labor camp in Hashima during the Japanese colonial era, made its debut on July 26 in South Korea. The movie has set a new opening day record in the country. According to Korean Film Council (KOFIC) figures, over 970,000 tickets were sold on the opening day, the highest by any movie in the history of Korean cinema. Although the film hasn't hit theaters in Japan, it has triggered wide attention in Japanese public opinion circles. Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said earlier that the movie is fictional and does not reflect historical facts. Some Japanese right-wing forces claimed on the Internet that this film is totally groundless.

"Battleship Island," the nickname of Hashima, is located in Nagasaki Prefecture in southern Japan. Many Japanese people were not familiar with Hashima until Attack on Titan, a hit popular manga around the world, was turned into a movie in 2015 that was filmed on the island. UNESCO conferred World Heritage status to Hashima Island and 22 other sites at eight other prefectures considered representative of Japan's industrial revolution under Emperor Meiji (1868-1910) on July 5, 2015. This has helped boost the island's popularity in Japan. Statistics from Nagasaki authorities show that the island has seen over 260,000 visits in 2016 and the number of tourists continues to rise.

The 6.3-hectare (16-acre) island is known for its undersea coal mines. Japan's Mitsubishi Corp bought the island in 1890 and began extracting coal from undersea mines. Between 1891 and 1974 when the island was continuously inhabited, about 15.7 million tons of coal were excavated in mines. Although the coal-rich island gave impetus to the industrialization progress of the resource-hungry island nation, which later emerged as the first industrialized country in Asia, the coal was exploited at the cost of forced laborers' lives.

After Japan annexed the Korean Peninsula in 1910 and Japanese troops occupied Northeast China in 1931, many Korean conscripted civilians and Chinese laborers were forced to work under very harsh conditions and brutal treatment at the Mitsubishi facility on the island. According to figures from Mitsubishi and South Korean authorities, around 722 Chinese workers and 1,442 Korean labors died on the island by the end of WWII. Therefore, Hashima has witnessed war crimes committed by the Japanese prior to and during WWII.

The Korean film has stirred rising controversy about whether Hashima can be listed as a world cultural heritage site. Tokyo's bid to have the island listed in 2015 caused opposition and criticism from other countries. According to UNESCO's World Heritage application procedure, a cultural heritage candidate needs to be recognized by the state government before the submission of application materials. In this regard, the Abe administration applied for the world heritage status given to Hashima Island and 22 other industrial sites as a way to whitewash the island's militaristic past. 

Japan's effort to have the island added to the world heritage list had touched off a diplomatic spat with China and South Korea. However, UNESCO's World Heritage Committee (WHC) awarded world heritage status to the island on the condition that the Japanese government should expatiate on the island's historical facts. Despite Tokyo's promise to explain the island's history in detail, the Abe administration deliberately concealed the wartime past of Hashima after the WHC's approval of the island as a world heritage site. This indicates the Japanese government failed to keep its promise and hence would surely affect its further application for world cultural heritage sites.

The film The Battleship Island has received massive condemnation from Japanese officials and right-wing cliques because of their inappropriate attitude toward Japan's wartime past. The Japanese government publicizes Hashima Island as representative of its industrial revolution under Emperor Meiji, but doesn't mention the island as a center of forced labor during its invasion of China and South Korea. This is strong evidence to show Japan's distorted historical views. Admittedly, inclusion on UNESCO's world heritage list can boost Japan's international image. However, the Japanese government is still having difficulty winning trust and respect from its neighbors due to its historically inaccurate statements and behaviors.

The author is a PhD candidate at the Graduate School of Sociology at Toyo University. opinion@globaltimes.com.cn Follow us on Twitter @GTopinion



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