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Survivor of forced labor in Japan seeks true apology

Frank Smith Seoul
February 8, 2021

A 15-year-old Korean girl was duped into moving to Japan in 1944 with the promise of a better education, only to end up working in a munitions factory.

Yang Geum-deok
Yang Geum-deok, now 92, wants Japan to say it is sorry for what happened to her there as a young girlImage: Frank Smith/DW

South Korean courts have judged that Japanese companies must pay compensation to people who were used as forced laborers during World War II.

Japanese leaders insist that the issues have already been dealt with under previous agreements and argue that Japan has expressed adequate remorse.

But those agreements did not cover the case of 92-year-old Yang Geum-deok, who told DW that she is still waiting for a sincere apology from Japan. 

In 1944, the 15-year-old Yang was lured into moving to Japan with the promise of a better education. Instead, she worked — unpaid — in a munitions factory as World War II drew to a close.   

From promise to nightmare

Yang had been a class leader at her school, excelling in athletics and academics. Her accomplishments did not go unnoticed by Japanese administrators, who offered her a chance for the future her humble family couldn't afford.

"The Japanese principal said I could go to junior high school if I went to Japan. My father said he was lying and would not allow it, but I snuck away. Once in Japan, I never even saw the school door but was taken straight to Mitsubishi Industries, where I was worked nearly to death. I had wanted to be a teacher."

Between 1937 and 1945, Japan employed millions of forced laborers throughout their occupied territories in Asia, and in mainland Japan as well. Yang worked at the Mitsubishi plant in Nagoya, from June 1944 to October 1945. Estimates suggest more than 500,000 South Koreans were forced laborers in Japan during the war.

In her recent autobiography, Yang describes her experience.

"A bell woke us at 6 a.m., and we went to the camp to work, 8 or 10 hours. They made me paint airplanes. They didn't have a ladder for us, so I used wide planks, climbed up and painted. The pail of paint was too heavy for me, and so to this day one shoulder still hurts."

According to Yale historian R.J. Rummel, 60,000 Koreans died while serving as forced laborers in Japan. Malnutrition was a leading cause.

"We had lunch at noon. They gave us each a ball of rice, but after five bites, it was gone, and then we went back to work. I was always hungry," Yang said, adding that some of her school friends died in Nagoya.

As a forced laborer, Yang also experienced the US firebombing of Japanese cities. 

"Sometimes we couldn't sleep because of the bombing. We had to spend all night in the air raid shelter, and even when we came out, we could still hear the sounds of bombs over and over. And then, in the morning, we had to go back to work."

South Korean protesters hold up signs during a weekly anti-Japanese demonstration supporting 'comfort women'
The issue surrounding 'comfort women' has been intense on the Korean Peninsula Image: Getty Images/AFP/Jung Yeon-je

Return to Korea

After the war ended, Yang returned to South Korea. She was initially the subject of discrimination, accused of being a sex slave and earning money by selling her body to Japanese soldiers. Today Korea's so-called comfort women are by themselves successfully pursuing compensation from Japan in South Korean courts.  

Eventually Yang forged a life in South Korea. She married, had three children, divorced, and ran her own business selling dried fish at the village market. But her experience in Japan always gnawed at her.

Japan's apologies and compensation

In 1965, South Korea's military dictatorship accepted an apology and compensation from Japan for its wartime atrocities. The government spent that money on national infrastructure and economic development. It established Pohang Steel and other South Korean industrial giants that enabled the country's remarkable rise as an Asian economic tiger.

But the real victims of Japan's colonial and war crimes received no direct compensation.

Yang and others have refused to let go, campaigning for a sincere apology and direct restitution. South Korea's Supreme Court in 2018 ordered Mitsubishi to pay her and four others nearly $90,000 (€74,800) each. But so far, no money has changed hands, and now Mitsubishi assets in South Korea have been targeted.

South Korean people chant slogans during an anti-Japan rally near the Japanese embassy in Seoul
For the Japanese leadership, South Korea's dredging up of the past causes considerable consternationImage: Reuters/K. Hong-Ji

History weighs on South Korea-Japan relations

Japan has long said it has dealt with these issues adequately in the past. The first case was the 1965 normalization treaty, which included $500 million. Japan has since stated that all claims were settled "completely and finally." At various times, Japanese political leaders have apologized.

But the political use of patriotism continues to weigh on South Korea-Japan relations.

In the early 2000s, Japan's then prime minister, Junichiro Koizumi, repeatedly visited the Yasukuni war shrine, where 14 class A war criminals are buried, drawing fury in South Korea.

And later, Shinzo Abe, when he was prime minister between 2012 and 2020, questioned the validity of a previous apology, suggesting that the comfort women were not coerced, inflaming anti-Japan sentiment in South Korea.

In the early 2000s, Japan's then prime minister, Junichiro Koizumi, repeatedly visited the Yasukuni war shrine
In the early 2000s, Japan's then prime minister, Junichiro Koizumi, repeatedly visited the Yasukuni war shrineImage: Getty Images

For the Japanese leadership, South Korea's dredging up of the past causes considerable consternation.

"All the demands from the South Korean side were irreversibly solved, period," Tomohiko Taniguchi, Keio University Graduate School economics and history professor, told DW.

"You cannot open the door once finally shut. But South Korea continues to try to open the door once every five, 10, 15 years. It's almost a national pastime," said the former foreign policy speechwriter for Prime Minister Abe.

Japan faces more lawsuits, Yang waits

Since the 2018 judgment in Yang's case, dozens more South Korean forced labor victims and their families have launched lawsuits against Japanese companies. For them, the agreements made between states and their political leaders don't seem to mean much.

For Yang Geum-deok, who has already won her suit, the financial compensation she still awaits is not really the point.

"Money isn't important anymore. It's the insult, the humiliation. They didn't see Koreans as human beings. Even though they said they would pay us back our wages, I don't want it. I am too old now. I only want to hear their apology before I die."

Korean 'comfort women' memorial angers Japan