A Tokyo exhibit introducing UNESCO World Heritage sites related to Japan's industrial revolution opened Monday, drawing a backlash from South Korea for failing to show that Koreans had been coerced to work at some of the sites during World War II.
The information center on the "Sites of Japan's Meiji Industrial Revolution" held an opening ceremony in late March but had been closed to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus. It opened its doors to the public on a reservation-only basis and to limit the number of guests.
The South Korean Foreign Ministry in the afternoon summoned Japanese Ambassador to Seoul Koji Tomita to lodge a protest, accusing Japan of failing to honor Korean victims of forced labor at the exhibit.
A ministry spokesman released a statement expressing "deep regret" over Japan not honoring its promise to help the public understand why many people from the Korean Peninsula were forced to serve the country under brutal conditions.
"We cannot but feel very worried and disappointed that we cannot see any kind of effort to commemorate the victims in any part of the exhibit," the spokesman said in the statement.
Although the exhibit on the sites, mostly in southwestern Japan and added to the UNESCO list in 2015, includes descriptions of Korean labor, it incorporates testimonies from second-generation Korean-Japanese residents claiming there was no discriminatory treatment of Korean workers there.
South Korean news media were also critical of the exhibit, with much of their ire directed at the display for the Hashima Coal Mine in Nagasaki, known as "Battleship Island" because of its shape.
Guests can learn about the experiences of former residents. Accounts of Hashima residents include the late second-generation Korean-Japanese Fumio Suzuki, who spent his childhood years on the island and said he never heard of Koreans subjected to slave labor.
According to the Chosun Ilbo, a major South Korean daily, the exhibitions deny the reality of forced labor under harsh conditions and threaten to "exacerbate an already fraught relation" between South Korea and Japan.
The liberal Hankyoreh newspaper likewise reported the exhibits as a "distortion" of history.
The exhibit is comprised of panels and large screens which illustrate Japan's rapid industrialization of the country from the middle of the 19th century to the early 20th century.
The display for the Hashima Coal Mine includes digitally archived documents indicating the existence of workers from the Korean Peninsula, who were drafted to the island during World War II, as well as records of a bonus salary paid to a Taiwanese laborer.
A total of 23 sites spanning eight prefectures were added to the World Cultural Heritage list under "Sites of Japan's Meiji Industrial Revolution: Iron and Steel, Shipbuilding and Coal Mining."
South Korea had initially opposed adding the Japanese sites to the World Heritage list, saying Koreans had been forced to work at seven of the sites when the Korean Peninsula was under Japanese colonial rule between 1910 and 1945.
However, it withdrew its complaint on condition that Japan appropriately provides information about labor conditions at the sites.