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NHK’s Finest Hour: Japan’s Official Record of Chinese Forced Labor

May 3, 1960:

“We have heard that in March of Showa 21 [1946], the directorate of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs [MOFA] compiled such an investigative record. However, it was thought that if the documents were used for war crimes prosecutions they would cause trouble to a great many people. Therefore, all of the documents were burned and MOFA does not now possess even a portion of the documents.”

--Diet remarks by the chief of MOFA’s Asia Bureau during questioning by the Lower House Special Committee on the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty. The decision to deceive parliament about records describing Chinese forced labor in Japan had been reached six weeks earlier, on March 17, and the false story would be repeated on multiple occasions. Kishi Nobusuke, prime minister at the time, had served as the wartime czar of forced labor operations and been imprisoned as a Class A war crimes suspect from 1945-48.[1]

May 11, 1993:

“We have been hearing that MOFA compiled an investigative report in March of Showa 21 [1946]. Since that report does not now exist, however, we cannot say anything with certainty. … Regarding the existence of documents like that, MOFA has employed various means and done all it can. However, we have answered in the Diet in the past that such documents no longer remain, and the present situation has not changed. We are sorry to keep repeating ourselves, but I must state once more that the records are not here.” --Diet remarks by the chief of the regional policy section of MOFA’s Asia Bureau, during questioning by the Upper House Welfare Committee.[2]

May 17, 1993:

NHK’s nightly TV program, “Close Up Gendai,” introduces the Japanese public to the five-volume, 646-page Foreign Ministry Report and related documents about Chinese forced labor (CFL). The records confirm that 38,935 Chinese males between the ages of 11 and 78 were brought to Japan against their will in 1943-45. They performed harsh, unpaid physical labor at 135 mines, docks and construction sites from Kyushu to Hokkaido. The overall fatality rate was 17.5 percent, more than one in six, but at some sites half of all workers perished.

August 14, 1993:

An hour-long NHK Special called “The Phantom Foreign Ministry Report: The Record of Chinese Forced Labor” is broadcast on national television. The network interviewed dozens of people in Japan, China and the United States on tight production deadlines, while conducting the first research using primary CFL records. These included the Foreign Ministry Report, Site Reports and previously unknown Investigator Reports. NHK Publishing produced a 244-page book with the same title in 1994.[3]

July 18, 2003:

“We knew that these reports were kept in the basement storeroom, but we were not able to confirm that they were the reports submitted by individual companies. We deeply regret not making thorough investigations.” --Public statement by MOFA’s China and Mongolia Division, following discovery of more than 100 Site Reports detailing all aspects of Chinese forced labor. The reports were submitted to MOFA in 1946 by the 35 Japanese corporations that used Chinese workers. Two dozen companies remain in business today.[4]

August 26, 2003:

“Regarding the matter of so-called Chinese forced labor, it is extremely regrettable that amid abnormal wartime conditions many Chinese people came to Japan in a half-forcible manner and endured many hardships due to severe work.” --Written statement to the Diet by Prime Minister Koizumi Junichiro [5]

These days, NHK’s programming schedule is long on nature programs and favorable coverage of the imperial family. The problem of Japanese abducted by North Korea also gets plenty of air time, while shows highlighting Japan’s atomic victimization have become an August ritual. The reputation of NHK as the media entity least likely to challenge the nation’s conservative government was cemented last year, amid revelations that the public broadcaster had bowed to political pressure in sanitizing a 2001 program about military sexual slavery.[6]

The very future of NHK (Nihon Hoso Kyokai, or the Japan Broadcasting Corp.) has grown unclear. A string of fraud and embezzlement scandals has led 30 percent of households to withhold payment of the mandatory viewer fees that fund the 56-year-old organization. NHK’s own reform plans include steep staff cuts, while a government panel has recommended eliminating some of the eight television and radio channels. The network’s annual budget requires Diet approval.

The cover for the videotape of NHK's hard-hitting 1993 documentary,NHK and its attitude toward Japanese war responsibility were far different in 1993. During the May 17 broadcast of its “Close Up Gendai” program, NHK exhibited the long-suppressed “Foreign Ministry Report” (FMR) that details the brutal wartime system of Chinese forced labor operated by the state and private companies. Parliament soon took up the matter and Prime Minister Miyazawa Kiichi expressed his deep regret. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) would compare typesets and analyze writing styles for a year before acknowledging that the FMR in NHK’s possession was the same document it had produced in 1946.

On August 1, 1993, NHK ran a television documentary about wartime labor conscription involving hundreds of thousands of Koreans, based on name lists made public by the Welfare Ministry. The program was entitled, “Investigative Report: Korean Forced Labor.” Then on August 4, Chief Cabinet Secretary Kono Yohei admitted for the first time the forcible nature of the so-called “comfort women” system and the Japanese military’s central role in it.

Kono extended the government’s “sincere apologies and remorse to all those, irrespective of place of origin, who suffered immeasurable pain and incurable physical and psychological wounds as comfort women.” Kono also promised to “face squarely the historical facts as described above instead of evading them,” although the Asian Women’s Fund established in 1995 left most victims deeply unsatisfied.[7]

(In an indication of how far Japan has regressed since the mid-1990s regarding responsibility for military sexual slavery, the Daily Yomiuri’s startling editorial on Feb. 6, 2005, was entitled “Asian Women’s Fund Based on Distortions.” The Yomiuri attacked “Kono’s patently false statement” of a decade earlier and blamed it for creating “the mistaken perception both at home and abroad that the women who worked at brothels had been forced to do so by the Imperial Army after being forcibly transported to such facilities for sexual servitude.”)[8]

A U.S. Army photograph of survivors at Kajima Corp.'s Hanaoka construction site, where a late-war uprising and massacre took place. Even though 418 out of 986 Chinese died at Hanaoka, Kajima'sOn August 9, 1993, Hosokawa Morihiro became the first non-LDP prime minister in 38 years and, in his inaugural press conference, stated his belief that Japan had waged “a war of aggression, a war that was wrong.” This rather self-evident observation was unprecedented for a Japanese leader, although during the remainder of his brief tenure Hosokawa would refer more discreetly to a war that had included “aggressive acts.”

(A committed group of LDP Diet members began meeting a few days later in reaction to Hosokawa’s statement, which helped galvanize the forces of nationalism and historical revisionism that have become prominent in Japan today. An account of the period on the Liberal Democratic Party’s website refers to “notable mishaps including Prime Minister Hosokawa's widely-criticized assertion at a press conference that Japan had acted as an aggressor in the Second World War (Nihon no shinryaku senso).”[9]

Then on August 14, 1993, capping a most self-searching fortnight in terms of accountability for Japan’s war conduct, NHK aired a remarkable hour-long television documentary called “The Phantom Foreign Ministry Report: The Record of Chinese Forced Labor.” The NHK Special was awarded the top prize at the 1993 Asia TV Broadcasting Festival, while a 244-page book of the same title was put out by NHK Publishing in 1994.

Taken together, the documentary and the book likely represent the most aggressive investigation in the network’s history. In a manner scarcely imaginable today, NHK unflinchingly educated the Japanese public about a major, nearly forgotten war crime. In a book subsection called “Ongoing Evasion of Responsibility by the Government and Corporations,” NHK openly advocated redress for Chinese victims. A survey of the two dozen Japanese corporations still in business was conducted, asking them if they felt responsible for the deaths at their worksites and if they planned to apologize and pay compensation.


The contemporary reparations movement for Chinese forced labor (CFL), with roots in Japanese society stretching back to the late 1940s, has unfolded fitfully since it reemerged two decades ago. In 1989, survivors of Kajima Corp.’s notorious Hanaoka construction site, where 418 out of 986 workers died and a late-war uprising and massacre took place, demanded a public apology, compensation and establishment of a memorial museum. Kajima did apologize in 1990 but then dug in its corporate heels; the “community relief fund” finally set up in 2000 lacked any admission of wrongdoing. Yet the 14 CFL lawsuits filed nationwide have been notably successful, at least by Japan’s inhospitable judicial standards, with four major victories for plaintiffs so far.

The Tokyo District Court in July 2001 ordered the state to compensate the family of Liu Lianren, who escaped from a Hokkaido mine in 1945 and hid in the mountains until 1958. The Fukuoka District Court ordered Mitsui Corp. to pay compensation in April 2002, while the Hiroshima High Court ordered Nishimatsu Corp. to do likewise in July 2004. Those three cases are now before the Japan Supreme Court. The Niigata District Court found both the state and Rinko Corp. liable for damages in March 2004.

Japanese judges at both the district and appeals court levels, in fact, routinely find that the Japanese government and private companies jointly engaged in illegal conduct by forcibly bringing plaintiffs to Japan and forcing them to work here. This has established a vital historical record, even though most claims are rejected (as at the Tokyo High Court on June 16) on the legal grounds of state immunity and a 20-year time limit for filing lawsuits. Judges occasionally (as at the Nagano District Court last March) express their personal desires that victims be redressed through non-judicial means.

But Mitsubishi Materials Corp., successor to the mining arm of the zaibatsu that was Japan’s top munitions producer, is currently embarked on a bold defense strategy based on revisionist historical arguments. In a recent lawsuit before the Fukuoka District Court involving a coal mine where one out of every four workers died, Mitsubishi lawyers denied all charges of forced labor, questioned whether Japan ever “invaded” China, and warned that a “mistaken burden of the soul” would result from court findings that forced labor occurred.

Mitsubishi attorneys have told the Miyazaki District Court, in reference to a copper mine where the 31 percent death toll was double the national average, “Conditions at our worksite were in no way any worse than those in China at the time.”[10] At the Nagasaki District Court, Mitsubishi has claimed that the operations of the North China Labor Association, the collaborationist Beijing agency that will be discussed below, were not influenced by the Japanese military occupation.

The troubling story behind Mitsubishi’s determined campaign of denial regarding Chinese forced labor involves systematic Kyushu-based attempts to whitewash the far larger wartime system of Korean labor conscription by denying that any coercion or violence was involved. “The Truth and Glory of the Coal Mines: The Fabrication of Korean Forced Labor,” a 108-page book with tables and photographs written using a middle-school language level, was published in December 2005 by the Chikuho chapter of the Nippon Kaigi (Japan Conference).[11]

Nippon Kaigi is a well-funded group of influential Diet members, business leaders, academics and citizens with a strongly nationalistic agenda. The decade-old lobbying organization is said to have 50,000 dues-paying members and millions more supporters who espouse the Shinto religion and other Japanese traditions.[12] Focusing on the rich mining history of the Chikuho region, once the backbone of Japan’s coal industry, the new Nippon Kaigi book is apparently intended for use as a supplemental teaching resource.

Researchers supporting reparations, meanwhile, have joined what they describe as a pitched battle for control of the historical narrative of mining by both Koreans and Chinese in Chikuho. Kyushu courtrooms and boards of education have become the intertwined battlegrounds. If the sanitized version of mining history takes root locally, it could spread nationwide and spill over into other industrial sectors that used forced labor extensively. A recent field trip to old mine sites, meant to help counter the revisionist trend, was attended by 30 area residents—and a pair of suspicious strangers possibly connected to the Nippon Kaigi effort.

Reparations backers further claim that attempts to “restore pride” in Chikuho by eliminating all vestiges of forced labor from the narrative are being spearheaded by former executives of Mitsubishi Materials and Aso Mining Corp., once the family firm of Japan’s current foreign minister and prime ministerial candidate, Aso Taro. The frontrunner to become the next prime minister, Chief Cabinet Secretary Abe Shinzo, is the grandson of Kishi Nobusuke, the Class A war crimes suspect who had served as the bureaucratic overseer of all forced labor programs before heading the cover up of Chinese forced labor as prime minister from 1957-60. Both Aso and Abe maintain close connections to Nippon Kaigi, although since joining the cabinet they are no longer formal members.

Satani Masayuki, author of “The Truth and Glory of the Coal Mines,” is a retired front-office employee of Mitsubishi’s coal division and a member of the Japanese Society for History Textbook Reform, or Tsukurukai, the national group behind controversial textbooks that downplay and at times deny Japanese war conduct. Satani previously self-published a book called, “Wake Up from the Brainwashing of the Tokyo Trials View of History.” The editor of “Truth and Glory” is a former head of the municipal history museum in Iizuka, Chikuho’s main city, and co-author of “The 100-Year History of Aso Mining.”

By stark contrast, the German and Austrian governments and companies that used forced labor during the Nazi era recently completed reparations programs granting formal apologies and monetary payments of more than six billion dollars to nearly two million former workers or family members. Educational programs are a key element of European redress activities and forced labor memorial museums have been built.

Germany agreed in April to make public up to 50 million documents from Nazi archives regarding the personal fates of 17 million victims of forced labor and the Holocaust.[13] Whereas this major archives release is expected to greatly facilitate understanding of forced labor across Europe, Japan’s track record has been to stubbornly suppress virtually all information about forced labor and other war crimes in Asia. There are no top-level German government officials with such deep family ties to forced labor and no industry-affiliated groups attempting to minimize or deny the historical reality.

In short, current Japanese attitudes toward forced labor reparations are vastly different from might have been expected to result from the 1993 broadcast and 1994 publication of NHK’s “The Phantom Foreign Ministry Report.” The remainder of this article will consider the incontrovertible record of Chinese forced labor as laid out by NHK, ranging from Interior Ministry directives to harshly mistreat workers to Hokkaido police instructions for falsifying death certificates and the postwar government’s deliberate deception of the Diet.

The records produced—and then concealed—by the state and industry try to shift blame for the high fatality rates to one another and to the Chinese themselves, while displaying the virulent racism that was intrinsic to the program. While some conscientious Japanese pursued CFL accountability and ensured that records were not lost forever, joint state-corporate moves to evade responsibility predated the “reverse course” phase of the American Occupation that aimed to rehabilitate Japanese industry and political conservatives. From August 1945 down to the present day, NHK showed, the Japanese establishment has never been truthful or sincere in coming to terms with the legacy of Chinese forced labor.


The secret compilation of the massive “Investigative Report on Working Conditions of Chinese Labor,” or Foreign Ministry Report (FMR), amid the domestic chaos of early 1946 was a marvel of organizational efficiency. The process highlighted the strong continuity of Japan’s wartime and immediate postwar institutions of government and economic production, and of the interactions between them. Indeed, it would be difficult to point to any other project of similar scope and sensitivity that was carried out without the knowledge of GHQ during this critical transitional period.

Fearing war crimes prosecutions by the victorious Allied coalition that included the Nationalist Chinese government, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) sent a total of 16 investigators to all 135 forced labor worksites beginning in March 1946, while simultaneously instructing the 35 corporations to submit information directly to the ministry. This process resulted in the relatively truthful Investigator Reports as well as the more self-serving Site Reports, with the FMR then being compiled mainly from the Site Reports as a potential tool for state and corporate self-defense. The preconceived purpose of the exer