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The deaths of up to 100 Korean workers, due to poor living conditions and attempted escapes, at a construction site in Japan, was reported in July of 1922. They were working at a hydroelectric dam project construction site, on the Shinano River, Niigata Prefecture. They were working for the Okura zaibatsu, a family who had made a killing in the arms business.

Okura zaibatsu, founded by Ōkura Kihachirō (1837-1928), also owned the Benxihu (Honkeiko) Colliery mine in China, run by slave labor, where the worst mine disaster occurred in 1942 (another, longer, story for another day). Zaibatsu (literally financial clique) refers to family based “industrial and financial business conglomerates in the Empire of Japan, whose influence and size allowed control over significant parts of the Japanese economy from the Meiji period…“[1] The names of most zaibatsu are international household names today.

Shin’etsu Electric Power Inc., which was later absorbed into the Tokyo Electric Light Company-ultimately TEPCO (Tokyo Electric Power Company), now infamous because of Fukushima, started building hydroelectric plants in 1922. These included Nakatsu Power Plant #1 on the Nakatsu River (a tributary of the Shinano River). The Okura zaibatsu was put in charge of constructing it. An estimated 1,200 construction workers were gathered, half of whom were Koreans. They were made to work 16 hours per day. The laborers are said to have been paid low wages and detained in cramped, low-grade dormitories known as tako-beya (“octopus traps”). The Okura group’s management accused them of laziness and routinely subjected them to violent treatment.


dozens of Koreans who tried to escape the construction site were gunned down or otherwise killed by the plant foremen. The workers’ bodies were then dipped in cement, and cast into the Shinano River. The massacre was exposed when the corpses of the Koreans gradually drifted from the upper course of the river over several days after the start of the construction. This caused an uproar in the parts of the Niigata Prefecture along the river.” [2]

According to eyewitness reports, unknown numbers of Koreans had already died from exposure, malnutrition, or severe beatings after trying to escape — leading to the estimate of at least 100 killed in this enterprise. The conditions were described as verging on slave labor.

However, considering that during World War II the Japanese did use slave labor, and the tales of shooting escapees sound like stories of slave laborers trying to escape across the Rhine River from Nazi Germany during World War II, one must doubt that they were paid anything at all.

Tokyo’s Yomiuri Shimbun picked up the story on 29 July. Afterwards, Japanese-Koreans formed the Board of Inquiry into the Conditions of Resident Korean Laborers, and investigated work conditions for Zainichi Koreans.” [3]

Was anyone held responsible or punished for these deaths? We do not know.

Although this was a hydroelectric plant -which we wish Japan had stuck with instead of going nuclear– we have included this because the Okura zaibatsu was involved in the biggest coal mine accident, and because this case features a company which eventually became part of TEPCO.

We are not the only people who find that the new Japanese secrecy law sniffs of fascist Japan. Unlike German companies, Japanese ones were never properly held to account for their history of slave labor. They even refuse to apologize. Swiss companies were late in coming clean, but at least Switzerland established a committee to study the question (Bergier Commission). The Japanese government appears to prefer to sweep things under the carpet. And, the world lets them.

Why must Japanese companies be held to account for war-time crimes? Why does this matter? We believe that allowing impunity is a problem. Maybe sweeping things under the carpet contributes to Japan’s beauty, grace, and charm, but it is not the way to deal with radiation at Fukushima. While we cannot say if there is a clear continuity between zaibatsu which benefitted from slave labor in WWII and the companies in existence today, it is clear that where impunity rules and people are not held accountable for heinous crimes, bad people will do as they please. Should we be surprised at allegations of slave labor at Fukushima?

Duvalier and his entourage are not being held accountable in Haiti for crimes against humanity, neither are those involved in murderous rampages following various coups. We believe that this has led the current government of Haiti to act with apparent impunity. The Senate and Chamber of Deputies had investigative committees which concluded that there was a need for a trial (i.e. impeachment) of Haiti’s president, Prime Minister, and Minister of Justice, in relation to the death of a judge (Judge Jean Serge Joseph), who died under mysterious circumstances while investigating corruption charges against the President’s wife and son. There has been no follow through. Why is impeachment ok for US presidents but not for Haitian presidents and prime ministers? Why is impunity ok for Japan and Haiti and not for Germany?

While impunity in Haiti sets a bad example internationally and is terrible, and often deadly, for the Haitian people, it does not yet have the potential of destroying the entire world.

The legacy of impunity in Japan, which is playing out in the Fukushima disaster, does have the potential of destroying the entire world. Fukushima requires transparency and not hiddenness, not impunity, not half-assed approaches.

France’s majority state-owned AREVA is also involved at Fukushima in multiple capacities. Some, especially in France, believe that France has not come clean adequately for Nazi collaboration. Are we paying for that legacy?

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zaibatsu
[2] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shinano_River_incident
[3] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shinano_River_incident

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zaibatsu http://www.sjsu.edu/faculty/watkins/zaibatsu.htm http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Okura_Kihachiro http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shinano_River_incident
Michael Weiner, The origins of the Korean community in Japan 1910-1923 (Manchester: Manchester U, 1989), pp. 104-105.
The Economic History of Japan, 1600-1990: Economic history of Japan, 1914-1955, edited by Takafusa Nakamura, Kōnosuke Odaka 1999, Oxford (2003), p. 239.