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COLUMN ONE : A Village Cries Out for Help : Korean laborers taken to Japan in World War II eventually settled in tiny Utoro. Now, facing eviction, they have spent their life savings on a bid to win American support in a fight to save their homes.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

For four decades, outsiders paid little attention to tiny Utoro, a ramshackle village near the ancient Japanese capital of Kyoto.

Now its residents--survivors, spouses and descendants of a group of Korean laborers conscripted during World War II--hope to gain the world’s help in fending off an attempt to evict them.

Utoro’s 380 villagers have pooled their life savings to publicize their plight. They acknowledge that they have no legal title to the land, which was sold to a developer in 1987. But they say the Japanese government and Nissan Motor Co., which is related to the company that employed them to help build Japan’s war machine, have a moral obligation to help them.

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Their campaign, including a full-page ad in the New York Times, has drawn especially strong support in Southern California, where 300,000 Korean-Americans--the largest Korean community outside Asia--see Utoro’s story as their own.

“They are my people,” said Myung Ho Yoo, a West Los Angeles high school student who has been passing out pro-Utoro flyers on weekends. “The only difference is they live in Japan and I live in America.”

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When she was a bride of 21, Kwang Ja Mun followed her husband to Utoro to help build a military airport and to prepare food for the workers there and at an adjoining airplane parts factory. Her husband was among the hundreds of thousands of Koreans conscripted as laborers during Japan’s colonial rule.

“I worked from 6 in the morning until sunset, moving dirt with my hands until my shoulders felt like they’d fall off,” Mun said recently, describing the ordeal of leveling a mountain to build an airfield.

When the war ended in 1945, Utoro’s 1,300 Korean workers were let go without compensation. Half left for their liberated homeland or for Korean ghettos in Kyoto and Osaka. But those without means and connections, such as Mun and her husband, remained.

The Japanese “worked us like slaves when they needed our labor to fight Americans,” said Mun, now 74, “but when the war was over, they abandoned us like garbage. So we built hovels and survived, collecting and peddling scraps, and growing what we ate.”

After the war, a predecessor of a Nissan subsidiary acquired the land from the government, but the villagers were left alone.

In 1987, Nissan Shatai Co., the Nissan subsidiary, sold the five acres on which the Koreans lived without telling them. A year later, Nishi Nihon Shokusan, the developer that had bought the land, served eviction notices. The developer dispatched trucks and demolition crews to Utoro in February, 1989, but about 300 people guarded their homes by forming a human shield.

The village they are trying to save is a barren outpost with a few remnants of the barracks in which the original workers lived--a poignant reminder of the unhappy past. Modest Japanese-style homes, built by the Koreans, stand on both sides of Utoro’s one main road. There was no running water until the 1980s, when the Koreans, most of whom work in construction or peddle scrap, installed the pipes.

“We raised our families and built our own little community,” said Mun, whose husband died 27 years ago. “To tell us to leave after all these years is cruel.”

Beyond preserving their community, the villagers say they are fighting for recognition by Japan of its wartime past and to highlight Japanese discrimination against Koreans and other minorities. They say outside pressure is one of the best ways to bring such issues into the public eye.

After the demolition crews were held back in 1989, the developer sued the residents, and more than 16 eviction cases are winding through Kyoto District Court. The residents have been trying to raise money for their legal defense by holding concerts and soliciting membership to the Assn. to Protect Utoro.

This spring, Utoro’s residents, with help from a San Francisco public interest advertising agency, made their plea to the world.

Their call for help touched a chord among Korean-Americans across the United States, especially in Southern California, Honolulu, Detroit and Boston. Since the ad’s publication in March, the people of Utoro have also become the subject of news stories in Japan and Korea, where the issue turned into a cause celebre.

A Korean radio station in Los Angeles, which followed up on the ad by broadcasting interviews with Utoro residents, has received more than 18,000 letters and signatures from supporters, said Hye Shin Kang, a producer at KCB-FM. “We’re overwhelmed with the response--we don’t have the staff to handle all this mail,” she said.

The mail also brought checks, in amounts of $25 and $50, even though financial help had not been solicited. One listener sent 1,000 stamps, asking that they be used to send petitions to the right people.

In Detroit, the Michigan State Bar’s civil liberties committee sent a strongly worded letter to the Japanese prime minister and the head of Nissan, characterizing the eviction as “a fundamental violation of civil liberties.”

Seiichi Kondo, a spokesman for the Japanese Embassy, said the Ministry of Justice is investigating to see if the Utoro residents might qualify for reparations. As for the pending evictions, Kondo said his government had no comment because it is a government policy “not to intervene in a civil suit.”

Akinobu Iwamoto, the Nissan Shatai executive in charge of the Utoro matter, told The Times that the land transaction was handled in accordance with Japanese law.

“Since the case is in the courts, and Nissan Shatai no longer has title to the land, we have no further comment on the subject,” Iwamoto said.

Not so, say Utoro’s residents. Title to the land might have changed hands, but that does not invalidate their grievance with Nissan Shatai or the Japanese government, which both profited from their labor, they say.

A panel of judges in Kyoto is expected later this year to decide whether the Koreans have a right to remain in Utoro.

The long and complicated case became even more involved when the Koreans belatedly discovered a problem after the court fight began. They said they had been “betrayed” by former Utoro resident Matsuo Hirayama, who bought the land from Nissan Shatai and then quickly resold it to the developer, residents said. Hirayama has been subpoenaed as a witness in developer Nishi Nihon Shokusan’s pending lawsuits, but no one has been able to locate him.

Myong Bu Om, vice president of the 1,500-member Assn. to Protect Utoro, contends that Nissan Shatai set up Nishi Nihon Shokusan as a “paper company” and used its “front man,” Hirayama, to make the land deal to bypass the villagers.

But Steve Spurgeon, a spokesman for Nissan Motor Corp. U.S.A., which has been forwarding Utoro supporters’ petitions to Nissan Shatai in Japan, said Nissan Shatai sold the land (to Hirayama) because it believed him to be a representative of the villagers, a contention that residents dispute.

Fearful of losing in court, Om and other Utoro leaders reached out across the Pacific.

“We made our appeal to the American people because we believe they are sensitive to human rights,” said Om, a second-generation Utoro resident.

The American connection came quite by accident.

Herb Gunther, who runs the Public Media Center advertising agency in San Francisco, was on a business trip to Kyoto last year when he heard about Utoro. He was impressed by the residents’ perseverance. “The entire village was out leafletting Kyoto,” he said. “Every Saturday they go out and continue to spread the story. To do that as Koreans in Japan takes a lot of courage.”

When Om and Yumi Lee, a spokeswoman for the association, said they wanted to bring their message to America, Gunther offered to help. The result was the newspaper ad, which they bought with the agency’s aid at a discount rate of $25,000.

The ad says that because the land was once owned by the Nissan subsidiary and the people of Utoro worked for it during the war, Nissan has a historic duty to them. It capitalizes on the Nissan name in the United States to build the villagers’ case in the court of American public opinion.

“Because the American car market is so important to Nissan,” the ad says, “your expression of support can make a real difference.” The company has sold more than 10 million cars in the United States in the last two decades.

Gunther said he is “astonished” by the public response. His agency has received more than 11,000 clip-out protest coupons that it will deliver to the Nissan Motor Corp. U.S.A. office in Carson and the Japanese Embassy in Washington in September when a delegation from Utoro visits major U.S. cities to meet with supporters.

The villagers say Japan’s continuing discrimination against Koreans and other minorities has to be publicized.

Minorities make up slightly more than 5% of the country’s population, according to the Japan Pacific Resource Network, a Berkeley-based nonprofit educational group. In addition to nearly 1 million ethnic Koreans, many of whom are naturalized and have assumed Japanese names, there are 3 million burakumin, the untouchables of Japan; 2 million Okinawans; 250,000 ethnic Chinese, and 100,000 native Ainus, according to Hiroshi Kashiwagi, the educational group’s executive director.

If not for discrimination against Koreans, Nissan Shatai would not have sold the land without telling them, Om said. “This is a prime example of Japanese version of apartheid,” he said.

Kashiwagi, who visited Utoro last year, agrees.

“Koreans living in Japan are victims of the Japanese colonialization of Korea, who still face discrimination,” said Kashiwagi, a Japanese national. “Legally, the Korean people in Utoro may not have rights to the property, but Nissan must give consideration to them because Nissan was a key company working for the war efforts.”

For a long time the government denied that minorities even existed in Japan, Kashiwagi said, noting that it took then-Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone’s disparaging comments about American blacks and Latinos in 1986 to bring the problems of Japan’s minorities into the international arena.

Japanese sociologist Tomoji Ishi, who teaches at UC Berkeley, and Edward J. Baker, associate director of Harvard University’s Yenching Institute, have been interested observers of the Utoro case for more than a year.

Baker, who is a lawyer and an East Asian specialist, says it would be wise for the Japanese government and Nissan to accommodate the Koreans.

The case has to be viewed in the context of Japan’s colonialization of Korea from 1910 to 1945 and the history of Japan’s aggression in Asia, Baker said.

“Utoro is but one in a series of cases involving Japan’s wrongdoing against her neighbors. It is only recently that we have learned about some of them, including the gut-wrenching stories of ‘comfort women.’ People in China, Korea and other parts of Asia are very angry for what Japan did to them. The Japanese government has a track record of ignoring, covering up and denying that these things occurred.”

(After decades of official denials, the Japanese government admitted last week to coercing Asian and European women to work as sex slaves--euphemistically called “comfort women"--for Japanese soldiers before and during World War II.

Ishi, a specialist on race relations, said Japan has to come to terms with its past and abandon the idea that it is superior to its neighbors.

Both Ishi and Baker want to see the government and Nissan either let the villagers stay in Utoro or provide comparable housing elsewhere and compensate them for their suffering.

Movement leaders say that Japan, unlike Germany, has not apologized for its war crimes and has not paid reparations to victims.

“Even though Mercedes-Benz volunteered 20 million deutschemarks to its World War II laborers, no compensation has been offered by Nissan, which profited from the labor of Utoro people during the war,” Yumi Lee said.

Discrimination continues against Koreans in jobs, housing and education, said Lee, whose grandfathers were conscripts. Even though she is a third-generation resident of Japan, she cannot vote because she refuses to give up her Korean identity.

It took a decade-long campaign both inside and outside Japan to pressure the government to stop fingerprinting Koreans, a practice that carried a stigma because only aliens and people charged with crimes were fingerprinted.

“It’s shameful that the only way to get Japan to correct a wrong is to bring it to the outside world,” said the Rev. Kana Shimasaki, associate pastor at a Japanese church in Honolulu, who is active in the petition campaign. “As a Japanese citizen I am embarrassed.”

By mobilizing international opinion, Japan and corporate citizens such as Nissan can be made to correct their past wrongs and do the right thing, said the Rev. Nobuaki Hanaoka, senior pastor of the Sacramento Japanese United Methodist Church.

“In the meantime,” Hanaoka said, “we must do everything we can to reverse the eviction process in Utoro.”

A Community’s Fight to Survive

Eighty Korean families in Japan pooled their life savings to buy this full-page advertisement in the New York Times. It has sparked an international movement to help the 380 people who face eviction from their homes in Utoro, a Korean enclave in the city of Uji near Kyoto. The village’s founders were brought from Korea during World War II as conscripted laborers. In 1987, Nissan Shatal Co., a subsidiary of Nissan Motor Co., sold the land title, touching off continuing controversy.


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