Digging Up the Past


Buried under the mountains that encircle this bucolic farming village on the outskirts of Nagano lie vast and eerie relics of World War II, but many Olympic visitors may go home without ever knowing they are there.

As Allied bombs began to pummel Tokyo in the waning days of the war, roughly 7,000 Korean slave laborers were brought here for a top-secret project. In nine months, they dug about eight miles of tunnels and caves that were intended for the relocation of Emperor Hirohito and his entire wartime government.

Japan surrendered before the work was completed, and in recent years, the abandoned tunnels under Matsushiro have become the weirdest and perhaps most poignant tourist attraction in the area.


Peace activists in Matsushiro, an old castle town on the southern outskirts of Nagano, are trying to persuade Olympic visitors to take a 30-minute bus ride and come walk through the tunnels. Members of a local high school history club have been practicing their English and are standing by to give tours.

“Since the Olympics are a festival of sports and a festival of peace, we would like people to come see these caves,” said Sonoko Kobayashi, 49, one of a group of citizens that hopes to break ground next year on a peace museum near the caves.

The group wrote to the Nagano Organizing Committee for the Games (NAOC), asking that the caves be included on their list of interesting places to visit in Nagano, but has not received a reply, Kobayashi said.

The Matsushiro caves appear in Japanese guidebooks and attract about 100,000 visitors a year, mostly Japanese but also some Koreans.

However, NAOC English- language publications--as well as most of the English-language pamphlets and maps being handed out to tourists--mention Matsushiro’s castle ruins, a samurai’s home and the town’s famous pottery, but not the caves.

“This could lead to a discussion of the emperor’s wartime responsibility, and the Nagano city authorities don’t want to be dragged into that,” said Kobayashi.

The peace activists suspect that the omission may be intended to avoid any embarrassment during the visit of Emperor Akihito, Hirohito’s son. The emperor participated in the Olympic opening ceremony, which was held about three miles from Matsushiro.

But Keiichi Sasagawa, an official in the NAOC’s public relations office, said there was no attempt to ignore or exclude local peace groups.

“The appeal for peace is a pillar of this year’s Nagano Olympic Games,” Sasagawa said, noting that the Olympics are being used as an opportunity to promote the international campaign to ban land mines. Christopher Moon, who lost a leg and an arm while trying to deactivate a mine in Mozambique, was one of the final runners in the torch relay.

NAOC focused on the anti-land mine campaign because it was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize and “it’s a concrete thing that we can do for peace,” Sasagawa said. “We are not trying to suppress the local peace movement or anything.”

By the time the Imperial Army selected Nagano in 1944 as the site for relocating the Imperial headquarters, a number of munitions factories, military facilities and some 37,000 schoolchildren had already been evacuated here, according to an unvarnished history of the project written by the Assn. to Promote the Preservation of the Matsushiro Imperial General Headquarters.

Matsushiro was selected because the town is protected on three sides by mountains, and is located in the widest part of the main island of Honshu, making it a difficult target for Allied air raids. Also, the mountains were formed of bomb-resistant solid rock and the local people were considered simple and loyal.

Moreover, the name of the region, Shinshu, sounds like “God’s land,” and so was deemed suitable for a residence of the deified emperor. The town lacked sufficient labor, however, so some skilled Korean tunnel diggers were recruited. Most of the workers were unskilled Koreans dragooned for the purpose, some taken with nothing but the clothes they were wearing.

Three mountains were excavated. Mt. Zo, the largest facility ,was to have housed the Japanese government, the Central Telephone Agency and Nihon Broadcasting Corp. (NHK). It is the only one that is open to the public. Characters apparently scrawled by the Korean workers with kerosene soot remain in one of the cool, dry caves.

The tunnels under Mt. Minakami, where the military headquarters was to be relocated, have collapsed, but the Mt. Maizuru underground shelter, which was built for the emperor, now houses a seismological observatory.

Though about 10,000 workers labored here, the Koreans had the toughest and most dangerous jobs. According to one survivor who later married a Japanese and settled in Matsushiro, when Koreans were buried in dynamite explosions, their companions were told there was no time to dig out the bodies for burial.

The question of how badly the Koreans were treated and how many died has become a source of sharp political friction among Matsushiro residents, just as discussion of Japan’s wartime responsibility has been politicized on the national level.

Japanese peace activists, including teachers’ groups, labor unions, and other elements of the left-wing pacifist movement, some of whom favor the abolition of Japan’s imperial system, have been campaigning to force their government to admit to and apologize for Japan’s wartime atrocities.

The right wing, notably a group of revisionists spearheaded by Tokyo University professor Nobukatsu Fujioka, argues that Japan’s sins have been grossly exaggerated by anti-Japanese activists who are distorting history and damaging the nation’s self-esteem.

Japan already has about 20 peace museums, not including the one that is to be built here. A group of local politicians announced last week the formation of a national network to demand that the peace museums review their exhibits and correct inaccurate or “masochistic” displays, according to the Sankei newspaper.

Some Matsushiro residents became angry in 1995 when a plaque was erected in front of the entrance, stating that “the number of [Korean] fatalities is presumed to be about 300, but there are reports of 1,000 victims.” Kobayashi’s group, which was not responsible for the plaque, suspects that about 100 people died but lacks hard evidence on which to base a public stand.

“There are people here who felt sorry for the Koreans and said they gave them eggs and rice balls or allowed them to live in their homes,” Kobayashi said. “Local people claimed that the peace movement’s main purpose was to exaggerate and publicize the evil of the Japanese people . . . and that everybody here was being portrayed as a bad guy.”

Meanwhile, another local group seeks to make a war memorial out of a pub in Matsushiro where four Korean women worked as prostitutes. But neighbors’ walls bear angry red slogans opposing any memorial.

“There have been exaggerations and inaccuracies and this has become a big minus for our peace movement,” said Kobayashi, adding, “Both Japanese and Koreans were victims of the war.”

If Olympic visitors do make their way to the caves, Kobayashi hopes to tell them about Japan’s “peace constitution” and the desire of its citizens to make sure their country never again goes to war.

“Japanese troops killed 20 million people in Asia during World War II,” she said, citing a figure that Japanese conservatives dispute. “But in the 50 years since the war, it is said that not one person has been killed by Japanese armed forces. Isn’t this a true international contribution to peace?”


Times researcher Chiaki Kitada contributed to this story.