February 15, 2018 – A court yesterday rescinded a prefectural government’s decision not to allow a memorial for Korean wartime laborers to remain in a public park in eastern Japan, saying the disapproval deviated from discretion granted to the local government.
The focus of the lawsuit at the Maebashi District Court was whether annual ceremonies to remember the conscripted Korean laborers held at the memorial in the park in Takasaki contravened the condition set by the Gunma prefectural government “not to conduct political activities.”
In the ruling, the court acknowledged that part of the ceremonies ran counter the condition set by the prefectural government, such as a remark by a participant that the wartime drafting of the Korean laborers was “forced.”
Nevertheless the court accepted the request by the plaintiff, a civic group administrating the memorial, to retract the disapproval, saying the Forest of Gunma park’s role as a place to relax had not been undermined.
Whether the Korean workers drafted during Japan’s colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula from 1910 to 1945 were forced is a politically sensitive issue that has often led to diplomatic disputes between Japan and South Korea.
The memorial was set up in 2004 by a predecessor of the civic group after gaining approval from the prefectural government to erect it for 10 years. An initial plan to include the expression “forced” drafting in the script of the memorial was scrapped after an objection by the prefectural government.
In July 2014, the prefectural government turned down a request to extend the installation period for another 10 years, saying that four ceremonies, including events in April 2005 and April 2006, held to commemorate the laborers amounted to political events.
The prefectural government received criticism over the memorial from May 2012 onwards, while propaganda activities against it were also held in the public park. The prefectural assembly also adopted a petition in June 2014 calling the prefectural government to retract the approval of the memorial.
“It cannot be denied that part of the ceremonies were of a political” nature, Presiding Judge Naoya Shioda said.
But noting there were no protests against the memorial until May 2012 and there was no disruption at the events, Shioda said there has been no concrete harm to the park due to the memorial, such as a fall in the number of visitors.
Gunma Gov. Masaaki Osawa said in a statement that the retraction of the disapproval decision was “extremely disappointing,” adding, “We will consider the ruling carefully and decide on the course of action.”
Jun Shimoyama, lawyer representing the plaintiff said, “The ruling directly acknowledged the value of the memorial.”
Similar moves to erect memorials and panels to convey the history of Korean wartime laborers have been seen in other parts of Japan, including in Tenri in Nara Prefecture, the city of Nagano, and Iizuka in Fukuoka Prefecture, but they have often met with criticism.
In April 2014, a panel in Tenri that said there had been forced labor by Koreans in constructing an airport was taken down by the municipal government, who said the issue of forced labor was still being debated.