Japanese and South Korean forces both ended their missions in Iraq this week. The approximately 200 Japanese troops in Kuwait for an air support mission in Iraq are to return home by the end of the year. Japan withdrew its 500 ground troops from a reconstruction mission to southern Iraq in 2006. About 520 South Korean soldiers have already returned from northern Iraq’s Irbil province, marking the end of a four-year reconstruction mission that had about 3,600 troops at its height—the third-largest contingent after the US and Britain. Both missions were officially noncombatant. Tokyo withdrew its 600-strong force in southern Iraq in 2006 but continued to airlift equipment and troops. The deployment was Japan’s first to a combat zone since World War II, and sparked considerable public opposition. (AlJazeera, Dec. 19; BBC, Dec. 18)
Ironically, the same week the Iraq mission ended, Japan ironically had to confront a dark legacy of its wartime past, as the government acknowledged for the first time that Allied prisoners were used as forced labor at a coal mine owned by the family of Prime Minister Taro Aso. The revelation contradicted his longstanding denials.
The admission came after the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare, petitioned by an opposition lawmaker, released documents showing that 300 Australian, British and Dutch prisoners of war worked at a mine owned by Aso Mining in the last four months of the war. In the 1970s, Aso was president of the company, now the Aso Group.
Last month, when questioned in the Diet about the use of war prisoners at the mine, Aso said “no facts have been confirmed.” He has yet to comment on the documents released by the Health Ministry. Yukihisa Fujita, the opposition Democratic Party legislator who pressed Aso on the question, said there had always been overwhelming evidence, including US government documents, of the mine’s use of POW labor. “But Mr. Aso has consistently tried to escape responsibility,” Fujita told the New York Times.
The Japanese government, led for more than 50 years by the Liberal Democratic Party, has long resisted pressure to release wartime documents. But the opposition’s capture of the upper house of Diet last year has given it greater power to probe this past. “There’s still a massive amount of documents on Aso Mining left in the basement of the Health Ministry,” Fujita said. (NYT, Dec. 20)
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