Revelations from Prime Minister Aso on Wartime POW Labor Demonstrate Need for National Archive in Japan

2 February 2009

Controversy Highlights Issues of Historical Memory in Japan

By Lawrence Repeta

[Editor’s note: This article has been reprinted with permission of the author and first appeared in The Asia-Pacific Journal: Japan Focus.]

Prime Minister Aso Taro’s admission that his family company employed prisoner-of-war labor during the final months of World War II may one day be seen as a milestone in Japan’s struggle to contend with its own national history. In response to persistent questioning by an opposition lawmaker on the floor of the national parliament on January 6, Aso acknowledged the truth of recent disclosures of POW work at the Aso Mining Company in 1945.[1]

This exchange came three weeks after a senior official of the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare confirmed the authenticity of a 1946 report submitted by Aso Mining on the use of 300 Australian, English, and Dutch POWs beginning in May 1945.[2] This action by a national government ministry was unprecedented. Mr. Aso heads Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), which has dominated Japanese politics since it was formed more than fifty years ago. Throughout the postwar era, leading members of the LDP have often denied reports of wartime abuses or declared there is no evidence to support criticism of Japan’s wartime actions. In response to one recent example, the US House of Representatives took the extraordinary step of passing a resolution in July 2007 demanding that Japan formally acknowledge, apologize, and accept historical responsibility for military sexual slavery (commonly known as the “comfort women” issue) during its colonial and wartime occupation of Asia (House Resolution 121 of 2007). This followed a string of denials and protestations of lack of evidence for such practices by senior LDP politicians as well documented in the report by Kinue Tokudome on Passage of H.Res. 121 on Comfort Women, the US Congress and Historical Memory in Japan.

Against this background of an established pattern of accusation and denial, the matter-of-fact statement by a senior Ministry official on the floor of the national Diet in December confirming POW use at Aso Mining took many by surprise.

The path to disclosure followed a circuitous route, with a prominent role played by the document repository of the US National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) located in suburban Maryland, outside Washington, DC. It was there in March 2006 that Fukubayashi Toru, a member of a citizen group called the POW Research Network Japan uncovered a report submitted by Aso Mining in response to demands by Allied Occupation authorities for information on the whereabouts and condition of Allied POWs. This 11-page report detailed living and working conditions for the 101 Australian, 97 British, and 2 Dutch POWs made to work at the company’s Yoshikuma mine in Kyushu commencing in May 1945. As in the disclosure of atrocities committed in the Nanjing Massacre, the case of the military comfort women, biowarfare Unit 731, compulsory mass suicides in the Battle of Okinawa, and many others, it was Japanese researchers who took the lead in discovering and disclosing the evidence.[3]

Coverage by the international news media included a November 2006 article by New York Times correspondent Norimitsu Onishi.[4] One of the most powerful leaders of Japan’s LDP, Mr. Aso served at that time as Foreign Minister. Soon after the Times article appeared, Japan’s Consulate General in New York published a detailed rebuttal on its website attacking various details of the story. Regarding Onishi’s statement that Aso Mining used Asian and Western forced laborers, Japans Consulate General had this to say:

The Government of Japan is not in a position to comment on employment forms and conditions of a private company, Aso Mining, at that time. However, our government has not received any information the company has used forced laborers. It is totally unreasonable to make this kind of judgmental description without presenting any evidence.

This statement remained on the Consulate General website for more than two years and was removed in December 2008, following the disclosures by the Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare that prompted an investigation by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The full text of the Consulate General statement is available here in English and in Japanese.

Japan’s domestic news media devoted little attention to this issue from the 2006 revelations until the Prime Minister’s admission in January 2009. Historian William Underwood, whose recent PhD dissertation concerns ongoing reparations movements for forced labor in wartime Japan, says that Japan’s news media treated this as a taboo virtually all the way until Aso himself acknowledged the truth. Throughout this time, Aso has served either as Foreign Minister or Prime Minister. Even now, reporting is minimal. Much of Underwood’s research on redress activities involving Allied POWs and Chinese and Korean forced laborers in Japan during the war years is available at The Asia-Pacific Journal: Japan Focus.

Japan has no equivalent to NARA, the US agency with authority to oversee document retention practices throughout the US federal government and to maintain records of historical value. There is an agency known as the National Archive of Japan, but it has no authority to promulgate rules governing record management by other government offices or to demand that records be transferred to its care. In practice, each Ministry and each government agency decides which records to keep, which to transfer to the archive and which to destroy.

The government records uncovered in this instance were found by officials of the Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare in response to a request by lawmaker Yukihisa Fujita of the opposition Democratic Party. Fujita had obtained copies of the material uncovered at NARA in 2006 and submitted them for confirmation. In response, the Ministry delivered copies of four related but different records in its possession.

In comments in the national parliament on December 22, 2008, Mr. Oikawa Katsura explained that Japan’s wartime government established a POW Information Bureau in 1941. When that office was abolished in 1957, its records were transferred to the Ministry. There they remained, undisturbed for more than fifty years, until the current controversy arose. However, the Japanese government has not produced a copy of the report compiled by Aso Mining Company in 1946, even though Japan’s POW Information Bureau submitted the report to Occupation authorities that same year.

Article 22 of Japan’s freedom of information act (FOIA) requires government agencies to establish rules governing maintenance of records; moreover, all records in the possession of agencies such as the Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare are subject to disclosure requests under that statute. In the present case, Mr. Fujita made his request directly to the Ministry without filing such a request. However, the scope of the application of Japan’s FOIA is broad, and there is no doubt that anyone, whether in Japan or abroad, can file requests for such documents.

Open government advocates have lobbied for creation of a more robust national archive in Japan for years. A panel of experts was appointed in 2003 under the sponsorship of then Chief Cabinet Secretary Fukuda Yasuo (later Prime Minister) to advise the government on policies concerning the proper management, preservation, and use of public documents. This committee produced a pair of lengthy reports with recommendations for a new national system of record preservation, which have yet to result in legislation.

In the course of their research, committee members visited national archives in South Korea, China, Canada, and the United States. To underscore Japan’s weak efforts to preserve historical records, the committee compared resources allocated to this activity by Japan and selected countries. It found that the US national archive employs a staff of 2500 persons, Canada 660, China 560, and South Korea 130. The number for Japans national archive: 42.

The popularity of the Liberal Democratic Party has sharply declined since the retirement of Koizumi Junichiro as prime minister in 2006. The Democratic Party won control of the Upper House of Japan’s parliament in elections held the following year. It was then that Mr. Fujita himself won his current seat in the Upper House. It remains to be seen whether Fujita and others will revive debate over a national archive to be charged with handling historical documents such as those disclosed by the Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare last month.

Lawrence Repeta is a professor at Omiya Law School in Japan, a director of Information Clearinghouse Japan, and a Japan Focus associate. He is presently serving as Garvey Schubert Barer Professor of Asian Law at the University of Washington in the United States. He is a member of the Editorial Board of and also a frequent contributor.

This article benefited from the research and editorial assistance of William Underwood, a Japan Focus coordinator. Lawrence Repeta wrote this article for The Asia-Pacific Journal. Posted on January 25, 2009.


Matters Concerning the Investigations of POWs, report submitted by Aso Mining Company to Japanese government’s POW Information Bureau on Jan. 24, 1946. (in Japanese)

Web page of the Japanese Consulate General in New York, rebutting American media reports about forced labor at Aso Mining Company. Posted in November 2006 and removed in December 2008, following acknowledgment by Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare, and subsequently by Prime Minister Aso, that POWs worked in the mines.

* In English

* In Japanese

Four documents disclosed by Japan Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare in November 2008, proving that Allied POWs worked at Aso Mining (in Japanese).


[1] Julian Ryall, Japanese Prime Minister Taro Aso admits family used British POWs as slave labour, Telegraph (UK), Jan. 6, 2009.

[2] Mari Yamaguchi, Japan says Aso’s family used POW labor, Associated Press, Dec. 20, 2008.

[3] See, for example, these articles in The Asia-Pacific Journal: Japan Focus:

* Fujiwara Akira, The Nanking Atrocity: An Interpretive Overview.

* Oe Kenzaburo, Misreading, Espionage and Beautiful Martyrdom: On Hearing the Okinawa Mass Suicides Suit Court Verdict.

* William Underwood, New Era for Japan-Korea History Issues: Forced Labor Redress Efforts Begin to Bear Fruit.

* Rumiko Nishino, The Womens Active Museum on War and Peace: Its Role in Public Education.

[4] Norimitsu Onishi, An Unyielding Demand for Justice, The New York Times, International Herald Tribune, Nov. 15, 2006. Available here.


The Asia-Pacific Journal: Japan Focus

Information Clearinghouse Japan

POW Research Network Japan

National Archive of Japan

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