Once sentenced to death for war crimes against POWs, Lee Hak-lae was later spared the gallows and is now on a mission of passing on the sorrow of his colleagues who died as war criminals after being forced to work for Japan during World War II.
Lee recently braved the withering summer heat, despite his advanced age, to continue spreading their message as organizer of a Korean POW guards' group seeking an apology and compensation from the Japanese government.
"I do not want the money," Lee, 88, said. "When the people of my homeland were celebrating their liberation from Japanese colonial rule, my colleagues died in execution chambers in a foreign land. Why did they have to die? Who did they die for? It is my mission, as someone who just happened to survive, to clear away the chagrin felt by my friends."
A total of about 3,000 recruits from the Korean Peninsula worked as POW guards and 148 were given prison sentences as "Japanese war criminals." Of that number, 23 were executed. While 70 of his colleagues joined Lee in starting the movement, most have since died and there are only six remaining.
On Aug. 11, when temperatures in Tokyo reached 38.3 degrees, Lee attended a meeting to talk about his experiences. Among the approximately 50 people in the audience were Korean nationals living in Japan, Japanese residents as well as teachers from South Korea. Most were between 20 and 50 and were part of a tour group studying East Asian history.
Although Lee worked for the Imperial Japanese military, he was not given compensation after the war on the grounds he did not have Japanese citizenship. At the same time, in South Korea, he was considered a traitor of sorts since he cooperated with the Japanese.
Lee took part in the meeting because he wanted to pass on the absurdities he has faced over his long life.
Lee was born in 1925 in Jeollanam-do province in the southern part of the Korean Peninsula when it was under the colonial rule of Japan. In 1942, as fighting in the Pacific War intensified, Lee was 17, and he faced the choice of being forced to work in the coal mines in Hokkaido or be drafted into the Imperial Japanese Army. Lee applied for a position as a civilian worker with the military, thinking that would be the better alternative. He was assigned to work in Thailand.
During training in Busan, a Japanese superior officer said, "We will make all of you into outstanding Japanese."
They were regularly beaten for not speaking up when responding to officers or not keeping their guns in proper condition.
In Thailand, Lee worked as a guard over Australian POWs. Despite a lack of food supplies, the POWs were forced into hard labor in building railways. Many of the POWs died after contracting dysentery or malaria.
The POWs called Lee and others like him "Korean guards." After the war ended, he was tried as a war criminal and given the death sentence. After his death sentence was commuted to 20 years imprisonment, Lee was sent to Japan. He was released from Sugamo Prison in Tokyo in 1956.
He knew no one in Japan, so he wanted to return to his hometown where his parents lived. However, he also knew that if he returned to South Korea he would be criticized for cooperating with the Imperial Japanese military. He was unable to return even after his mother died.
After the end of the war, the Japanese government decided Lee and his colleagues were not eligible for compensation or pensions because they did not have Japanese citizenship.
Lee obtained a driver's license as part of the work training he underwent in prison. Along with other Korean nationals who were also found to be war criminals, Lee started a small taxi company in Tokyo to earn a living.
He would later organize a group of Korean nationals who suffered a similar fate and began their campaign for recognition from the government. However, the movement faces difficulties, not only because many of the members of the group have died because of their advanced age.
Lee and members of his group took their case to court, and in 1998 the Supreme Court handed down a ruling calling for legislative measures to provide support.
In 2008, the Democratic Party of Japan submitted legislation to the Diet designed to provide some assistance to Lee and others who had similar experiences, but before deliberations could begin, the Lower House was dissolved and the bills died.
In both the Lower House election in December and the July Upper House election, many of those lawmakers who supported the DPJ legislation went down to defeat.
Lee in June submitted a request to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe seeking an early resolution of the issue. It was the 29th such request submitted to the Japanese government since the first in 1955 submitted to then Prime Minister Ichiro Hatoyama.
On top of those political developments is the continued troubled relations between Japan and South Korea that has been rocked by a territorial dispute over the Takeshima islets, along with differences over historical understanding.
It was only in 2006, under the administration of Roh Moo-hyun, that the South Korean government finally recognized Lee and his colleagues as victims who were forced into labor by Japan. Because there have been only a few media reports, very few people in South Korea know about what Lee endured.
Among those who heard Lee's talk on Aug. 11 in Tokyo were a number of young South Koreans who wanted to know what he felt when he was imprisoned on death row, as well as whether the South Korean government had provided any support.
"There were many patriots in South Korea who gave up their lives in the independence movement against Japan," Lee said. "Even though I may have been forced to work for the Japanese military, I always felt guilty about betraying my people. I never sought compensation from the South Korean government."
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