Mr. Mitsuoki Tsubouchi ①

Koko Kato, Managing Director
General Incorporated Foundation the National Congress of Industrial Heritage

“During recess at school, we went to Lee’s house to roast and eat chestnuts that were sent to his family from Korea

Mr. Mitsuoki Tsubouchi, 87, now lives in Tokyo. He is a person who has intimate knowledge of Hashima during and after the war, until he moved to Tokyo in 1961. Over several interviews, he shared his memories of Hashima, including the relationships he remembers he had with the people from Korea. In this column, I explain how I met Tsubouchi san, provide an introduction, and share a portion from the interviews.

How I met Mr. Tsubouchi

Mr. Mitsuoki Tsubouchi shares his memories
October 17th, 2016
(Photo: Masami Murao)

On January 8th, 2016, I visited Tsubouchi-san’s apartment, located in Koto-ward in Tokyo. When I rang the doorbell, Tsubouchi-san (84 at the time) came to the door to greet me. Tsubouchi-san is small and has white hair. He wore a checkered shirt and purple vest, which made him look younger than his age. As soon as we set up the tripod for the interview, words rich with humor began to pour out of his mouth, even though we had just met. I was delighted to finally meet a person who knows what really happened on Hashima during the war. The two hours allotted for the interview went by very quickly. However, on my way home from the interview, I realized there were many questions I had forgotten to ask, that I wish I’d asked. I was clearly ill-prepared for the interview. I ended up calling him many times thereafter, to follow up with the remaining questions. He also agreed to additional interviews, first on May 19th, 2016, and again on October 17th, 2016.

Mr. Tsubouchi was born on February 28, 1932, in Matsubara, Wakimisakimachi, Nishisonogi (current Nagasaki-city), in Nagasaki Prefecture, as the eldest son of 8 children (one older sister, three younger sisters and three younger brothers). He moved to Hashima when he was three years old. Initially, the family lived in Shiofurimachi (tide-showering area of the island), but moved to the 4th floor of Building 19 soon thereafter. He attended primary and secondary school in Hashima; the end of the war came when he was in his second year of secondary school, during summer vacation, while he was working as a service worker (transporting gravel). On the day the atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki, the young Tsubouchi witnessed the bomb fall, from the island. Tsubouchi-san’s father was a miner, but he fought in the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-end of WW2), where he was injured, and subsequently sent home. Upon his return, due to his fluency in Chinese, he was put in charge of managing the salaries of the Chinese workers (approx. 150 workers), and also became their caretaker. Tsubouchi-san’s father passed away in 1949, soon after the war (a photo of Tsubouchi-san’s late father, provided by Matsuko Iwasaki, his sister, is posted on the Photo Gallery of our website 【www.gunkanjima-truth.com】). Tsubouchi-san worked as a projection technician at Hashima’s movie theater from 1957 to 1961. In 1961, when the goverment’s energy policy shifted from coal to oil, Tsuboushi-san left Hashima and moved to Tokyo. He was 29 years old. He has since worked at an automobile parts manufacturer, an air conditioner manufacturer, and at a stainless steel company, until his retirement.


Tsubouchi-san’s father around the time of the Sino-Japanese War
(Provided by Matsuko Iwasaki, sister)

Hashima in 1939
(Source: November 11, 1939, Shimizu Kensetsu Design Document)

Looking back on life on Hashima

--What was it like living on Hashima?

3In his thirties, on Hashima (center)

“Life on Hashima was better than life in Tokyo. If I had known what Tokyo was like, I wouldn’t have come. I already came so I can’t do anything about it now. It’s been 54 years since I came to Tokyo. Living was, you know, living on (Hashima) was more than good. Things were cheap. We didn’t have to pay for electricity, rent, or water. We paid a nominal amount. I think they took about 10 yen out (of our salary). I can’t remember exactly what year that was. So you see, you can use electricity all you want. You know Takashima, they call it Takashima now, but before, it was called Futako and Takashima, and electricity was generated out of this shack-like structure. (omitted) And the food, you know, the company offered it, so it was very cheap. All we needed was food, and clothes to wear. There was a dining room in the dorm, but families cooked on their own, and there were stores called Kobai, stores that sold things. The stores had many things, they had everything. From food to everything else.”




 Regarding the existence of discrimination against people from the Korean Peninsula

--Do you remember the people that came from the Korean Peninsula who worked on Hashima?

“There were a few in my class. I think three of them. Three. Zhao, Lee, and Kim were their names. I can’t remember which grade we were in. Perhaps 3rd or 4th grade. You know, they sent chestnuts. From Korea. So we always went to their homes when the chestnuts came, you know, because the two-hour recess was long. We went to their houses to roast and eat the chestnuts, that time of year. Lee lived in a wooden house. So in the winter, they got chestnuts from Korea. During lunch break, during the two-hour break, there’s about 40 extra minutes. We always went over to his house, to roast the chestnuts, to eat them.”

--Where did you go to eat the chestnuts?

“To his house. Back then there was a hibachi (brazier). In the winter, you covered the coal with the ashes, so the fire won’t go out. When you remove the ash, you see that the coal is burning.”

-- I see.

“So we put the chestnuts in there to roast them.”

--Oh so you put it in the hibachi?

“Around the edge. Like this.”

--You put it on the edge of the hibachi, and the chestnuts get roasted?

“Yes because it’s hot”

--Doesn’t that take time?

“Burning coal is extremely hot. So they pop. Near the flame. We would eat the chestnuts and go back to school.”

--Was there bullying against people from the Korean Peninsula on Hashima?

“There were occasional fights, but I don’t think there was bullying like that. I think there was one girl in the grade above us, I don’t think there were any girls in our grade. There was a doctor (who was from the Korean Peninsula), an internal medicine doctor, and there was also a nurse. So I don’t think there was discrimination. I think the doctor, the internal medicine doctor, was older, like in his thirties probably”

--Were people expected to work like slaves?

“No, no. We were all seen by the doctor. He was a legitimate doctor. I think the nurse, the nurse was a year older than us. Maybe just one or two years older, or maybe she was a year older than my older sister. So there was no discrimination at all. We were all seen by the doctor. There was no discrimination.”

--Have you ever seen a man get beaten for trying to escape the island?

“If you did something like that in such a small place like this, everyone will know about it right away. You see, we used to walk by the dorm. So I’ve seen people getting admonished, but nothing absurd like that. There was no abuse. We all played together. All the time. In school too.”

--Were there steel fences?

“What? No.”

--When the war ended, how did the people from the Peninsula react?

“That is what I don’t know.”

--How were your classmates?

“They all suddenly disappeared ”

--Did they just disappear one day?

“Well we just have no idea when they went back. No idea.”

--I see. But I suppose for someone who has never heard an islander’s account, they might think something bad may have happened.

“That’s not possible”

--It’s not possible?

“That is absolutely not possible. I’m not sure about the Korean people, but for the Japanese people, the work was just as hard, so everyone cut corners. When we cut corners, we got scolded, which made us want to quit, so we’d think about escaping. So those things happened, but only sometimes. It’s true that they were strict about it. If we didn’t show up at work.”

--If you don’t show up at work, and if you slack.


--They’d say go to work.。

“Yes, they managed us strictly in that sense. But that doesn’t mean - that they killed people, you know. I’ve seen them using bamboo swords, but nothing more than that. It’s just not possible. The Japanese were treated the same way. It wasn’t just the Korean people who were treated that way.”

--I see. Workers who were slacking were told to go to work but nothing more than that?

“Nothing more than that. Not at all.”

--A Korean person testified that even when he had diarrhea, a (Japanese) person used a wooden stick to strike him and kick him, and made him go to work.

“I don’t think that’s true. It’s not possible. Because the ones that were at the dorm were, you know. But I don’t think that happened. At all. You know, they were strict to those who slacked. But the people in charge of them, they were Koreans too. I don’t think Japanese people were involved much.”

--You mean the people in charge of the Korean draftees and workers were themselves Korean?

“I think so. I don’t think Japanese people were involved much. There was only one dorm. It was here. That’s where it was.”



Koko Kato

Managing Director, National Congress of Industrial Heritage,
 Special Advisor to the Cabinet since July 2015,
 “Coordinator of Sites of Japan’s Meiji Industrial Revolution” World Heritage Council,Chair, Industry Project team, Chair, Interpretation Committee of Cabinet Secretariat,Project Leader, Sakubei Yamamoto Collection UNESCO Memory of the World Visiting Professor, University of Tsukuba (April 1 2015-March 31 2016);

Graduated from Keio University Faculty of Litterature, Tokyo headquarters of CBS News.Harvard Kennedy School with an MCRP in City and Regional Planning (1987-1989), with special focus on corporate towns and their economic development.Since graduating at Harvard Kennedy School, Koko Kato started her own company and became involved in private activities while conducting international research about corporate towns and their industrial heritage. She authored the book titled “Industrial Heritage” (Nihon Keizai Shimbunsha, 1999), essays in “Economist” (Japan’s weekly magazine), “Gakuto”,“Shincho 45” and “Chiri” etc. Koko Kato was Director, and one of the principal authors, of the Nomination Document for the inscription of Japan’s Meiji Industrial Revolution on the World Heritage List, and its digest edition. She is also Director of several booklets and the principal Website related to Japan’s Meiji Industrial Revolution.