Replica of Korean laborers’ housing in WWII to be built along with memorial hall

Courtesy of an Utoro neighborhood association
The last lodging building is seen in the Utoro district of Uji, Kyoto Prefecture. It was demolished in July.

UJI, Kyoto — The last lodging building that housed Korean laborers in the Utoro district of Uji, Kyoto Prefecture, during and after the Pacific War was demolished in July, but a replica using some of the structure’s original wooden materials will be built near a new peace memorial hall to share the history of the district.

About 1,300 laborers from the Korean Peninsula who were involved in constructing a military airfield lived in the 21,000-square-meter district, where the building remained a symbol of the harsh living conditions there even after the war.

Local residents and supporters will open the memorial hall in the district next spring, and the former building will be reconstructed in part of the hall’s premises to serve as a reminder of the hardships endured by the people who lived there.

Residents of the Utoro district were mobilized for national policy purposes — the construction of an airfield in Kyoto — during World War II. The workers erected the lodging building despite not having ownership of the land, and they continued living there with their families after the war.

The one-story wooden building had 12 living quarters, each measuring about 10 square meters, along with earthen floor spaces. These units had no running water or baths, and the residents used a communal well and toilets. Several such structures reportedly were built in the district. Roads in Utoro remained unpaved even into the 1980s, and the buildings still lacked running water.

Kunio Uemoto, an official of an Utoro neighborhood association, grew up and lived in the building with his family. His parents, who were first-generation ethnic Koreans living in Japan, did agricultural work and collected scrap metal to make a living.

“All the families here were poor and lived close together,” said Uemoto, 72, who as a child used a mikan mandarin box as a desk to do his homework.

“After the war, we faced discrimination when looking for jobs and in other situations, just because we were from the Utoro district. The lodging building is a witness to that history,” Uemoto said.

However, the residents were illegally occupying the land. In 1989, a real estate agency that acquired ownership of the land filed a lawsuit to force the residents to move out. In 2000, the Supreme Court finalized a ruling that ordered the residents to vacate the plot.

The residents collected about ¥300 million through financial support from the South Korean government and private-sector donations from South Korea and Japan, which they used to buy about 6,500 square meters of land in Utoro.

The central and local governments and other entities built municipal-run housing on land. A building containing 40 units was completed in fiscal 2017. A second building with 12 units will be finished in fiscal 2022.

Only about 90 people live in the Utoro district now. As residents gradually moved into the municipal-run housing and other dwellings, the lodging building and other wooden homes were demolished.

The residents decided to build a peace memorial hall to detail the history of Utoro and serve as a hub for interactions and exchanges between South Korea and Japan. Construction started in September and the three-story hall is scheduled to open in April 2022. The hall will have a cafe where residents and visitors can meet and chat, and an exhibition room where displayed photos will detail the day-to-day lives of Korean residents living in Japan.

Courtesy of Utoro Minkan Kikin Zaidan
A conceptual image of the Utoro peace memorial hall, left, and the replica of the last lodging building. Utoro Minkan Kikin Zaidan is a private-sector foundation.

A replica of the last lodging building will be built on the hall’s premises, using some of the old pillars and floorboards.

“The district where people from the Korean Peninsula lived close together is turning into a beautiful new residential area. Utoro’s history is fading from view,” said Akiko Tagawa, representative of a citizens group that has supported the residents for 35 years and tried to improve the district’s environment.

“It is a fact that people had been living in terrible conditions and that the Japanese and Korean governments worked together to make it better. I would like to share that fact.”