Gunkanjima, or Battleship Island, is one of 23 old industrial facilities seeking UNESCO's recognition as world heritage "Sites of Japan's Meiji Industrial Revolution" meant to illustrate Japan's rapid transformation from a feudal farming society into an industrial power at the end of the 19th century.
UNESCO's World Heritage Committee is expected to approve the proposal during a meeting being held in Bonn, Germany, through July 9 after Japan and South Korea informally agreed on a promise to acknowledge, though it is unclear how, that Koreans were among the people who toiled at Gunkanjima and some other sites. The compromise also includes an agreement by Japan to support South Korean proposals for some world heritage site listings.
Japan's bid for UNESCO recognition is confined to the 1968-1912 era of the Meiji Emperor, who presided over the country's rush to industrialize and catch up with Western colonial powers. It excludes the years that followed, when Japan annexed Korea and eventually invaded China and other parts of Asia before and during World War II.
The proposal makes no mention of the grim interlude when, toward the war's end, tens of thousands of Koreans, and also Chinese and foreign prisoners of war were forced to toil under dire conditions in Japanese factories and mines.
But both the government and most Japanese companies have insisted that post-war reparations have left them with no further responsibility to apologize or compensate for those abuses.
Plans to acknowledge the wartime forced labour in what originally was meant to be just a "feel good" approach to history could help alleviate friction with Japan's neighbours, said Andrew Gordon, a historian at Harvard University.
But, he added, "It's not just forced labour.
"There's terrible working conditions, and there's strikes and there's a whole social history that's part of it, and if it's just going to be glossed over, left as a footnote or even left out, then that's an equally big problem," he said.
The UNESCO stamp of approval would boost tourism in Nagasaki, a rust-belt city that has yet to benefit much from Japan's stuttering economic recovery. The sites proposed to UNESCO for recognition include shipyards and steel works, ports, mines, industrial furnaces, docks and a huge crane still used at Mitsubishi's main shipyard in Nagasaki. Such "Industrial Tourism," also is seen as a way to revive pride in Japan's manufacturing prowess after two decades of economic stagnation.
Gunkanjima, officially known as Hashima, lacks fresh water, is just 6.3 hecares (16 acres) in total area and was uninhabited until coal was discovered there about 200 years ago. The Mitsubishi industrial group acquired the island 15 kilometres (9 miles) from Nagasaki in the late 1800s, digging ever deeper under the sea while reclaiming land above.
Residents lived in a citadel of high-rise apartment buildings, the first in Japan built with steel-reinforced concrete, which stood behind sea walls that sometimes were no match for typhoons pounding in from the East China Sea.
Eventually, undersea pipes funneled water and electricity to the about 5,000 residents living in what once was the most densely crowded place on the planet — a community with a cinema, hospital, school, swimming pool and many other amenities typical of life elsewhere in Japan.
For Doutoku Sakamoto and others who once called Gunkanjima home, the designation could lend deeper meaning for their own displacement in 1974, when Mitsubishi closed and sealed the mine and vacated the island as Japan's national energy policy shifted toward greater reliance on oil imports.
"It was the thing more precious than human lives, the coal," Sakamoto told a group of tourists recently visiting the island, where he lived as a teenager and now leads tours through its deserted ruins. Before it opened to public tours in 2009, visitors mainly were former residents or "haikyo," or ruins explorers who documented the island's hauntingly emptied apartments and crumbling walls.
Sakamoto helped launch the drive to win world heritage status for Gunkanjima. He sees the island as a stark reminder of the costs of modernization, and as a warning example of the potential consequences of unsustainable development.
"This is a lesson from history, something to learn about the future. Is this the kind of future we want?" Sakamoto said.
The island's heyday in the 1950s and '60s came after its coal output already peaked. It was ramped up to power steel mills and shipyards during World War II, when, with so many Japanese men fighting in the military, the wartime government forcibly brought Koreans to work there.
Under the rigid military regime of the time, escape was nearly impossible, from the island and from the other sites.
Joo Seok-Bong, 90, was put to work in 1943 at the Yawata steel mill in northern Kyushu, shovelling coal and doing other menial labour.
"I was always starving since I received very little food. During that time, we were most terrified of dying from bombardment, but I suffered from hunger the most," said Joo, who nonetheless said he believed he and other Koreans got better treatment than the POWs.
Joo is among former Korean labourers who are suing Nippon Steel & Sumitomo Metal Corp., the company that now owns the steel works, seeking his unpaid wages and an apology.
"The world has changed, but this company refuses to reflect on its past deeds," he said.
Former Chinese labourers also have renewed efforts to get apologies from Japan for the forced labour, as have some prisoners of war.
Lester Tenney, of Carlsbad, California, has sought for years to get an apology from the companies that ran the mine where he says he was forced to toil 12 hours a day while a prisoner of war.
"I believe that the newly created Nippon Coke & Engineering Co. has a responsibility to offer an apology to former POWs for the inhumane treatment by its predecessor, Mitsui Mining Co." he said in a letter to Nippon Coke and Engineering.
Both the mine and the mill are among the places seeking the UNESCO designation.
Photos and other documents from that era show men starved to a skeletal state. Many died of beatings, overwork and untreated illnesses.
Sakamoto and others who grew up in the industrious but peaceful years after the war say they know little of that history. But acknowledging that times were hard for everyone does not preclude conveying the history of the wartime years and those abuses, he says.
"It's good that we are not avoiding this history. It's important that it be included. This was the first area where Asia began to copy the West and modernize. And then we brought people from China, Russia, Korea, I'm not too clear about that, but that history has to be clearly conveyed," he said.
"It's not so much a matter of victims as of facing up to history," he said.
Associated Press writers Miki Toda and Hyun-ah Kim contributed.Suggest a correction