TOKYO, Dec 18, 2008 (AFP) - Allied prisoners held by Japan during World War II dug coal for Prime Minister Taro Aso's family mining company, the government said Thursday for the first time.
The conservative leader, who has long avoided the sensitive topic, hails from a wealthy family that run Aso Mining Co. and cement interests in the southern prefecture of Fukuoka.
The welfare ministry released documents showing that 300 British, Dutch and Australian prisoners of war worked from May 10, 1945 until Japan's surrender on August 15 at the company's Yoshikuma coal mine.
The documents said two Australian POWs died during the three-month period but the ministry blacked out the causes of their deaths as well as other personal information, citing privacy.
The ministry released the documents on request from the opposition, which is hoping to oust the unpopular premier's long-dominant Liberal Democratic Party in elections next year.
Yukihisa Fujita, the opposition lawmaker spearheading the issue, said he would press for further answers including on how the mine treated prisoners and whether they worked against their will.
"Since this concerns the prime minister, he has the responsibility to verify the labour conditions of the prisoners of war as well as the cause of their deaths," Fujita told reporters.
Questioned by the opposition, Foreign Minister Hirofumi Nakasone said that the foreign ministry had deleted a passage on a website that declined comment on questions about the Aso mine's treatment of prisoners.
"We decided to erase the remarks from the website after the labour ministry brought to light new information," Nakasone said.
The remarks were posted in 2006 on the website of Japan's consulate general in New York when Aso was foreign minister.
Aso's company is also widely believed to have used Korean forced labourers who were brought during Japan's colonial rule of the Korean peninsula.
Aso has tried to steer clear of discussion on whether his company used wartime prisoners or Korean labourers.
"No facts have been confirmed," Aso said during a parliamentary hearing last month. "I was four, maybe five at the time. I was too young to recognise anything at that age."
The opposition said it found in the US National Archives a 16-page company report to Japan's POW Information Bureau detailing prisoner conditions at Aso's Yoshikuma mine.
According to the document, prisoners of war were better fed, clothed, and housed than Chinese and Korean labourers. The POWs engaged in coal-mining, farming, cooking and digging air trenches.
During World War II, Japan was not a signatory to the 1929 Geneva Convention on the humane treatment of prisoners of war. It ratified a later convention in 1953.
Aso has throughout his career come under fire for sympathetic comments about aspects of Japan's past colonialism.
But since taking office in September, Aso has tried to be conciliatory about wartime history, a topic that continues to test relations with other Asian nations.
Aso invited Chinese and Korean leaders earlier this month to Fukuoka for a first three-way summit.