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WINTER OLYMPICS 1998

Digging Up the Past

Wartime Tunnels, Caves Are Popular Tourist Attractions, Even if Most Olympic Visitors Won't Hear of Them

February 09, 1998|SONNI EFRON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MATSUSHIRO, Japan — Buried under the mountains that encircle this bucolic farming village on the outskirts of Nagano lie vast and eerie relics of World War II, but many Olympic visitors may go home without ever knowing they are there.

As Allied bombs began to pummel Tokyo in the waning days of the war, roughly 7,000 Korean slave laborers were brought here for a top-secret project. In nine months, they dug about eight miles of tunnels and caves that were intended for the relocation of Emperor Hirohito and his entire wartime government.

Japan surrendered before the work was completed, and in recent years, the abandoned tunnels under Matsushiro have become the weirdest and perhaps most poignant tourist attraction in the area.

Peace activists in Matsushiro, an old castle town on the southern outskirts of Nagano, are trying to persuade Olympic visitors to take a 30-minute bus ride and come walk through the tunnels. Members of a local high school history club have been practicing their English and are standing by to give tours.

"Since the Olympics are a festival of sports and a festival of peace, we would like people to come see these caves," said Sonoko Kobayashi, 49, one of a group of citizens that hopes to break ground next year on a peace museum near the caves.

The group wrote to the Nagano Organizing Committee for the Games (NAOC), asking that the caves be included on their list of interesting places to visit in Nagano, but has not received a reply, Kobayashi said.

The Matsushiro caves appear in Japanese guidebooks and attract about 100,000 visitors a year, mostly Japanese but also some Koreans.

However, NAOC English- language publications--as well as most of the English-language pamphlets and maps being handed out to tourists--mention Matsushiro's castle ruins, a samurai's home and the town's famous pottery, but not the caves.

"This could lead to a discussion of the emperor's wartime responsibility, and the Nagano city authorities don't want to be dragged into that," said Kobayashi.

The peace activists suspect that the omission may be intended to avoid any embarrassment during the visit of Emperor Akihito, Hirohito's son. The emperor participated in the Olympic opening ceremony, which was held about three miles from Matsushiro.

But Keiichi Sasagawa, an official in the NAOC's public relations office, said there was no attempt to ignore or exclude local peace groups.

"The appeal for peace is a pillar of this year's Nagano Olympic Games," Sasagawa said, noting that the Olympics are being used as an opportunity to promote the international campaign to ban land mines. Christopher Moon, who lost a leg and an arm while trying to deactivate a mine in Mozambique, was one of the final runners in the torch relay.

NAOC focused on the anti-land mine campaign because it was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize and "it's a concrete thing that we can do for peace," Sasagawa said. "We are not trying to suppress the local peace movement or anything."

By the time the Imperial Army selected Nagano in 1944 as the site for relocating the Imperial headquarters, a number of munitions factories, military facilities and some 37,000 schoolchildren had already been evacuated here, according to an unvarnished history of the project written by the Assn. to Promote the Preservation of the Matsushiro Imperial General Headquarters.

Matsushiro was selected because the town is protected on three sides by mountains, and is located in the widest part of the main island of Honshu, making it a difficult target for Allied air raids. Also, the mountains were formed of bomb-resistant solid rock and the local people were considered simple and loyal.

Moreover, the name of the region, Shinshu, sounds like "God's land," and so was deemed suitable for a residence of the deified emperor. The town lacked sufficient labor, however, so some skilled Korean tunnel diggers were recruited. Most of the workers were unskilled Koreans dragooned for the purpose, some taken with nothing but the clothes they were wearing.

Three mountains were excavated. Mt. Zo, the largest facility ,was to have housed the Japanese government, the Central Telephone Agency and Nihon Broadcasting Corp. (NHK). It is the only one that is open to the public. Characters apparently scrawled by the Korean workers with kerosene soot remain in one of the cool, dry caves.

The tunnels under Mt. Minakami, where the military headquarters was to be relocated, have collapsed, but the Mt. Maizuru underground shelter, which was built for the emperor, now houses a seismological observatory.

Though about 10,000 workers labored here, the Koreans had the toughest and most dangerous jobs. According to one survivor who later married a Japanese and settled in Matsushiro, when Koreans were buried in dynamite explosions, their companions were told there was no time to dig out the bodies for burial.

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