Nagano Ignores Unsavory Landmark

Article excerpt

NAGANO, Japan - Olympics organizers are trying to steer visitors away from one local attraction during next week's Winter Games: an underground fortress with a dark past that some liken to a forgotten Auschwitz.

Apart from a group of several hundred activists, few people in the mountain city of 360,000 appear to know what went on in the network of tunnels during the closing days of World War II.

With the Allies closing in and an invasion of the mainland expected, Japan brought thousands of Korean slaves to Matsushiro, a valley on the southern edge of Nagano city. Working under death-camp conditions, they bored into surrounding mountains to build a final hideout for Japan's emperor and its military rulers.

"There are memorials all over the world in places like Auschwitz where crimes were committed. The difference is that we Japanese try to hide what we did," said Sonoko Kobayashi, director of a group that plans to build a museum at the site where an estimated 7,000 Korean laborers lived.

Many died from overwork, malnutrition, disease and accidents as they dynamited deep underground passages.

Beginning in the early 1980s, students from a private high school petitioned the local government to put the long-forgotten site on public display.

It took nearly a decade, but beginning in 1990, the 3 1/2-mile-long maze of tunnels under Mount Zozan opened.

Today thousands of visitors, mostly from other parts of Japan, stroll through the dusty 20-foot-wide underground corridors with jagged rock walls.

The site is relegated to obscurity on the city's tourist brochures, which emphasize cultural treasures such as the 1,400-year-old Zenkoji Temple. And with the world's eyes on Nagano this month, some critics say the city wants to keep it that way.

A pre-Olympic tour for international media in November included many of Nagano's historic sites but not the tunnels. …