This article analyzes wartime changes in the wage rules of Nihon Chisso’s fertilizer factory in Hungnam based on Nihon Chisso corporation records from the 1920s to 1945. As the largest factory in colonial Korea, the fertilizer factory in Hungnam has been a symbolic arena for investigating wartime industrialization and labor conditions. Yet, historical judgments about the factory diverge depending on the researcher’s perspective. Those who stress the positive changes that took place during the war system period have argued that it provided Korean laborers chances for promotion to skilled positions amidst the shortage of Japanese skilled laborers. However, those who stress the negative aspects of the war system have maintained that labor conditions deteriorated with the widespread influx of unskilled labor under forced mobilization policies. Both perspectives selectively highlighted a certain aspect of history, and academic discussions have been running in parallel lines. For a more comprehensive analysis, this article examines how the “ethnic issue” was discussed in the process of wartime revision of company wage rules. Wage is the most practical indicator of changes in the level of discrimination. The analysis produced the following findings: First, a comparison of the average wage of the fertilizer factory in Hungnam in 1942 and 1945 revealed that the wage gap between Japanese and Korean labors widened. This refutes the previous research that argued that the ethnic wage gap decreased throughout Korea during the war system period, based on the Annual Reports of the Governor-General of Korea. In the case of the fertilizer factory in Hungnam, it is reasonable to conclude that ethnic discrimination was not alleviated.
Second, certain clauses in the wage rules reflect an alleviation of ethnic discrimination for the purpose of securing the livelihoods of laborers and incentivizing labor output. These clauses include rules on the starting wage for laborers with no prior work experience, fixed allowance, and performance-based bonus. Company welfare, introduced in the context of the total war system to lure laborers into the wartime industry and exploit them, was applied to colonial labor sites at least to a limited extent.
Third, ethnic discrimination worsened despite partial efforts for alleviation.
Rules on career-based additional allowance, district allowance for Japanese in Korea, promotion, and bonus reflected the increase in discrimination.
Contrary to modern rules, rules on career-based additional allowance under Japanese colonial rule contained multiple clauses that gave preference to ex-soldiers, police officers, and prison wardens who were in charge of coercive labor management and military-style control of laborers. These clauses were discriminatory against Koreans laborers as they applied only to the Japanese who had a mandatory duty for military service and Korean collaborators who took part in the colonial rule. Also, an examination of the historical trajectory of the district allowance for Japanese in Korea reveals that its payment rate increased massively in the war system period.
The district allowance for Japanese in Korea was especially important for the widening gap between Japanese and Korean laborers as it was applied not just to the basic salary, but also to almost all other remuneration categories.
In sum, the wage rules of the fertilizer factory in Hungnam during the war system period were adjusted in the direction of strengthening ethnic discrimination. Even in wartime, large corporations in the colony were not ready to evaluate laborers based on their efficiency or ability. Ethnic discrimination in colonial Korea advanced rapidly, even in the face of the practical exigencies of the ‘total mobilization’ of the labor force.