In Japan's bid for 'world heritage' sites, Korea sees denial of history

Japan wants 23 locales to be designated as UNESCO sites for their role in the founding of modern Japan. But Korea says seven of them used forced labor during World War II, and should be dropped from the bid. 

Courtesy: kntrty/Wikimedia Commons
Hashima Island, otherwise known as Battleship Island, is an abandoned island off the coast of Nagasaki, Japan, famous for its undersea coal mines.

South Korea and Japan are sparring over yet another contentious issue dating to World War II – historical preservation of Japanese industrial sites where Koreans had to work for the Japanese.

Japan has applied to put 23 sites on the UNESCO World Heritage list of places that meet a standard of “outstanding value” to humanity. Japan argues that the sites – including mines, shipyards, and factories – speak powerfully to the foundations of the modern Japanese state. South Korea counters that seven of sites used the forced labor of as many as 60,000 Koreans during the war in the Pacific and represent a historical wound, not a milestone.

Both acknowledged this week that they have failed to reach a compromise – with no agreement likely. 

In Seoul, Japan's position is widely seen as a reflection of the conservative policies of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and a willingness to ignore widely accepted versions of Japan's wartime abuses. 

Controversy over the designation of historical sites comes amid a new phase of denial by Japan that Korean “comfort women” were coerced as sex slaves by Japanese soldiers during the war. Japan has also stuck to differing and more complimentary interpretations of history in school textbook accounts of Japanese imperial rule in the half century before the outbreak of World War II, and of Japan's conduct in the war itself. These stances have taken on particular resonance as Asia marks the 70th anniversary this year of the end of World War II in the Pacific, and have put two important US allies at loggerheads.

"Seven sites are associated with the forced labor issue," says Kim Min-chul, a professor at Kyung Hee University in Seoul who has been doing extensive research on the topic. "They are key to the entire nomination. They [the Japanese] believe these are glorious sites."

Korean and Japanese diplomats just ended a long session in Tokyo debating the circumstances of the Korean workers. Koreans say they suffered under the harsh Japanese occupation of Korea and much of northern China. At the most notorious site, Hashima Island near Nagasaki, 600 Koreans worked deep in coal mines, and many are thought to have died from exposure or overwork.

But Japan sees it differently. "We don't say it is 'forced labor,' " says Shinji Takami, deputy director of the Japanese secretariat responsible for applying to UNESCO. "There is some distance in our understanding."

Much of the give-and-take from the Japanese side focuses on how the sites qualify owing to their role in the rise of Japan in the late 19th century during the long reign of Emperor Meiji. Japan says that era has nothing to do with the period in which Koreans labored under Japanese masters. Japan ruled Korea from 1910 to the Japanese surrender on Aug. 15, 1945.

The Korean view is that all related history should be addressed in the designation of the sites, not just Japan’s period of industrial revolution. Korea has suggested a compromise: It advocates a mention of forced labor in UNESCO inscriptions at the seven sites. Kim Dong-gi at Korea’s foreign ministry says such inscriptions at German coal mines acknowledge forced labor as do museums, exhibitions, and tours of sensitive Nazi-era sites.

The Japanese have made clear, however, that they are not going to acknowledge claims of forced labor. 

We ask them to understand

Tokyo says the 23 sites fill the UNESCO qualifications as targets of  "universal value" dating to well before colonization of the Korean peninsula in the final years of Chosun dynasty rule in Korea.

"Our target is different in terms of historical background," says Koji Hagihara, a Japanese official on the team responsible for pressing the application. "We are continuing to make an effort for understanding. We have explained our positions." 

Mr. Takami agrees. "The Korean side has suffered in the war," and "that is a sad thing," he says. "That is why they are not happy about our nomination."

As politely as possible, however, he leaves no doubt that Japan is not going to budge as the UNESCO committee – which includes both Korea and Japan – makes its determination.  "We ask them to understand," he says.

A decision by a UNESCO committee that includes Japan and Korea as members may come as early as the end of June. But the debate may go on if they do not reach a compromise. China now has begun to weigh in via statements urging the committee not to "glorify" Japan's colonial era. 

In Korea, Japan's revisions of history about "comfort women" make headlines nearly every day. Other points of contention include Japan's claim to two enormous rocky outcrop "islands" that Korea calls Dokdo and the Japanese call Takeshima.  Japan claims them while a Korean police garrison occupies them in what the Koreans call the East Sea and the Japanese use by its international name, the Sea of Japan.

Koreans often cite forced labor as a historical wrong. But the issue had appeared to recede until Japan last year applied for the coveted UNESCO status. The Japanese case advanced when the International Council for Monuments, a panel of international experts, recommended the sites for their "outstanding universal value."

Prime Minister Abe's  office "is directly involved in this matter," says Kim Dong-gi, director-general of cultural affairs at Korea's foreign ministry. "Our position is there is a negative side for the history. 'World heritage' means the full history should be reflected."

Dragooned into the Army

For Japan to separate the early history of the sites from their use in World War II "is another distortion," he says. "We hope the Japanese side will be honest and truthful to the historical facts."

In point of fact, Prof. Kim Min-chul says the nearly 60,000 Koreans in question were forced to work on the seven sites at issue in the dispute. They were, he says, just a tiny percentage of the 1.2 million Koreans who served the Japanese – half dragooned into the Japanese Army, most of the rest in factories.

"Officially there was a monthly salary," says Mr. Kim, but "there was forced saving and forced donations."  Japan at the same time often "proclaimed massive mobilization for war production. They [the workers] were never paid."

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