Dhaka, Bangladesh
Japan's cover-up of shameful history

Japan's cover-up of shameful history

Kim Jeong-yoon

In 2015, the UNESCO World Heritage Committee decided to inscribe the Sites of Japan's Meiji Industrial Revolution: Iron and Steel, Shipbuilding and Coal Mining on the World Heritage List. The sites encompass 23 industrial locations that Japan argues contributed to its rapid transformation from feudalism into a successful modern economy. South Korea opposed the registration of the sites because the Japanese government romanticized the industrialization of the Meiji period and highlighted only the successful and glorious achievements, while ignoring the horrendous human rights abuses and war crimes committed at these sites. Upon the heritage designation, the World Heritage Committee called on Japan to prepare an interpretative strategy that conveyed a full understanding of full history of each site. The Japanese government agreed to the demand, responding that it would take appropriate actions to remember the victims of forced labor such as engaging in dialogue between concerned parties and establishing an information center. Japan has been asked by UNESCO to submit a progress report on follow-up measures to the designation of the heritage sites, but it has constantly failed to acknowledge the forced nature of the mobilization of Korean labor and removed any mention of Korean victims of forced labor in both the first and second reports, submitted in December 2017 and in December 2019. Tokyo also refused to accept South Korea's repeated requests for dialogue and unilaterally submitted the implementation reports to UNESCO without any consultation with the major concerned party. The Japanese government dismissed the World Heritage Committee's recommendations and its own promises to carry out talks between the concerned parties and to acknowledge and commemorate forced labor victims. UNESCO was founded to establish the intellectual and moral solidarity of mankind as an intergovernmental instrument to build lasting peace, and its vision was born in response to the world wars and the accompanying human tragedies that occurred. The World Heritage Convention adopted by UNESCO in 1972 identifies and protects places that are considered to be of "outstanding universal value." Thus, the designation as a World Heritage Site means that it is recognized as a heritage of mankind to be valued and protected by humanity and to be transmitted to present and future generations. While the World Heritage sites are usually renowned for their positive values and beautiful images, there are heritages symbolizing mankind's cruelty, suffering and tragedies. These "negative heritages," exemplified by Auschwitz Birkenau in Poland and Goree Island in Senegal, have been nominated as World Heritage sites to serve as reminders of the dark chapters in human history and warnings for the present and future generations not to repeat the same mistakes. In the case of the "Sites of Japan's Meiji Industrial Revolution," however, the Japanese government set the period of the heritage from 1850 to 1910, in spite of the historical fact that the Meiji era extended from 1868 to 1912. This selective periodization of the sites, although resulting in some of the significant industrial facilities to be excluded from the World Heritage, conveniently conceals Japan's uncomfortable history of forced labor and horrific human rights violations as well as Japan's successive wars of aggression, illegal occupation and its colonization of Korea. The Sites of Japan's Meiji Industrial Revolution, with mere praises on its industrial development but a complete cover-up of its negative history, neither embodies the "universal" value to be worthy of World Heritage status, nor concurs with the principles and spirit of the UNESCO World Heritage Convention. Taking advantage of the status, the Japanese government attempts to rewrite history in its favor and to transform the ruined remains into tourist attractions. The outstanding "universal" value can only be realized when the heritage reveals its full history and acknowledges the dark aspects that need to be remembered and reflected on. The Japanese government once again failed to deliver on its promised measures and refused to implement the recommendations of the World Heritage Committee; Tokyo has refused to unveil the full history of the sites in a holistic fashion, failed to acknowledge the negative history of issues that include forced labor, has neither commemorated nor apologized to the victims, and appears to not have learned any lessons from its shameful past. UNESCO should remove the Sites of Japan's Meiji Industrial Revolution from the World Heritage List in accordance with Article 192 (b) of the Operational Guidelines for the Implementation of the World Heritage Convention. The inscription of the sites not only insults the values of the World Heritage listing but undermines the principle of "the intellectual and moral solidarity of humanity" enshrined in the UNESCO Constitution. There has been growing concern that politicization of the World Heritage Committee discolors the neutrality in decision-making. UNESCO must take appropriate yet strict measures against Japan's actions which seriously compromise the credibility and procedure of World Heritage inscription, and thus, must restore the organization's integrity and promote a genuine culture of peace. Kim Jeong-yoon is a researcher at the Cultural Heritage Restoration Foundation.

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