Tokyo’s insensitive applicationJapan was a regional front-runner when it came to industrialization and economic success. The government is seeking to register its early industrial sites as Unesco World Heritage sites to rekindle pride in its economic legacy. Doing so, however, the country has once again demonstrated insensitivity toward its neighbor. Eleven out of the 28 “Sites of Japan’s Meiji Industrial Revolution” it plans to seek for UN recognition in February 2015 served as labor camps for Korean prisoners and civilians during World War II.
At least 1,481 Koreans were forced to work as slaves in sites that include a shipyard in Nagasaki, a defunct coal mine and a steel mill in Fukuoka, according to a study by the Prime Minister’s Office.The Hashima coal mine was notoriously referred to as the “island of hell” because Koreans were forced to work for 12 hours a day in pits of 1 kilometer (0.62 miles) below the surface. Few Koreans came out alive or even healthy.
Any country is entitled to vie for international recognition and protection for its heritage and cultural properties under the World Heritage Treaty of 1972. The places Japan wants to list as World Heritage sites may be valuable assets to the Japanese, but they trigger bitter and painful memories for Koreans. It is spiteful to honor its past glory at the expense of others’ pain.
More than 1 million Koreans were coerced into slave labor by the Japanese during the colonial era. Tokyo claims it has paid its dues and settled all the issues of wartime reparations when it signed the 1965 treaty with South Korea. But in July this year, a Korean court ordered Nippon Steel and Sumitomo Metal to compensate for unpaid salaries and mental suffering to its former Korean employees. It is not only insensible but also insensitive for Tokyo to seek the World Heritage seal for sites that bear memories of aggression and exploitation without settling the damages.
A World Heritage site must not only be valuable to its host country, but it also needs to hold “outstanding universal value.” The UN agency included the Auschwitz concentration camp, a site of uncountable mass killings of Jewish people in Europe, as a World Heritage site to “remember the worst part of history” and offer important historical lessons about the dark side of humanity. In applying for the World Heritage sites, however, Tokyo did not mention wartime labor. At the very least, it must be true and fair about its history in seeking that recognition.