Trouble Brewing Over UNESCO Listing of Japanese Sites

      May 07, 2015 12:17

      A recommendation by the International Council on Monuments and Sites, an advisory body to UNESCO, to list 23 industrial sites in southern Japan has caused some upset.

      The sites, which include coal mines, ports and ironworks, were used for forced labor during World War II, but ICOMOS merely recommend them for heritage listing.

      The sites are industrial facilities built in the 1850s through the 1910s. The Japanese see them as monuments of the Meiji industrial revolution. They include the old Shuseikan complex where the feudal lord of Satsuma Province ran steel-making, spinning and weaving, and ship-building businesses.

      But they also include seven factories where some 57,900 Koreans were forced to produce materials for the imperial war machine.

      In a National Assembly session on Tuesday, Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se pledged to express Korea's opposition to the UNESCO World Heritage Committee and try to dissuade it from going ahead.

      The Foreign Ministry also proposed talks this month to its Japanese counterpart. If the listing is inevitable, Seoul at least wants UNESCO to make a clear mention of forced labor at the seven factories.

      The Japanese government, however, maintains that the facilities were built long before the war, so forced labor is irrelevant to the listing.

      Protest from neighboring countries "has nothing to do with these sites' value as historical legacies," NHK quoted a Japanese Cabinet official as saying.

      Japan has been pushing to make them world heritage sites since well before the far-right government of Shinzo Abe came to power. Back in 2001, local residents launched a signature campaign to have the sites listed on the UNESCO World Heritage in an effort to resuscitate the moribund local economy. An expert group was formed in 2006, and the Japanese government succeeded in putting them on a tentative list of world heritage sites in 2009.

      Seoul only found out in 2012. A committee under the Office of the Prime Minister opposed Japan's move and disclosed historical records on the mobilization of Korean forced laborers there, but to no avail.

      In the meantime, Japan submitted a voluminous report with more than 3,000 pages to ICOMOS, saying the facilities bear testimony to the rapid modernization of Japan. After a field survey in October last year, ICOMOS judged the sites appropriate for listing.

      Abe is writing to UNESCO member states so that the sites can be put on the World Heritage list, TV Asahi reported Tuesday.

      UNESCO will make the final decision in late June, but ICOMOS recommendations are rarely rejected.

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