March 2022

UNESCO heritage application reignites row over Japan and South Korea’s bitter wartime legacy

Video screenshot composite

At the end of last year, Japan's Council for Cultural Affairs announced it would ask UNESCO to place a closed mine on its World Heritage List due to the mine's significance in the development of Japanese industry during the Edo period (1603-1867), when it was one of the world's largest producers of gold and silver. Shortly thereafter, the application for the mine, located on Sado Island off the coast of Niigata Prefecture, was criticized by South Korea, which pointed out that during Japan's colonization of the Korean peninsula, more than 2,000 Korean laborers were forced to work there, and that if Japan didn't mention these workers then its campaign for international recognition would be a whitewash of history. Later, the Japanese government said it would "delay" the nomination plan.

However, on January 28, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said he had changed his mind, and in mid-February the cabinet formally recommended the Sado mine listing to UNESCO. Some media outlets said the reversal was instigated by former prime minister Shinzo Abe, who put pressure on Kishida to make the listing a reality. According to the media watchdog website Litera, Abe entered the controversy by saying that Japan had to confront South Korea with the "facts" about the mine, and that it was wrong not to submit an application if the only reason was to avoid a "history war". Abe and his supporters took Kishida to task for what they characterized as his weak handling of the matter. The mainstream media seemed to agree that it was only natural for Japan to seek the UNESCO listing, which led to a generalized opinion in Japan that South Korea was the problem. Litera says that Kishida and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which was also squeamish about pushing the listing, buckled under Korean criticism because they were afraid Japan might be accused of applying double standards to its UNESCO bids.

That is because in 2015, China applied to UNESCO's Memory of the World program for recognition of documents related to the Nanking Massacre of 1937, in which thousands of Chinese civilians were raped and killed by advancing Japanese soldiers. The following year, citizens groups from Japan, China, and South Korea also applied for recognition of materials related to Japan's "comfort women" system of frontline brothels operated by the Japanese military. The Japanese government strongly protested the bids, saying they were put forth for political reasons. As a result, the registration of documents related to the comfort women system was eventually suspended and UNESCO revised its system so as to accept objections to nominations for the world memory list and postpone any decision until all interested parties had come to an agreement. It's assumed that this new system was implemented because of Japan's resistance to the Nanking and comfort women listings, so MOFA worried that Japan might look like a hypocrite for categorically rejecting South Korea's objection to the Sado mine listing.

Now UNESCO is saying that Japan broke the promise it made when the World Heritage listing for the Hashima coal mine in Nagasaki Prefecture was approved as part of Japan's Meiji Industrial Legacy project in 2015. At the time, South Korea objected to the listing for the same reason it is objecting to Sado, saying Hashima used forced Korean labor during World War II. Japan agreed to include this information in any subsequent exhibits for Hashima, but the eventual exhibits, according to Litera, contend that "workers from the Korean peninsula supported Japanese industry from before the war until after the war," and neglect to mention the brutal working conditions they endured. Moreover, the Industrial Heritage Information Center (IHIC) in Tokyo produced a series of videos with testimony, mostly from Japanese people whose relatives worked at Hashima, in which they claimed there was no anti-Korean discrimination at the mine and Koreans were paid well. Litera and The Asahi Shimbun say there is plenty of documentary evidence of forced labor at Hashima, while the IHIC has said there is not. Last July, UNESCO, which inspected the IHIC, accused Japan of providing an "inadequate" explanation of Hashima. The government maintains it fulfilled its promise.

At the heart of the issue is Japan's strained relationship with South Korea, exacerbated by media on both sides. When Abe implied that Japan must not lose the "history wars" with South Korea, he was exploiting a common term popularized by The Sankei Shimbun, whose use of the word "war" was meant to suggest that these matters could not be resolved through reasonable dialog. It is also used to imply that these disagreements are between countries, mainly Japan and South Korea, while, in fact, they transcend borders. The dispute over whether the comfort women system qualifies as sexual slavery, for example, involves groups that represent many different countries, not just South Korea. Editorially, the Sankei is a mouthpiece for a movement in Japan to recontextualize the country's actions during World War II as a means of denying or justifying what most of the world has since deemed atrocities and war crimes, and Abe uses its rhetoric aggressively. According to Litera, the IHIC was expressly set up as a base of operations for spreading these revisionist ideas, which simplify matters by almost exclusively targeting South Korea and China. 

On January 29, the Asahi said that the Sado issue had allowed Abe to reassert his political power after watching Kishida, considered a relative liberal in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, secure the party presidency, and his promotion of the Sado listing is as much about his resentment of Kishida, who has implicitly rejected much of Abe's agenda, as it is about Abe's feelings toward South Korea.

The Asahi believes the Sado campaign may eventually lead to other countries "losing confidence" in Japan since it suggests that the revisionists control the narrative within the country. Other outlets have advanced the "war" metaphor, including public broadcaster NHK. These media convey the government position that the Sado nomination has nothing to do with Korean workers since it only covers the mine's operations during the Edo period. (The IHIC goes further in saying that there was no such thing as "Korean workers" at Japanese mines during World War II since at the time anyone from the Korean peninsula was Japanese due to its status as a colony.) The Yomiuri Shimbun claimed in an editorial that any accusation of Japanese double standards doesn't wash since listings for Memory of the World materials are different from listings for World Heritage sites.

What's missing from most of this coverage is any investigation into the circumstances at the Sado mine. A February 7 article in the Asahi-affiliated supplement Ronza, written by journalist Seiji Uematsu, attempted to explore the available resources. Though the government says it has documentary evidence showing that Korean workers were well treated at mines in Japan, Uematsu concludes that Abe's "facts" were selective. Even the official history of the town of Aikawa (now Sado City), where the mine was located, describes conditions for Korean workers that are different from those claimed by the revisionists. Contemporary officials of the mining company said that Koreans were "mobilized" because too many Japanese miners had to stop working due to debilitating lung diseases. The Koreans were put to work in the mine while Japanese were transferred to outdoor work. In addition, while the revisionist position is that the Koreans were paid the same as the Japanese, Uematsu found that the Koreans were charged for almost all their amenities, including bedding and work apparel, as well as meals. Moreover, the company withheld much of the Koreans' pay for "savings," which meant, in many cases, they had almost no cash on hand. On April 11, 1940, 97 Korean workers went on strike saying they had been promised wages higher than those they were receiving. These workers claimed they were told that all amenities would be free. So while an argument can be made that the Koreans were not, strictly speaking, being "forced" to work - Japan prefers the word "conscripted" since all Japanese citizens were compelled in one way or another to aid the war effort - they were brought to Sado under false pretenses and made to work under conditions deemed too dangerous for native Japanese workers.

Also missing from the coverage is any close reading of South Korea's position on the matter. While South Korean media have framed the conflict as one in which all Korean workers were victims, Yonhap news agency has also emphasized that the administration of President Moon Jae-in recognizes that its relationship with Japan must be advanced through dialog, including that centered on the two countries' shared history, an aspect Japanese media mostly ignore since their main thrust is that South Korea's position is irrational and intractable. But Japanese media also ignore Japanese voices that insist they pay closer attention to how labor was treated during World War II. For instance, there was no mainstream media coverage of the 80th anniversary of the Chosei coal mine collapse that occured on February 3, 1942, 30 meters under the seabed off the coast of Yamaguchi Prefecture – Abe's home constituency – in which 183 miners, 136 of whom were Korean, died. This year's commemoration was observed by citizens groups from both Japan and South Korea. In an article about the disaster that appeared on the same day, Yonhap chronicled the memorial activities and explained how families of Japanese victims and their South Korean counterparts have lobbied their respective governments to recover the remains of the miners, which remain at the bottom of the sea to this day. South Korea's government has responded to the entreaties, while Japan's has ignored them.歴史戦

Philip Brasor is a Tokyo-based writer who covers entertainment, the Japanese media, and money issues. He writes the Japan Media Watch column for The Number One Shimbun.