Japan’s World Heritage bid and its heritage of forced labor

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

In the last half of the 19th Century, Japan underwent an incredible transformation from an insulated feudal society to a fully industrial one in the space of a few decades. To create this industrialization, Japan’s government built and managed a number of key industrial facilities during that time including steel works, coal mines, shipyards, iron works, and so on. They were the foundation upon which modern Japan was built and are artifacts of a unique and extraordinary transition in a nation-state’s history, economy, and society. This is why Japan has submitted the collective sites of the Japanese Meiji industrialization to UNESCO for World Heritage status.

However, the submission was missing information on an important aspect of this heritage. Many of these sites were staffed through forced labor, mostly from Korea and China. Japan has a history of conquering neighbors and they also have a history of ‘conscripting’ those conquered citizens into work in factories and as the euphemistically known comfort women. Korean and Chinese workers, up to 60,000 of them over many decades, were forced to work in these same industrial sites – a form of slave labor in the building of the Japanese Empire up until 1945.

In and of itself, this missing aspect of the heritage submission would not stop a World Heritage listing, but Korea and China have protested this World Heritage site bid. The major frustration for both countries is that the plan submitted to UNESCO to protect the sites does not include any mention of the history of forced labor – in other words, it ignores a critical part of the heritage. Korea has directly lobbied UNESCO to address this and discussed the issue with directly with Japan. But, as is noted here, there are still discrepancies between the parties.

The Meiji Industrial sites are obviously an amazing window into an unusual history representative of great changes in the world, yet ignoring a really important part of that heritage is inexcusable. Representations of our cultural heritage, especially those recognized by international organizations such as UNESCO, must be inclusive.  It would be like recognizing Robben Island without mentioning apartheid. Our past is not always palatable, but it is our past nonetheless.

More background:
A gentle summary of the issues, with images and a map, can be found from the Japan Times here.
Another summary from Deutsche Welle is here.
A Korean Herald editorial on the issue is here.

Posted in: Heritage News