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News earlier this month that a UNESCO advisory panel had recommended putting Japanese sites from the Meiji industrial revolution on the World Heritage list excited the public, especially residents near the sites who campaigned for the honor.

But the excitement was soon halted by South Korea, which opposed the application because Koreans were forced to work at some of the sites during the war, which followed Japan’s annexation of the Korean Peninsula in 1910. China later joined Seoul in opposing Japan’s bid.

Normally, candidate sites recommended by the International Council on Monuments and Sites, dubbed Icomos, are usually a lock for World Heritage status. But South Korea and China have thrown that into doubt.

Since the diplomatic tug-of-war may be clouding the true value of the sites, The Japan Times decided to delve deeper into their historical aspects.

Which sites have been recommended?

The properties grouped under the submission titled “Sites of Japan’s Meiji Industrial Revolution” exemplify the birth and rapid output of Japan’s heavy industries over a 50-year span — from the late 19th century, when the country was forced to open its doors to the rest of the world, to the early 20th century.

“Simply put, these sites represent the starting point of Japan’s growth into an industrial superpower,” said Yoko Honda, a researcher at the Tokyo-based World Heritage Academy, which promotes knowledge of UNESCO World Heritage records.

It would be the 15th grouping of cultural properties in Japan to be designated as World Heritage, on the heels of Mount Fuji and the Tomioka Silk Mill in Gunma Prefecture.

The sites are spread across eight prefectures, mainly in Kyushu but also stretching east to Iwate and Shizuoka. They were initially recommended by the prefectures in which they were built.

What are the sites’ notable features?

While the Tomioka Silk Mill, registered last year, symbolizes the development of Japan’s light industries, which were labor-intensive and made products targeting end users, the latest nominees represent the period’s capital-intensive side, which was characterized by large industrial products like ships and construction materials.

UNESCO requires that the recommended sites be of “outstanding universal value,” and Japan’s key assertion is that the sites prove “the fact that Japan achieved industrialization in an extremely short period through (the) fusion of a wave of Western technology arriving in Japan and traditional Japanese culture,” according to a promotional website set up by a consortium of prefectures and municipalities that initiated the drive.

“The important point is that Japan was the first to achieve modernization outside the West, and did so in a matter of just 50 years” in the early phase of its industrialization, which ran from the late Edo Period (1603-1867) to the early Meiji Era (1868-1912), Honda said.

How do the candidates differ from other World Heritage sites?

The latest nominees are unique in that they include assets that are geographically dispersed, rather than clustered together, in what is called a “serial” nomination.

For example, the 16 sites in Kyushu include the Shuseikan, established in 1851 as Japan’s first industrial complex, focusing on cannon casting and shipbuilding, and Nagasaki shipyard facilities that include a giant cantilever crane still in operation.

Also listed are the Hagi reverberatory furnace, which began producing iron cannons in 1856 in Hagi, Yamaguchi Prefecture, the Nirayama reverberatory furnace in Shizuoka Prefecture, and the Hashino iron mining and smelting site in Iwate.

The nominees also include industrial sites that are still in use.

Besides the giant cantilever crane in Nagasaki, now used by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd., the repair shop from the Yawata steel works is still used as a repair factory by Nippon Steel & Sumitomo Metal Corp.

“Assets still in operation are uncommon among the World Heritage sites,” said Kan Tanaka of the Kagoshima Prefectural Government. “That’s why the nominations are attracting international attention.”

The prefecture is a member of the consortium that recommended the sites to the central government.

Are there any other unique aspects to the nominated sites?

The nominees this time seem to stem from a “ruins fad” that started in the 1990s in which enthusiasts visit, and even trespass on, abandoned facilities. After their adventures, these people upload photos of abandoned schools, factories, hotels, hospitals, coal mines and military installations to the Internet.

Perhaps the most exciting site for such enthusiasts is Hashima, better known as Gunkanjima (Battleship Island), off Nagasaki Prefecture. Its eerie, large, decaying concrete structures attract many trespassers. The island was declared off limits due to safety hazards until 2009, when the ban was partially lifted.

The island is also said to be the inspiration for the villain’s lair in the 2012 James Bond film “Skyfall.”

The small island, which was developed by reclaiming land around a shoal for a coal mine that started operations in 1890, had some 5,300 inhabitants at its peak. The mine closed in 1972 and all the residents left.

Why is South Korea opposed to the listing?

Seoul opposes the listing because seven of the properties represent what it calls “negative legacy” stemming from the 57,900 conscripted Korean laborers who were put to work in violation of their human rights.

Among the sites is the Hashima undersea coal mine off Nagasaki on Battleship Island. The workers, mostly conscripted Koreans and Chinese, were forced to work more than 12 hours a day, isolated from the outside world and endangered by frequent tunnel collapses, gas explosions, falling rocks and other harsh working conditions, according to The Korean Herald.

Koreans were also mobilized to build warships, torpedoes and other military supplies in the Nagasaki shipyard run by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, the newspaper said. Many of them died, either in the U.S. atomic bombing of the city in 1945 or during the reconstruction work afterward.

What are the chances of the sites being listed?

South Korea, which sits this year on the 21-member World Heritage Committee, which makes the final decisions on listings, wants to block their registration because they also represent Japan’s wartime practice of conscripting Koreans for forced labor.

While the assets endorsed by Icomos are expected to be listed with “99 percent certainty,” the opposition from South Korea and China has cast a cloud over the bid, Honda said, adding she is not sure whether it will succeed.

“It’s now a political issue,” Honda said.

Registration decisions will be made during the committee’s meeting from June 28 to July 8 in Bonn, Germany.

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