National / History

Government downplays forced labor concession in winning UNESCO listing for industrial sites

by Reiji Yoshida

Staff Writer

Japan has won UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Status for 23 industrial sites after conceding to South Korea’s demand that the registration make clear that some of the locations used forced laborers from the Korean Peninsula.

But in their official remarks and statements, Japanese officials avoided using the phrase kyosei rodo (forced labor), and instead used hatarakasareta (were forced to work), which is a more colloquial Japanese expression.

By using this phrase for the domestic audience, Japanese officials were apparently trying to dilute the impression that Tokyo bowed to pressure from South Korea.

Many former forced labors in South Korea have called for compensation from Japan, while the Japanese government has maintained all compensation issues have been settled with the 1965 Japan-South Korea Basic Treaty and an attached accord.

Tokyo had argued that the historical value of the industrial sites, built between 1850 and 1910, has little to do with the wartime recruitment of Korean laborers in the 1940s.

But in an apparent political compromise, at Sunday’s UNESCO committee meeting in Bonn, Germany, Japanese representative Kuni Sato acknowledged that some Koreans “were brought against their will and were forced to work under severe conditions” at some of the industrial sites.

Sato said a large number of people from the Korean Peninsula were forced to work at some of the facilities against their will during the 1940s.

In Tokyo, Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida told reporters Monday that “this phrase (hatarakasareta ) does not mean kyosei rodo.”

Kan Kimura, a professor at Kobe University and a noted expert on Korean affairs, said in a phone interview with The Japan Times that the phrasing represents “a play on words.”

The use of a less official phrasing would likely be lost on diplomats at the UNESCO committee who would be reading it in English, Kimura said, adding that the Japanese officials probably chose the wording for the sake of their domestic audience.

According to Foreign Ministry officials, Japan has avoided using the phrase “forced labor” because it is the term employed in the 1930 Forced Labor Convention, which Japan ratified in 1932.

The convention bans “forced or compulsory labor.” However, work or services undertaken in an emergency, including during a war, is considered an exception.

A senior Foreign Ministry official claimed that Japan’s compulsory labor service fell within this category of exception and thus was not illegal under the convention. That was the reason Japanese officials preferred to use the phrase “forced to work,” the officials said.

During a news conference Monday, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said that Japan’s position on the compensation issues has not changed.

He also claimed that “high-level” South Korean officials had promised not to capitalize on the wording of Sato’s statement to push its claims for compensation issues involving Japan’s 1910-1945 colonial rule.

The UNESCO committee’s decision covered the “Sites of Japan’s Meiji Industrial Revolution,” facilities in eight prefectures that are supposed to symbolize Japan’s rapid industrialization in the late 19th and early 20th centuries by adopting Western technologies.

“I am extremely happy that the roots of Japanese manufacturing have been listed as World Heritage,” Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said, thanking companies and locals who have worked to preserve the sites.

Historical sites in South Korea, including the Gongsan-Seong Fortress of the Baekje Dynasty, will also be added to the list, the UNESCO committee decided.

South Korea had for years opposed Japan’s UNESCO bid, saying it overlooks the suffering of Koreans at seven of the sites, including a mine on Hashima Island, nicknamed “Battleship Island.”South Korea’s backing of Japan at the UNESCO meeting could boost momentum for a thaw in relations between the two neighbors. Their leaders last month exchanged visits to each other’s embassy on the 50th anniversary of the treaty that normalized diplomatic relations between the two nations.

In May, the International Council on Monuments and Sites, an expert advisory panel under UNESCO, recommended that the sites should be registered as World Cultural Heritage as witnesses to Japan’s rapid modernization.

At meeting June 21 of their foreign ministers, Japan and South Korea reached a basic agreement to cooperate on heritage listings of each other’s sites.

The UNESCO committee had been scheduled to decide on the new listings Saturday, but it postponed any decision to Sunday to give Japan and South Korea time to coordinate their positions.

The Japanese sites approved Sunday include some facilities that are still at least partly in operation, such as the Nagasaki shipyard.

Next year the committee will consider whether to add churches and other Christian locations in Nagasaki and Kumamoto prefectures. In the past two years, both Mount Fuji and the Tomioka Silk Mill in Gunma Prefecture were added to the list of World Heritage sites.

The council also asked Japan to report on measures to preserve Hashima and other deteriorating facilities by Dec. 1, 2017.

Historical tensions stemming from Japan’s colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula have undermined ties between the two U.S. allies in recent years, weighing on their trade and strategic cooperation. South Korean President Park Geun-hye has refused to hold a bilateral summit with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe until Japan does more for Korean females forced into sexual servitude for Japanese soldiers during the war. Some of the former “comfort women” are threatening to sue Abe in the U.S. if Japan and South Korea fail to reach a satisfactory deal for compensation.

Information from wire reports added