The Japanese government announced that it is withholding its payments owed to UNESCO. This is a $37 million expression of displeasure over the organization’s decision last year to include a Chinese submission on “Documents of Nanjing Massacre” in the Memory of the World Register. It is also a warning shot aimed at the expected submission next month of a new “comfort women” dossier to UNESCO nominated by 15 organizations and institutions from 11 nations: South Korea, China, Taiwan, Japan, the Philippines, Indonesia, East Timor, the U.S., the U.K., the Netherlands and Australia.
Japan is playing diplomatic hardball over such history controversies — a counterproductive diplomatic pout. The U.S. has withheld its UNESCO dues since 2011 in part because it is unhappy that Palestine joined, but this sulk should not inspire emulation.
Japan has more at stake and more to risk than the U.S. if it fails to pay dues for two years and thereby loses its UNESCO voting rights. Japan is not a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council so can’t afford to ignore what everyone else thinks. And, if it really is so concerned about what UNESCO is doing, it must believe that the organization is an important forum to express its views and lobby for desired reforms.
In this game of chicken, Tokyo is trying to pressure UNESCO to turn down the new comfort women dossier because it is worried about the Earth-shattering consequences if the document is accepted into the Memory of the World Register — just imagine. But in the real world, the sordid saga of the comfort women is already well known.
Japan’s revisionists are a bit like Donald Trump: living in an alternate reality where they can make up their own facts, fulminate and dismiss inconvenient evidence. Just like Trump, they deny the allegations of their accusers and try to discredit them. Moreover, supporters of the revisionist creed of denial, minimization and shifting responsibility for Japan’s wartime misdeeds share Trump’s “no apologies” approach and, like his supporters, are angry blowhards who think “fessing up” is for masochists and wimps.
Such revisionists dominate the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and rue Japan’s reconciliation initiatives while advocating the rehabilitation of Japan’s sordid history, which they mistakenly believe will restore the nation’s dignity. They want to roll back the apology diplomacy of Emperor Akihito, and 1990s prime ministers such as Kiichi Miyazawa, Morihiro Hosokawa, Tomiichi Murayama and Keizo Obuchi, who all demonstrated the benefits of grasping the nettle of history. They seek to undermine the 1993 Kono statement admitting state involvement in the coercive recruitment of women into the “comfort women” system of forced prostitution. They also believe that the now-dissolved Asia Women’s Fund — run by the Japanese government between 1995 and 2007 to address the financial and health needs of former “comfort women” — was a tragic mistake.
They insist that the media’s reporting about the issue, rather than their own denials and evasions, has tarnished Japan’s reputation. In short, the national dignity they seek to restore requires trampling on the dignity of the nations and peoples victimized by Japanese aggression and pretending nothing happened. Or, if that doesn’t work, asserting that everyone else did the same thing.
Trumping-up Japan’s history makes the nation look like it’s shirking the burdens of the past and trying to glorify an ignoble quest to dominate Asia in the name of liberating the oppressed. But who do Japan’s self-deluded revisionists think they will dupe into collective amnesia?
At a recent conference, a Chinese scholar gave the backstory about last year’s rejected “comfort women” submission to UNESCO from China. She pointed out that the dossier was deeply flawed — obviously so — and did not meet several of the U.N.’s stipulated criteria. In contrast to the Nanjing submission, it was an intentionally slapdash effort that appears to have been designed to fail. The motivation for doing so is unclear and the scholar did not have an answer. Was it a warning to Japan that China’s curious reticence over the issue is coming to an end if Japan refuses to play ball on other issues? Was it a way of gaming the system to increase the prospects for the Nanjing dossier? It’s hard to say, but the forthcoming “comfort women” dossier will be very tough for UNESCO to reject.
This has Japan worried because in the global war of words (and memories) it fears losing ground. The new dossier affirms the scholarly consensus on the “comfort women” issue — and only Japan’s reactionary tabloid pundits and other benighted revisionists are disparaging it.
But if Abe’s revisionist government is intent on rewriting this history, shouldn’t it pay the UNESCO dues, submit its own “comfort women” denial dossier and see if that passes muster? Japan claims that UNESCO’s process is flawed because the nation wasn’t given an opportunity to make its case to the committee during the evaluation process. That may be a good reform to institute, but meanwhile nobody is stopping Tokyo from making its own submissions on Nanjing, “comfort women” or any other historical controversies.
Last year, UNESCO accepted a Japanese submission to the Memory of the World Register on Soviet mistreatment of Japanese POWs, and in July 2015 conferred World Heritage status on a number of Meiji Era (1868-1912) industrial sites, suggesting it is not inherently biased against Japan. Seoul withdrew its objections after Japan’s ambassador to UNESCO agreed to the inclusion of information about Koreans “forced to work” at these sites, but Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida quickly dispelled any goodwill by insisting fatuously that “forced to work” does not mean “forced labor.” Good luck with that. His mistaken interpretation of the English-language accord was a self-inflicted pie-in-the-face moment unbecoming of Japan’s highest-ranking diplomat.
Similarly, the withholding of dues — the diplomatic equivalent of stomping its feet — does not reflect well on Japan or advance national interests. Alas, the new “comfort women” dossier will probably strengthen Tokyo’s paranoia about global memory wars. It is holding UNESCO — and its own dignity — hostage to revisionist amnesia.
Jeff Kingston is the director of Asian Studies, Temple University Japan.
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