A fierce battle is raging over UNESCO’s stewardship of history.
Last week, Japan — the biggest donor to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization — created an international stir by threatening to suspend or reduce its financial contributions after the body accepted what China claims are historical documents about the 1937 Nanking Massacre, also known as the Rape of Nanking, for inscription into its Memory of the World register.
What is the Memory of the World program? And why are China and Japan battling over the details of the wartime atrocity?
What is the purpose of the Memory of the World program?
UNESCO launched the program in 1992 to fully preserve, protect and make permanently accessible documentary heritage with due recognition, according to the UN body’s website.
UNESCO provides assistance to preserve historical materials, such as hand-written documents, photos, paintings, movies and other forms of records left across the world.
So far 348 items in various categories have been registered, including the world’s oldest existing copy of the Quran, the archives of the Dutch East India Company, the hand-written musical score of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9, and the original “Diary of Anne Frank.”
From Japan, five items have been registered, including documents on the Keicho Period Mission to Europe in the 17th century, materials related to the internment and repatriation of Japanese held in Siberia after the end of World War II, and historical documents archived at Toji Temple in Kyoto dated from 763 to 1711.
UNESCO helps make registered materials more accessible, for example, by creating digitized copies and catalogs that are accessible over the Internet.
How are the nominated documents screened?
The International Advisory Committee, which consists of 14 experts appointed by the director-general of UNESCO, screens the applications. Countries, municipalities, private groups or individuals are all allowed to file nomination applications.
The IAC then makes recommendations for registration that are usually endorsed by the director-general.
The 14 experts, who serve in a personal capacity, are “chosen for their authority in the field of the safeguarding of documentary heritage,” according to UNESCO’s website.
The director-general convenes IAC sessions every two years.
Japan criticized UNESCO’s screening process as opaque and biased. Why?
Japanese officials argued that the historical materials being presented are not verified as authentic by third-party historians or other countries involved in political rows over the materials.
Tokyo and Beijing have been at odds over historical evidence on the weekslong massacre, in particular the number of estimated victims slaughtered after the Japanese army occupied Nanking in December 1937.
The city’s name is now pronounced worldwide as Nanjing, after the northern Chinese Mandarin speech.
The Chinese government claims that about 300,000 Chinese were massacred and numerous women raped by Imperial Japanese soldiers.
The Japanese government does not deny that its troops murdered noncombatants and looted the city, but instead claims that the number cannot be determined by historical evidence.
Despite the rhetorical dueling, Japan was not even allowed to review the documents China submitted, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said last week.
“The (screening process) takes place amid concealment and secrecy,” Suga alleged at a morning news conference on Oct. 13.
Is the process unfair?
According to Koichiro Matsuura, former director-general of UNESCO, the Memory of the World program is not based on any international treaty.
Thus UNESCO does not disclose all of the materials submitted for nomination, or the minutes of the advisory committee’s deliberations. Nor does it listen to the opinions of countries potentially related to the materials nominated, the former diplomat said in a recent interview with Kyodo News.
By contrast, UNESCO’S World Heritage program, which documents such cultural and natural heritage as architectural and monumental works, is based on an international convention, and the registration process involves deliberation by member countries.
In addition, the preliminary reviews of the heritage program’s advisory panel are disclosed, too, Matsuura pointed out.
“The system (used by the Memory of the World program) is still immature,” he reportedly said.
Historians note that Tokyo admits the Rape of Nanking occurred. So why is it so upset with China and UNESCO?
Japanese politicians and bureaucrats believe that China, even 70 years after the end of the war, is still trying to use Japan’s wartime misdeeds for propaganda and diplomatic purposes.
Toward that end, China has often exaggerated or even fabricated the particulars of Japan’s wartime atrocities to weaken its diplomatic position, they say.
Some nationalist politicians and intellectuals meanwhile maintain the massacre never took place, making the contentious issue even more sensitive in Japanese political circles. This has apparently encouraged the Cabinet of nationalist Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to take a tougher stance against UNESCO.
Mainstream Japanese historians believe the Imperial Japanese Army slaughtered numerous captured Chinese soldiers and noncombatants, based on historical materials written by the soldiers. These include records of battles written during or shortly after Japan occupied the city.
Their estimates range from 40,000 to 200,000 victims.
They also agree that no existing evidence can provide a tally of the actual number of deaths with pinpoint accuracy.
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