TOKYO: Japan on Monday celebrated the inscription of Meiji-era industrial sites on World Heritage list of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (Unesco), despite initial opposition from Seoul over the use of forced Korean laborers in the early 20th century.
Unesco’s World Heritage committee on Sunday added 23 sites considered representative of Japan’s industrial revolution around the reign of Emperor Meiji (1868-1912) to its vaunted list.
They included a steelworks, a shipbuilding yard and a coal mine.
In southwestern Fukuoka, home to the Miike mine, Gov. Hiroshi Ogawa pledged: “I will make a good use of this precious heritage to stimulate the economy and hand it down to future generations.”
Inclusion on Unesco’s World Heritage list can bring economic benefits, because as well as being a powerful tourist draw, world heritage sites are eligible for financial assistance toward preservation.
But Tokyo’s bid to have the sites listed touched off a diplomatic spat because South Korea and China say that seven of the locations became centers for deportation and forced labor during their respective Japanese occupations.
Japan annexed the Korean peninsula in 1910, ruling until its World War II defeat in 1945. The increasingly militaristic regime invaded Manchuria in 1931, where it established a puppet government and a base from which to agitate against China.
The Unesco bid further inflamed already-strained relations between Japan and its Asian neighbors, with disputed wartime history—particularly Tokyo’s system of sex slavery—an irritant.
‘Urge Japan to face history’
But in an apparent bid to ease the tension, the Japanese delegation said it was prepared to acknowledge some of the concerns.
Japan will “incorporate measures . . . to remember the victims such as the establishment of [an]information center,” it said, an assurance that led Seoul to lift its opposition to the listing.
The South Korean foreign ministry welcomed what it saw as a concession.
“For the first time Japan mentioned the historical fact that Koreans were drafted against their will and forced into labor under harsh conditions in the 1940s,” it said in a statement.
“Given that this matter was resolved smoothly through dialogue, the government hopes it will help the further development of South Korea and Japan relations,” Seoul said.
However, Japan insisted its stance remained fundamentally unchanged.
“The government’s position over those recruited from Korea has not changed,” top government spokesman Yoshihide Suga said on Monday.
Tokyo insists issues involving reparations for individuals and their right to demand state compensation were fully settled when the two countries normalized ties in 1965.
The 1965 treaty included a reparations package of about $800 million in grants and cheap loans.
The Japanese government has also issued numerous apologies for its wartime wrongs, but these are regularly undermined in Korean eyes by apparent backtracking by a minority of right wing politicians, including Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
Chinese ambassador to Unesco, Zhang Xiuqin, said Japan needed to address those who denied there had been forced labor.
“There still lacks an adequate account from Japan of the whole facts surrounding the use of forced labour,” she said, according to the Xinhua news agency.