Opinion: Japan’s play of words

July 7, 2015

Tokyo must respect its statement on forced labor

This undated file photo shows Hashima Island off Nagasaki, southwestern Japan. It is one of the seven early industrial facilities out of its 23 for which Japan won world heritage status at a meeting of the UNESCO World Heritage Committee in the German city of Bonn. (Yonhap)

This undated file photo shows Hashima Island off Nagasaki, southwestern Japan. It is one of the seven early industrial facilities out of its 23 for which Japan won world heritage status at a meeting of the UNESCO World Heritage Committee in the German city of Bonn. (Yonhap)

Japan, in winning world heritage status for its old Meiji-era industrial sites, made a small but significant acknowledgement on Korean forced labor. “There were large numbers of Koreans and others who were brought against their will and forced to work under harsh conditions in the 1940s at some of the sites,” Japanese Ambassador to UNESCO Kuni Sato said at the agency’s World Heritage Committee meeting

The Japanese statement was included in the formal UNESCO document on its decision, and the committee said in a footnote that it “takes note of” that. It is a historic nod to the more than 57,000 Koreans forcibly conscripted to toil at seven of the 23 sites. The seven include the Hashima undersea coal mine off Nagasaki, known as “Battleship Island.”

But Japan immediately dashed cold water on Korea’s self-complacent mood, as shown by Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se’s comment that Korea and Japan avoided extreme confrontation and resolved the problem through dialogue.

In Tokyo, Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida came forth with a typical tweaking of words in the Japanese language to insist that “forced to work” is different from “forced labor.” Kishida said there was no change in Japan’s stance that the issue of reparations was “fully and finally resolved” in a 1965 bilateral pact with Seoul to normalize diplomatic ties.

Korea’s response was that the official English statement is the standard. Japan has only to refer to the statements issued at the Nuremberg international military tribunals after World War II to know that “forced to work” was used to mean the same as “forced labor.”

Tokyo must know it can deceive neither the international community nor its own citizens. It relented in its statement after the UNESCO advisory panel, the International Council on Monuments and Sites, commented in May that Japan should add relevant material to complement its bid, which “fail to describe the complex and broad social and political changes that industrial technology has brought about.”

The committee also warned that listing could be delayed if Seoul and Tokyo could not come to an agreement. Thus, we have to ask why Japan would so boldly deny international interpretation on forced labor, other than to mislead domestic opinion.

For its part, Seoul will have to do more diplomatic work, including reassessing its diplomatic negotiating powers when we take in Kishida’s comments. Chilly relations between Seoul and Tokyo only recently warmed up on the 50th anniversary of the normalization of ties between the two countries.

But things never quite seem resolved. Seoul will have to remain vigilant to make sure that Tokyo follows through on its international pledge including its promise to establish an “information” center to remember the victims and let visitors understand the history.

2 Comments

  1. Peter Chao

    April 28, 2016 at 8:53 PM

    The Japanese government has always demonstrated a shameless falsehood
    when it deals in its war crimes which are among the most notorious in
    human history.

    A murderer is a murderer in any circumstances. A murderer has no right
    to accuse any of his victims who have been generous enough not to take
    revenge after the war.

    Does any leading government officials have a sense of shame? If they
    have no sense of shame, how could they be respected?

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