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Asia

Will Japan's refusal to pay UNESCO its dues backfire?

Tokyo may have its reasons for withholding its annual dues to the UN body, but critics say it has failed to get across its fears that history is being used to politicize current geopolitical issues. Julian Ryall reports.

Japan has refused to pay its share of the annual budget for the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in an escalating dispute over the filing of documents by the Chinese government about the 1937 Nanjing Massacre in the organization's Memory of the World program. 

Fumio Kishida, the Japanese foreign minister, recently told reporters in Tokyo that the government had decided not to provide dues totaling some 4.4 billion yen (38.74 million euros, $42.2 million) to the organization after "comprehensive" discussions on the issue.

Tokyo has called on UNESCO to improve the screening process that it applies to submissions to the Memory of the World register, which was established by the UN body in 1992 to preserve important historical documents and materials from around the world.

The Japanese government claims that not enough has been done by UNESCO to ensure that Beijing's documents are authentic.

The evidence submitted by China in 2014 details one of the most notorious incidents of Japan's invasion and brutal occupation of the Asian mainland in the early decades of the last century. The Japanese military invaded China in the 1930s and the two countries fought a brutal and bloody war from 1937 until Tokyo's defeat in World War II in 1945.

A sensitive issue

According to Chinese scholars, more then 300,000 people - the majority of them women, children or the elderly - died after troops of the Imperial Japanese Army entered the then capital and embarked on a six-week orgy of murder, looting, rape, arson and general pillage.

Japanisch-Chinesischer Krieg 1937 (Bundesarchiv - Bild 183-S34828)

The Japanese military invaded China in the 1930s and the two countries fought a brutal and bloody war from 1937 until Tokyo's defeat in World War II in 1945

The military tribunal convened by the victorious Allied powers after the end of World War II put the death toll at around 142,000.

The deliberate destruction of military records in the closing days of the war means it will never be possible to put an exact figure on the number of dead, but there are some in Japan who deny a massacre ever took place in Nanjing.

In 1994, Justice Minister Shigeto Nagano called the reports of deaths in the city a "fabrication," while a member of the board of governors of national broadcaster NHK stated as recently as 2014 that the massacre never happened.

'Chinese propaganda'

Hiromichi Moteki, acting chairman of the Society for the Dissemination of Historical Fact, similarly dismisses China's claims - and insists that the Japanese government is correct to refuse to pay its UNESCO dues. "The claim of 200,000 or 300,000 is simply ridiculous; it's Chinese propaganda, nothing more," he told DW.

"There were plenty of neutrals in the city and they never provided details at the time of the massacre," Moteki claimed, apparently glossing over several contemporaneous reports from foreign nationals who did witness atrocities.

Moteki insists that there were a mere 26 cases of people being killed, but that 25 had no witnesses and the remaining death was "lawful." Thus, he and his organization conclude that the Nanjing Massacre never happened. "UNESCO's procedures for registering historical records are very dark because the material that is submitted is not made available to anyone else," he claimed. "That is a basic failure and an injustice."

However, an examination of the UNESCO website dealing with the Chinese submission suggests that is not completely accurate, with details provided on the documents, whom they were written by and why it fits the criteria for the Memory of the World register.

Beijing has reacted angrily to the news that Japan is refusing to contribute to UNESCO this year, with a spokeswoman for the Chinese foreign ministry telling reporters on October 19 that the massacre was a serious crime and a historical fact that had been recognized by the international committee.

Failing to accept the truth "lays bare their wrong attitude of not acknowledging history," Hua Chunying said in a press conference in Beijing. "Not paying fees to UNESCO to exert pressure is irresponsible," she added.

Scoring geo-political points?

Stephen Nagy, an associate professor of politics at Tokyo's International Christian University, believes the Japanese government has handled the disagreement poorly because it has enabled Beijing to seize the initiative by claiming the debate is over whether the Nanjing massacre happened instead of Tokyo's request that Beijing not be permitted to score geo-political points based on these historical documents.

"From the Japanese government's point of view, this submission is more an attempt by China to undermine Japan's geopolitical position and leadership in the region than simply a historical issue," he said. "Japan does not want China to be able to further politicize Sino-Japanese relations through this and potentially gain support from other nations in the region.

"It appears that Japan has come off very badly in this whole exchange; the government has failed to clearly state its case and so it is being portrayed as denying that the massacre happened.

"They needed to put someone out there to explain that Tokyo's real concern is China making political capital," he added.

Japan's actions have also rather painted it into a corner, Nagy points out. Any nation that fails to pay its dues to UNESCO for two consecutive years forfeits its right to vote in the organization's general conference, thus significantly diminishing its ability to affect future policy and perhaps halt further Chinese efforts to damage its image.

This comes at a time when some rights groups are attempting to have thousands of documents linked to Japan's controversial wartime brothels entered into the UN registry.

Tokyo also frequently clashes with its Asian neighbors over its war record, with many censuring the country of failing to atone for atrocities committed by Japanese military personnel.