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Tokyo wants industrial sites to be recognized as important historical landmarks in nation's modernization process, but critics say they ignore the slave laborers who built and worked in them.
Japan has applied to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization to have 23 industrial sites across southern Japan granted UNESCO World Heritage status, but the campaign has ignited fierce criticism nations that felt the full force of its colonial years and from former prisoners of war who were used as slave laborers at the sites.
An advisory panel set up to screen applications has recommended that "Sites of the Meiji Industrial Revolution" of the late 19th and early 20th centuries go forward to a meeting of the UNESCO World Heritage Committee in Bonn from June 28 for a final decision.
The Japanese government says the sites, which include mines, ports, factories, shipyards and other industrial facilities should be recognized by the world for their contribution to Japan's development as the first industrial power outside Europe and North America.
Yun Byung-se said that thousands of Koreans were forced to labor at the sites and that they therefore fail the World Heritage site requirement for displaying "universal values"
Seoul was swift to respond to Tokyo's application, with Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se telling a session of the South Korean parliament earlier this month that thousands of Koreans were forced to labor at the sites and that they therefore fail the World Heritage site requirement for displaying "universal values."
According to government statistics, some 57,900 Koreans were sent to work at the facilities by Japan, which occupied the Korean peninsula at the time.
"These were sites that employed forced laborers in conditions that were extremely harsh," Rah Jong-yil, South Korea's former ambassador to Tokyo, told DW.
"Many of them perished during their work and none of them were properly compensated, even after the war was over," he said. "No-one here in Korea is happy that Japan wants these places to be designated as sites of cultural importance."
The South Korean government is appealing the application to UNESCO and hopes to sway voting members' opinions, Rah said.
"I have the feeling that Japan is taking steps backwards when it comes to a consideration of its modern history," he said. "It is important that it faces up to that past."
Beijing has similarly expressed its opposition, with a spokeswoman for the Foreign Ministry stating that "China shares South Korea's strong concerns over Japan's application" during a recent press conference. She added that Tokyo needs to "properly deal with relevant concerns."
Apparently concerned at the hostility that the application has aroused - and desperate to avoid an embarrassing diplomatic defeat - Tokyo has in recent weeks dispatched senior officials to countries that have a seat on the World Heritage Committee and will be voting on additions to the list in Bonn in June.
Minoru Kiuchi, Japan's minister for foreign affairs, has visited Poland and Germany, which as host nation is chairing the meeting. Other diplomats have paid visits to Serbia, Croatia, Finland, Jamaica and Kazakhstan.
It is not only governments that are expressing their opposition to Japan's plans, as organizations that represent former POWs in the US are planning to make their feelings felt as well.
"If there are sites that indeed used POW labor, then we intend to point this out and hope that it will be included in the narrative," said Jan Thompson, the head of the American Defenders of Bataan and Corregidor Memorial Society. "We hope that Japan would also want to keep these sites historically accurate.
"The post at Moji is extremely important to the POW narrative," she added. "Moji was the destination for almost all the 'hell ships' containing 'human cargo' - American and Allied POWs."
Mindy Kotler, who runs the Washington DC-based Asia Policy Point think tank, says what Allied POWs want more than an apology is to be remembered.
"They want their history to become part of the history of World War II, Japan and the US," she told DW. "They want not to be forgotten. They feel that their history, their experience with Imperial Japan, is an important part of the wartime narrative and of the lessons to be learned."
Failure to acknowledge
"The failure of Japan to acknowledge this history and to embed this history into their understanding of the war will have repercussions," she added. "It limits Japan's understanding of how the war came about and was executed."
Other applicants to UNESCO have dealt squarely with the negative aspects of their history, Kotler points out, such as the British port city of Liverpool, which played a pivotal role in the slave trade in the 1700s. Instead of ignoring what happened, the local authority has built a memorial, a museum and a research centre at the city's university.
"The Japanese, in contrast, simply note Moji as having some vague relationship to industrialization with no mention of its dynamic trade with Asia, the West and the tens of thousands of slave and forced laborers, including POWs and Comfort Women that passed through the port" she said.
"Ignoring the region's greater industrial history of labor relations, slave labor, horrific industrial accidents and world trade betrays the intent of the application," Kotler added. "It is so short-sighted that it can only be interpreted as provocative and insulting."