Second World War recollections have become battleground

Japan, China and South Korea at loggerheads over how to mark events

Japan’s Taro Aso and South Korea’s Choi Kyung-Hwan: with China they are in dispute over second World War memories. Photograph: Toshifumi Kitamura/AFP/Getty Images

Japan’s Taro Aso and South Korea’s Choi Kyung-Hwan: with China they are in dispute over second World War memories. Photograph: Toshifumi Kitamura/AFP/Getty Images

 

East Asia’s three leading powers have long sparred over how to remember the first half of the 20th century. Now, as the 70th anniversary of Japan’s surrender in the second World War approaches, they are engaged in an increasingly bitter culture war to define the past.

The latest spat has drawn in Unesco. Japan wants World Heritage status for 23 industrial sites it says were key to the first successful modernisation by a non-western nation. In a region plagued by lingering resentments over Japan’s colonial rule, the plan has predictably snagged diplomatic tripwires.

Tens of thousands of Korean and other labourers were conscripted to work at ports, factories and mines in wartime Japan. South Korea’s largest newspaper said the proposed sites helped power the “Japanese war machine” that enslaved Asians. China, meanwhile, has accused Japan of trying to “glorify colonial history”.

Unesco spirit

Irina Bokova

Park’s intervention has irritated Japanese diplomats. They insist the World Heritage bid concerns Japan’s turbocharged Meiji Era (1868-1912) and not what occurred three decades later. In any case, several of the proposed sites carry inscriptions admitting the use of forced labour, said a spokesperson with the foreign ministry.

For decades, all three countries have tried to shape the historical record through museums, school textbooks and popular culture. Now they are taking the battle for memory abroad: South Korean communities in America have built a string of statues to commemorate the suffering of Korean women herded into wartime Japanese brothels.

China has also taken its fight against what it sees as Japan’s historical amnesia to Unesco.

It has applied for World Heritage status for documents on the so-called “comfort women” system of forced prostitution. The campaign has infuriated conservatives in Japan, who deny its wartime army was engaged in organised sexual slavery.

Competing nationalisms are magnifying these historical disputes in Asia, says William Wetherall, a researcher of Japan’s forced labour system. Japan’s government is trying to edit out ugly episodes from its own past. But “all sides are skewing the past to fit a narrative of extreme victimhood”.

These tensions have worsened since Shinzo Abe, Japan’s prime minister, took power in 2012. Abe belongs to a political tradition that does not accept that Japan waged an aggressive war in Asia, and he appears set to water down expressions of atonement for the 70th anniversary in August. China has responded by stepping up remembrance of its war against Japan.

“Beijing is determined not to let Japanese atrocities slip from the collective memory,” a Chinese diplomat said.

Beijing is not content, however, to rehash its own historical narrative – it is blocking Japan from exploiting its past too. Last month, it opposed a Tokyo proposal to invite world leaders to visit the atomic-bombed cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Victim or aggressor

Unesco will vote on Japan’s bid when the World Heritage Committee meets in Germany on June 28th. Japan’s diplomats are intensely lobbying the committee’s other 19 members ahead of that date.

Talks with South Korean officials in Tokyo this month have failed to make any headway.

Japanese officials were only there, in any case, because of pressure from the country’s diplomatic partners, admitted a foreign official.

“We have decided to act like gentlemen,” he sniffed. The exchange seems a long way off from Unesco’s professed mission, which is to “build peace in the minds of men and women”.

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