South Korea was angered by news in January that Japan planned to nominate Sado Island’s gold and silver mines as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

This nomination focuses on the history of the mines in the Edo period (1603-1857).

A New York Times report states that “Korean workers” are only mentioned in two lines of a centuries-spanning chronology. There is no indication of forced labor.

Sado residents see this nomination as an opportunity for international tourists to visit the mines which are open to all visitors.

Koreans view it as an attempt to forget the terrible history Koreans lived under Japanese occupation during World War II. An estimated 1,500 Koreans were forced to work in the mines during World War II.

The Japanese Foreign Ministry stated in a statement that Japan had announced its acceptance of the nomination the same month despite protests by South Korean officials. This move ignores the “painful history of forced labor for Koreans”.

This is not the first time Japan has had to face controversy with its World Heritage sites. South Korea has criticized some of Japan’s Meiji industrialization locations — Nagasaki and Yamaguchi Prefecture’s museums — for not acknowledging forced labor.

It’s just the latest in a long line of public disputes about UNESCO nominations for East Asia in connection to World War II.

Japan has complained for years about UNESCO’s lack of transparency and fairness.

Japan is at risk of being called hypocritical for taking such steps. It successfully asked UNESCO to revise the rules of the Memory of the World competition (MOW), which is dedicated preserving document heritage.

The new rule mandates that countries who disagree on MOW nominations go into a “dialogue phase.”

Experts fear it could give countries the power to veto narratives about heritage and history. This is a worrying development.

“The contestation doesn’t require precise reasonable logic. According to Kyung-Ho Suh (chairperson of Korea’s Memory of the World National Committee), members may abuse that power. He also helps with country’s nominations.

“So what happens when Russia objects to the Ukrainian nomination?”

“Uncomfortable shadows from the wartime past”

A massive hall measuring over 100,000m2 was built to commemorate the thousands of victims of the 1937 Japanese invasion of Nanjing.

According to China Discovery, it is one of the most visited tourist spots in China.

China submitted the Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall’s documents collection, as well as several other archives, to UNESCO in 2015.

Japan was upset by the nomination. Since World War II, Japan has tried to reinvent itself as a “peace-loving Asian democracy”, says Edward Vickers, a professor in comparative education at Kyushu University, Japan.

He says, “They’re trying protect that [image] against being sullied with these rather disgraceful shadows of wartime past.”

Particularly the Nanjing Massacre has been a sensitive topic between the two countries. Beijing claims that Japan has not properly atoned for it. Despite Japan’s claims of insufficient transparency and fairness, the documents were nonetheless successfully inscribed to UNESCO’s Register in 2016.

Japan was on the cutting edge of the 2017 cycle when eight organizations representing eight countries, including China, Korea and Taiwan, formed a joint committee in order to nominate a collection of documents known as “Voices of Comfort Women.” This collection tells the stories of Japanese women who were forced to sexual slavery in World War II’s occupied countries.

Suh says that Korea’s colonial experience is still a traumatizing memory. Surviving victims continue to demand compensation.

Japan has denied for many years that it was the wartime government responsible for “comfort woman” system. In recent years, Japan has tried to erase its dark past by requesting the U.S. to delete comfort women references from textbooks and urging governments around the globe to remove memorials.

The UNESCO nomination was not an exception. Japanese organizations submitted their “comfort woman” counter-nommination that characterized the women in question as legal prostitutes. Japan, which was UNESCO’s largest financial donor at the time, also stopped its annual funding in 2016/2017, putting pressure on it to implement its reforms.

The executive board of UNESCO ruled that all sides should have a dialogue about the issue in the hope of submitting a joint nomination. After Japan demanded an extensive review of the rules, this provision was made an official guideline.

However, there has been no progress in the dialogue process and the nominations for “comfort woman” are still unofficial. CNN was informed by UNESCO that it had “continued to seek the conditions necessary for this dialogue” and would continue to do so.

Comfort Women Justice Coalition (CWJC), a San Francisco-based human rights coalition, claims that discussions have been met with “fierce opposition” from Japan and that UNESCO’s director general has not responded to repeated requests to meet. They argue that the nomination should not be subject to the new rules, as it was submitted before they were applied.

CNN was informed by CWJC that “there is a great deal of hypocrisy occurring.”

“All these institutions and governments claim to support women’s rights, as does the United Nations. Institutions such as UNESCO allow the diminution of violence and the rejection by survivors’ voices and perpetuate a culture of shame and silence for victims… allowing this gender violence to continue.”

Why countries want UNESCO’s stamp of Approval’

New guidelines stipulate that MOW nominations, like those in the UNESCO World Heritage Program, must be approved by the national government before they can move on to international competition. An independent organization could have submitted a nomination before.

Yujie Zhu is a senior lecturer at the Research School of Humanities and the Arts of Australian National University.

Zhu said that UNESCO status is “almost like a stamped stamp” for countries in East Asia who view it as highly valuable. It becomes authentic and true if it has a stamp.

UNESCO’s World Heritage Competition has no similar provision requiring dialogue if a nominee is controversial. This means that Korea cannot “veto” Japan’s Sado Mine nomination, which some people in Korea consider a double standard.

UNESCO claims that it doesn’t comment on or get involved with relations between member countries, but points out that all revisions were approved by consensus by the 58 Members of the UNESCO Executive Board (including the countries mentioned [China Japan]), following a thorough review requested by the Executive Board and led by Member states.”

Japan’s Agency for Cultural Affairs and the National Commission for UNESCO did not return requests for comment.

Observers await to see how new rules will affect the MOW’s current nomination cycle. Although submissions were closed in November, final decisions won’t be made until 2023.

In June, in Kazan, Russia, was scheduled to be the 45th Annual Meeting of UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee. This is where members vote for site nominations.

UNESCO announced in April that the session of this year would be postponed. There have not been any new dates.

Japan and China clash over Jewish history

Researchers observe that Shanghai’s Jewish heritage — where approximately 20,000 Jews sought refuge in World War II — could be another UNESCO-related flashpoint.

Japan submitted a record in 2017 of visas granted to thousands of Jews fleeing Europe by Chiune Sugihara, the former Japanese ambassador to Lithuania. The nomination was rejected and there were no specific reasons for it.

According to reports, the Shanghai municipal government has been working for years to nominate documents at the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum.

It might be difficult to recognize if you have been to the museum before. The museum was reopened in 2020 after years of expansion. It covers approximately 5,000 square metres in the Tilanqiao district of Shanghai. There are about 1000 objects donated by survivors.

The government seems to have other motives than preserving Shanghai’s Jewish heritage. It wants to be ahead of Japan.

The nomination of documents concerning the Shanghai Jews to be added to the MOW Register is “an important method to clarify historical facts” and counter Japan’s potential re-nomination the Sugihara documents. This could lead to “an incomplete and incorrect understanding by the international community,” according to a Chinese government recommendation.

China will be UNESCO’s largest financial contributor in 2022 (19.704%), and Japan is second at 10.377%.

Japan might have lost its memory battle.

In a working paper about the memory competition between Japan, China and Japan, Shu-mei Huang from National Taiwan University writes that Japan could have submitted the application without seeking approval from the state.

Representatives of the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum stated to CNN that they are “currently learning about the relevant rules of the UNESCO Memory of the World Selection selection”, but did not say if it submitted the Shanghai nomination.

Huang said that China is willing to help Jewish victims. However, Huang did not mention the exact number of Jews who fled Shanghai. The question of who “saved” Shanghai has been open to debate. Both Japan and China have apparently exaggerated the number of Jews they “saved”.

The war ended in 1945 and most Jews fled Shanghai, but it was before the Communists (who still control China today) took over.

Huang said that “Heritage, memory have been victims” of the UNESCO nominations’ ‘Olympic Game’.