Opinion / Cai Hong

Japan unhappy with UNESCO, as it would like the world to forget

By Cai Hong (China Daily) Updated: 2016-11-07 08:12

Many parts of Japan are happy with the news that a preliminary review panel of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization has recommended that 33 traditional Japanese festivals be registered as part of the world's intangible cultural heritage.

UNESCO's Intergovernmental Committee is expected to make the final decision later this month.

The expected registration of the festivals, most of which date back to the Edo Period (1603-1868), will bring the total number of Japanese items included in UNESCO's lists of intangible cultural heritage to 21.

Yet Japan was less than happy when UNESCO recently listed historical evidence of that part of the country's past that it would like the world to forget.

Japan has refused to pay its share of this year's budget for UNESCO-approximately 4 billion yen ($42 million)-because the organization's Memory of the World program listed China's documents recording the mass murder and rape committed by Japanese troops following their occupation of the Chinese city of Nanjing in 1937.

The evidence China submitted in 2014 includes court records from the International Military Tribunal for the Far East, which found several Japanese leaders guilty of war crimes, as well as photographs showing the slaughter of people in Nanjing and film footage taken by an American missionary. Troops of the Imperial Japanese Army entered the then Chinese capital and embarked on a six-week orgy of murder, looting, rape, arson and general pillage.

The UNESCO established the Memory of the World Register in 1992 to preserve and ensure access to documentary heritage of "world significance and outstanding universal value".

Japan has questioned the integrity and authenticity of China's documents. It has also accused China of turning the historical issue into political capital, calling the registration "anti-Japan propaganda".

The country has gone further by asking the UNESCO to reform the selection process.

However, some in Japan say that it is inappropriate for their country to use its financial contributions to pressure UNESCO to review its system. They are worried about Japan's voting rights. Under UNESCO's constitution, any country that fails to pay dues for two years loses its vote in the organization's general assembly. For them, the move could decrease Japan's influence within the world's culture agency, allowing China, to have a bigger say.

The deadline for contributions is the end of December each year.

Joining UNESCO in 1951 was regarded as Japan's official comeback to the international community following its defeat in World War II. Japan is currently the largest contributor to UNESCO after the United States ceased all support in 2011 in protest against the organization's admission of Palestine as a full member.

In October 2015, Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said Japan will push for reforms at UNESCO so that member countries will not be able to take political advantage of the organization, whose mission is to "promote friendship and mutual understanding among its members".

But friendship and understanding will not be built by pretending the past never happened.

Some rights groups are applying to have thousands of documents on Japan's wartime "comfort women" listed as a Memory of the World. A decision on whether to register the documents will be made by October 2017.

As this issue is also something Japan would prefer the world to forget, the country's displeasure is expected.

The author is China Daily Tokyo bureau chief.

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