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[Editorial] Resorting to word play

The UNESCO added 23 industrial sites in Japan to its World Heritage list Sunday, after a 24-hour delay due to last-minute negotiations between Korea and Japan over the wording of the statement to be issued following the inscription.

In the end, the listing was agreed on by consensus by the 21 member states of the UNESCO World Heritage Committee, including Korea and Japan, avoiding a vote that would have been unprecedented.

Korea and Japan negotiated for several months over the UNESCO listing of Japan’s industrial sites as Korea demanded that Japan acknowledge the use of forced labor by Koreans at seven of the sites and Japan maintained that the period applied for in the listing was from 1868-1912. The Korean government, which had initially opposed the application for the UNESCO listing, changed its strategy and focused on ensuring that Japan provide the full history of the sites, acknowledge the use of forced labor and that the forced laborers are remembered at the sites. Nearly 60,000 Koreans were forcibly taken to work at seven of the 23 sites.

In the statement made following the announcement of the inscription, the Japanese delegation said “there were a large number of Koreans and others who were brought against their will and forced to work under harsh conditions.” It also said that Japan implemented a “policy of requisition” during World War II.

The statement clearly acknowledges that Koreans and others were “brought against their will” and “forced to work.” The general understanding of these terms is that they refer to forced labor.

Explaining that Japan has acknowledged the use of forced labor on a global stage, the Foreign Ministry was optimistic Sunday night for improved relations between the two countries. Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se said that the two sides resolved the matter through dialogue and that it could help them promote relations based on a “virtuous cycle.”

However, quite a different story was unfolding in Japan. On Monday, Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said during a regular press conference that while Koreans were forced to work at several sites, they were not “forced laborers.” Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida remarked that the Japanese statement at the UNESCO meeting does not acknowledge that there was “forced labor” at the facilities. “This phrase ‘forced to work’ does not mean ‘forced labor,’” he said.

The remarks by Suga and Kishida are word play, exploiting the subtle difference in the original English-language statement and the Japanese translation of the statement. To suit its purpose ― denying forced labor at seven UNESCO World Heritage sites ― Tokyo, in addressing its domestic audience, used the Japanese-language equivalent of “were forced to work” which apparently has less of a nuance of being forced.

As far as the Japanese understand it, then, their government has not acknowledged forced labor. And the Japanese government is eager to spread that message to the international community in a public relations blitz, it is reported.

Learning of Japan’s ploy, the Foreign Ministry explained that the statement made in English is the official statement. The ministry has posted the original English-language statement on its website to counter Japan’s claims that it has not acknowledged the use of forced labor.

The Japanese government’s attempts to whitewash history, clearly demonstrated this week, are why Koreans have a difficult time trusting its neighboring state. Those not familiar with the current Japanese government’s tactics often ask Koreans why we persist in demanding an apology from Japan when there have been apologies by previous administrations. They now have an answer.

By continuing to negate historical facts and not facing up to history squarely, the Japanese government does great disservice to its people, especially the younger generations who will not be able to learn from history. And that should be of grave concern not only to Korea but to the global community as well.