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Editorial: Japan should show dignity in push for UNESCO reform

  • October 20, 2016
  • , The Mainichi
  • English Press

Japan has been withholding its financial contributions for this year to the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organizations (UNESCO), totaling approximately 4 billion yen, or $42 million.


Against the backdrop of the move are Japan’s calls for UNESCO system reform following the listing of documents on the “Nanking Massacre” by the former Imperial Japanese Army as a Memory of the World in October 2015 in response to an application filed by China. Although there are some points in the process of screening applications for registration under the Memory of the World program that need to be reviewed, it is inappropriate for Japan to use its financial contributions to pressure UNESCO to review the system.


UNESCO’s Memory of the World program is aimed at not recognizing historical facts but preserving historical documents and materials.


The documents reportedly include photos, diaries and documents on the Nanjing War Crimes Tribunal’s ruling on the 1937 incident, which estimate the number of victims is at least 300,000.


There is a perception gap between Japan and China over the number of victims and other matters in the case.


The Japanese Foreign Ministry’s position is that it is difficult for the government to determine an accurate number of victims in the incident because there are various views, while there is no denying that there were killings of non-combatants and looting during the incident.


After the documents were registered as a Memory of the World, the Japanese government released a statement in the name of the Foreign Ministry press secretary, raising questions about the authenticity of the documents and calling for system reform so that the listing of the documents will not be used for political purposes.


The systems for World Heritage and Intangible Cultural Heritage are based on international conventions and concerned countries are involved in filing applications and listing sites as such. Therefore, these systems are highly transparent. In contrast, only 14 experts screen registrations of memories of the world, and the screening process lacks transparency. It is necessary to increase transparency and ensure fairness in the screening standards and process.


It is understandable that the Japanese government is concerned that the listing of the documents on the Nanjing case as a Memory of the World could be used for political purposes. However, Japan’s decision to withhold its financial contributions to UNESCO, as if to protest against the listing, could be criticized as lacking decency among the international community. If so, Japan’s demand for system reform would not convince the international community.


Each member country of UNESCO is obligated to extend financial contributions to the organization. Japan is currently the largest contributor to UNESCO because the United States has frozen its contributions in protest against Palestine’s membership.


Japan’s move could adversely affect UNESCO’s activities. The move could decrease Japan’s influence within UNESCO, allowing China, which is the third largest donor next only to Japan, to have a bigger say. The deadline for contributions is the end of December each year, but Japan usually makes its payment sometime around April or May.


Organizations in nine countries and territories, including Japan, China and South Korea, applied to UNESCO asking for documents on Japan’s wartime “comfort women” to be listed as a Memory of the World. A decision on whether to register the documents will be made by October 2017. The screening should reflect system reform and be conducted in a transparent and fair manner.


The Japanese government should fulfill its duty to pay its contributions to UNESCO with dignity and be involved in system reform in a constructive manner.

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