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15.30  Heritage Conflicts in East Asia: Japan and the Contested Colonial Past

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When on May 4th, 2015, Japan’s Agency for Cultural Affairs announced that the “Sites of Japan’s Meiji Industrial Revolution,” twenty-three old factories, shipyards, and industrial facilities spread over the country, were recommended for designation as UNESCO World Heritage, it was in the attempt to attest the rapid and successful modernization of Japan in the late-nineteenth century, a transformation that in just a few decades made the nation a rival to Western industrialized countries. On the exact same day, however, the South Korean government reacted to this declaration by pointing out that several of these sites were places of exploitation of forced labour, particularly during the Second World War, and denounced the Japanese bid as violation of “the spirit and principles of the UNESCO Convention,” a position quickly backed, among others, by the Chinese authorities. 

What may appear as only one more example of the troubled relationships between Japan and its neighbours provides the opportunity to highlight an aspect surprisingly often neglected of the “memory war” raging in East Asia: the diverse, contested issues surrounding colonial heritage, especially between Japan and South Korea. What does heritage change in such a decade-long, acute dispute plaguing an entire region? In what way do the globalization of heritage management and recent evolution of heritage definition affect an international conflict? This paper will examine such crucial questions by looking at the various framing processes occurring around these disputes both at the international level and within Japan, the former colonial power and major target of resentment in East Asia. 

While the Japanese authorities may have hoped that the 1965 treaty re-establishing diplomatic relations with South Korea definitely ended any possibility of further claims regarding heritage, South Korea has, on the other hand, been particularly vocal since the 1990s in reminding Japan of the spoliation and crimes committed during the thirty-five years (1910-1945) of Japanese domination on the Korean peninsula. From the controversy on Meiji industrial heritage to the problem of looted art treasures, numerous heritage conflicts are thus still occurring between the two countries, in a climate of competing nationalistic rhetoric and at a time of increasing transnational activism. 

At the domestic level too, the Japanese government is facing various groups challenging its position on colonial heritage, with some calling for a broader definition of Japanese heritage, more inclusive of one living legacy of the Japanese Empire, the Korean ethnic community which was brought to the archipelago during the colonial period and chose to remain in Japan after 1945. Nevertheless, following the recent events, negative reactions have erupted in a significant manner in Japan, directing their hostility not only at the neighbouring countries, but also at the UNESCO and the global stage of heritage production. These calls for change and angry voices collide, however, with the most audible and powerful discourse within Japan, the one reshaping heritage as assets for the revitalization of local identities and economic regeneration of declining territories. 

Taking a political science approach and drawing from an analysis of recent Japanese and global heritage policy changes as well as the political and social mobilizations on these issues, this paper will argue that the multi-scale, entangled processes of today’s heritage production, from one country’s slowly evolving “authorized heritage discourse” to the increasingly influential UNESCO frameworks, bring new ways for nations to interact and conflict with each other, leading to the growing emergence of international heritage disputes, especially in East Asia.

Ioan Trifu


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