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Editorial: Playing politics with World Heritage listings will only harm Japan

The Japanese government has decided to recommend the gold mine on Sado Island in Niigata Prefecture for inscription as a UNESCO World Heritage site.

    The site is made up of two mines that together boasted of being the world's most productive gold mine in the 17th century. That ruins of a mine complex from the time when humans hand-extracted and even hand-refined gold still exist is a rare thing in itself.

    The Japanese government initially intended to pass on recommending the Sado gold mine for UNESCO registration this year. This reticence was triggered by opposition from South Korea, which labelled talk of recommending the site as "making light of the fact that so many Koreans were forced to work there."

    However, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has done an about face after the conservative wing of his ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), including former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, criticized him for being "weak." It seems Kishida was paying mind to the conservatives ahead of this summer's House of Councillors election.

    At the root of South Korea's objections is the series of events that led up to the Sites of Japan's Meiji Industrial Revolution being registered on the World Heritage List in 2015. The Japanese government promised the World Heritage vetting committee upon the sites' registration that it would explain that Korean laborers had been forced to work at the sites against their will during World War II. However, in a 2021 report the committee said it "strongly regrets" that Japan had "not yet fully implemented" this pledge.

    Considering this, it would have been natural for the Kishida administration to work on gaining South Korea's understanding before going ahead with the Sado gold mine recommendation. Furthermore, Japan has emphasized in recent years that obtaining understanding from other nations involved is essential for UNESCO registration.

    Last year, UNESCO introduced a system to halt applications for its Memory of the World Register if countries with a stake in the event to be commemorated raised objections. The move was spurred by Japan, which sought to obstruct China's application to register records relating to the Nanjing Massacre.

    When it comes to cultural World Heritage, too, guidelines state that countries should hold talks with stakeholders before applying. What's more, putting registration in danger by ignoring these guidelines during the application process would betray the feelings of the local people hoping to see a part of their culture inscribed.

    The World Heritage List is a system intended to preserve cultural assets with a universal value to all humanity. Former Prime Minister Abe wrote on Facebook that South Korea was "waging a history war." But frictions over historical awareness should not be brought into the discussion.

    Using culture for politics, with the intention of taking a confrontational attitude with our close neighbors, will in the end harm Japan's national interests, not help them.

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