As if the continued mud-slinging over the ownership of the remote and extremely small islands of Takeshima or Dokdo weren’t enough to drive a wedge between Japan and its neighbour South Korea, now there is a new proxy battlefield: Unesco.
The cultural wing of the UN is, in its own way, as political as any other UN department and the South Koreans are fuming that Japan is trying to have some of its 19th- and early 20th-century industrial facilities listed as Unesco World Heritage sites. Their particular complaint is that tens of thousands of Koreans worked at several of those places and, they say, up to 1,000 died, at a time when the Korean peninsula was under Japanese rule. While the Japanese side sees the Meiji era coalmines, steelworks and shipyard buildings as examples of the transfer of western technology, the South Koreans are arguing that they are symbols of colonial oppression.
In an irate editorial at the weekend, The Korea Times said that Japan was using Unesco to whitewash its past and that if anything, the sites should be viewed, like Auschwitz, as examples of “negative” heritage. It goes on to urge the members of the World Heritage Committee not to give into “its biggest financial contributor”.
There have been moments of warmth between the two countries but it doesn’t take much to spark fresh disagreement. The brief rapprochement that occurred when the two countries held the World Cup together in 2002 only taped over the cracks. The Korean Wave, when Japanese women went crazy for soapy Korean dramas, has also waned. South Korean pop or K-pop still holds strong though and Korean bands are hard-working enough to sing in Japanese.
But the verbal sniping continues. Only this week a study of debris along the coast of the Sea of Japan – the officially recognised name for the stretch of water that South Koreans would like to convince the world to call the East Sea – has discovered the country responsible for washing up more plastic bottles than any others is none other than South Korea. Now that Japan has announced that it will refer to the disputed islets as Japanese territory in school textbooks from next year, we can expect the brickbats to fly.
Fiona Wilson is Monocle’s Asia bureau chief.