Written by Ryoko Nakano.

Competition over historical narratives is nothing new in East Asia. But it is increasingly expansive and transnational at a level in which they influence one of the programmes of the most notable, international cultural organization, UNESCO.

The Memory of the World (MOW) is UNESCO’s programme that is dedicated to the protection and promotion of documentary heritage (including audio and visual archives). Although its scale and popularity is much smaller than that of World Heritage, UNESCO’s involvement brings some media and public attention to what is listed in the MOW Register. This is especially so when controversial heritage is inscribed in the Register. The ‘Documents of Nanjing Massacre’ are not an exception. The nomination was initiated by Zhu Chengshan, the curator of the Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall and one of the most vocal opponents of Japan’s Prime Minister’s visit to the Yasukuni Shrine and the revisionist history textbook that did not mention the Nanjing massacre. At the Nanjing People’s Congress in 2009, he and nine other party members proposed a plan to nominate the documents related to the Nanjing Massacre for the MOW Register. The Nanjing Municipal Government supported this idea. The documents, selected from the holdings of the Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall, the Second Historical Archives of China, and the Nanjing Municipal Archives, were named the ‘Documents of Nanjing Massacre’ and were nominated for the Register in 2010. After an unsuccessful result, the collection was expanded to include other sources from four more archives in China, which led to the inscription in 2015.

According to the Chinese nomination form, the collection provides ‘solid evidence’ that ‘had a profound appeal to the global community and helped people around the world better understand the cruelty of war’. In China, the Nanjing Massacre has an iconic meaning in the public memory of Chinese wartime suffering under Japanese military aggression. This massacre was seen not as just one of many tragic events, but rather equivalent to the Jewish Holocaust or the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. While Iris Chang’s famous book, The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II (1997) contributed to the international recognition of the event, the UNESCO inscription further promotes a view that the Nanjing Massacre was an enormous human tragedy for the world to remember. Zhu Chengshan explained that the UNESCO listing represented the ‘global recognition’ of ‘one of the greatest crimes ever perpetrated against humanity’ and ‘will help us honour history, refute wrong claims and disseminate the truth’. For him, UNESCO’s heritage designation proved his point that any attempt to deny the massacre would be deemed illegitimate and unjust. In other words, the Documents of Nanjing Massacre should disseminate a particular historical narrative as an authentic voice to an international audience.

The inscription of the Documents of Nanjing Massacre provoked a fear among the Japanese conservative government that a similar document might be inscribed in the MOW Register. In particular, ‘Voices of the “Comfort Women”’ had been already nominated by a Korea-based transnational civilian network as a way of remembering the sufferings that women endured as sex slaves for the Japanese military. Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary Suga Yoshihide argued that the UNESCO decision was regrettable despite the conflicting views of Japan and China. He demanded that UNESCO should carry out its work properly and avoid any politicization of MOW. At the General Conference of UNESCO, the Japanese education minister, Hase Hiroshi, also urged UNESCO to make the selection process more transparent and accountable to state parties. By suspending the payment of its financial contribution to UNESCO for about eight months, Japan pressured UNESCO to accept its proposal for the creation of an inter-state committee, a requirement for expert examination of submitted documents, and a revised process for selecting the MOW committee members. UNESCO’s internal discussion on MOW resulted in a report to its Executive Board, which partially reflects Japan’s suggestions: a ‘mechanism which would protect the MOW program from political abuse’ is required: if there is any ‘questioned nomination’, mediated dialogue between the concerned parties should be a requirement at the earliest stage.

In the meantime, the ‘Individual Japan-United States of America (NGO’s),’ which consists of four Japanese nationalist groups, nominated the ‘Documentation on ‘“Comfort Women” and Japanese Army Discipline’ for the MOW Register in the 2016-17 nomination cycle. The content of the documents presumably overlaps with the ‘Voices of the “Comfort Women”’.Given that the two nominations approached the issue of comfort women very differently, UNESCO decided to postpone a decision on the inscription of both documents until the nominator and concerned parties had been invited for a dialogue (as of July 2018, a dialogue among the nominators has not yet been organised). For Japan, the postponement is sufficient to save face to avoid any criticism of what can be described as Japan’s defeat in East Asia’s history wars. The Japanese conservative government remains vigilant lest those who promote the ‘Voices of the “Comfort Women”’ can find any avenue in UNESCO’s MOW Register or in the Asia-Pacific version of the MOW Register for inscription in future.

The inscription of the Documents of Nanjing Massacre in UNESCO’s MOW Register opened up UNESCO as yet another arena for history wars. Although UNESCO encourages a joint nomination of any transnational heritage, it is up to the nominators if they go for a unilateral or multilateral nomination. Over the heritage concerning WWII in Asia, there is little sign at a state level to cooperate and develop a common heritage of WWII among Asian nations. On the contrary, the UNESCO heritage programmes provide more opportunities for state and nonstate actors to disseminate their historical narratives abroad and compete over a hegemonic position in the memory contests of East Asia. While the conventional purpose of the government is to protect a so-called national interest and to remove threats to the nation, the case of heritage battle is another example where memory and identity are a lingering issue in Sino-Japanese relations and beyond.

Ryoko Nakano is an Associate Professor at the Faculty of Law, Kanazawa University.

Image Credit: CC by Eduardo M. C./Flickr.

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