UNESCO is expected to approve 23 similar Japanese-nominated sites. Absent will be any accounting of the dark histories associated with these mines, foundries, and shipyards. Silence about the full history of these would-be global landmarks undermines UNESCO’s international goals and the U.S.-Japan alliance. ... World Heritage sites often become tourist attractions and many nations view the designation as a path to reviving fading regions and cities. That is one motive behind Japan’s nomination of its sites. But the selective telling of their history is part of the Abe administration’s broader policy of restoring Japanese pride in their past.


Slave labor in Japan did not begin with World War II. Forced and conscripted labor was a critical part of the mining and manufacturing industries in nineteenth-century Meiji Japan. From late Meiji (1868-1912) onward, Japan used “industrial prisons” to supply labor to factories and mills at private companies. Up until the 1930s, the majority of the miners were convicts with the rest being peasants made landless by Meiji land reforms and “outcastes.” One-third were women. Chinese and Korea labor became important in Japan’s mines and factories, and on the docks.

Tokyo’s World Heritage nominations fail to address the full historical significance of these sites. Japan’s industrialization included Japanese and foreigners, nobles and outcasts, POW slaves and conscripted Koreans, as well as women and children. Without taking these into account, the story Japan wants to tell fails to meet UNESCO criteria of “universal value and meaning.”


Of the 21 nations represented on today’s UNESCO World Heritage committee, nationals from six were World War II POWs held on mainland Japan. These are: India, Malaysia, Jamaica, Finland, Poland, Portugal, and South Korea. A seventh, South Korea, had hundreds of thousands of its men and women conscripted to work in near slavery conditions.

The U.S. does not have a vote in UNESCO. But Washington can speak to its Japanese ally to remind them of the debt they owe American veterans for defending their freedom.