Japan, a would-be cultural guardian

Posted in Japan | 25-Apr-06 | Author: Hisane Masaki| Source: Asia Times

Hisane Masaki is WSN Editor Japan.

TOKYO - In the latest in a series of initiatives aimed at elevating its international status, a group of Japanese lawmakers is preparing a new landmark law to promote its crusade for the preservation of valuable cultural assets abroad.

A non-partisan group of Japanese lawmakers from the ruling coalition and the largest opposition party is preparing new legislation to help restore cultural heritage that has been destroyed in Afghanistan, Iraq and other war-torn areas. For example, two giant statutes of the Buddha at Bamiyan in Afghanistan - dating back to the 6th century - were destroyed by the Taliban in March 2001. And the National Museum of Iraq was looted as the country was thrown into confusion after the 2003 invasion.

They intend to submit the proposed law to the current session of the diet (parliament). They say Japan should step up official development assistance (ODA) to help countries preserve and restore their cultural heritages, if a legal framework is established based on the bill. Specifically, the lawmakers expect ODA money to be used to foster human resources so as to enhance their expertise in restoration of cultural heritage and finance purchases of relevant equipment. Japan is the world's second-largest ODA donor after the US.

The draft bill will call for universities and other academic institutions to train experts in restoring destroyed cultural heritage and emphasize the need for the central government to provide financial support. It will require the government to compile basic policies to implement measures envisaged under the bill and will also call for it to join hands with local authorities in implementing the measures, the lawmakers say.

They hope the law will enable Japan to play a leading role in preserving world cultural heritage and also to raise its international status. "Japan is being asked to make non-combat contributions to the global community, such as preservation of cultural heritages," said Tsuneo Suzuki, one of the lawmakers sponsoring the bill.

To date Japan has not done enough in cracking down on illegal trade in cultural assets in its own market. It also remains dogged by negative legacies of militaristic history.

Despite efforts for many years by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and other organizations, there are still many sites, historic monuments and other vestiges of cultural heritage that are threatened with serious degradation, and even disappearance. Many developing countries plagued by abject poverty, ethnic conflicts and the scourge of infectious diseases may find it quite natural to place economic development ahead of preservation of cultural assets in order to feed their people.

Japan put assistance for the preservation and restoration of valuable cultural assets abroad high on its diplomatic agenda clearly for the first time in the late 1980s. During a visit to London in 1988, then-prime minister Noboru Takeshita unveiled his "international cooperation initiative", which made strengthened international cultural exchanges, along with increased ODA for developing countries and stepped-up contributions to peace, a major pillar of the nation's foreign policy.

The Japanese initiative was aimed at deflecting a barrage of international criticism that it was not making enough of a contribution to global peace and prosperity despite its snowballing trade surplus.

Japanese UNESCO fund
In the framework of this new policy of strengthening cultural exchanges, Japan began to provide financial and technical assistance to preserve cultural heritage abroad.

In 1989, a trust fund with Japanese financial contributions was established within the Paris-based UNESCO. Japan has chipped in a few million US dollars annually for the Japanese trust fund for the preservation of world cultural heritage. Money from the fund has been spent to safeguard many cultural sites in various parts of the globe, including Pagan in Myanmar, Angkor Wat in Cambodia, Moenjodaro in Pakistan, Hue in Vietnam and Karakorum in Mongolia. Japan also provided ODA money for the restoration of Borobudur in Indonesia.

China has become the destination for the bulk of money from the UNESCO fund, partly because of the innumerable cultural assets scattered across its vast territory, and also as routine goodwill gestures shown until several years ago each time Japanese prime ministers made official visits to Beijing. For instance, Takeshita pledged financial assistance for the preservation of relics in Dunhuang, a site on the old Silk Road, during his 1988 visit to the Chinese capital. The ancient Silk Road was a major trade route for caravans carrying silk and other luxury goods from China to India and the Middle East.

While successfully scoring diplomatic points on the cultural front, culminating in the election of Koichiro Matsuura, former Japanese ambassador to France, as the UNESCO director general in late 1999, Japan had long been far from serious about cracking down on illicit trade in foreign cultural assets at home. It was not until 2002 that Japan ratified a key international treaty banning illicit traffic in statues, paintings, manuscripts, books and other objects of historical or archeological value.

The UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property, as the treaty is formally called, was adopted in 1970 to protect cultural assets against theft, illicit export and wrongful alienation. It took effect in 1972. Japan dragged its feet on joining the convention for 30 years. Japan's ratification of the UNESCO treaty was aimed at shedding its notoriety as a global center of illicit trade in cultural assets along with Britain.

To be sure, Japan's ratification of the treaty may have been a significant policy about-face. But critics say the country still has to do more to cleanse its image completely as a safe haven for cultural traders. There are two other international treaties concerning the protection of cultural assets that Japan has not yet joined - the 1954 Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict and the 1995 UNIDROIT (International Institute for the Unification of Private Law) Convention on Stolen or Illegally Exported Cultural Objects.

Negative legacies of history
The question of who are the rightful owners of cultural properties is not a thing of the past in uneasy relations between Japan and its Asian neighbors, which suffered Japanese aggression or colonial rule during and before World War II.

Japan's relations with China and South Korea have plunged to their lowest point in decades because of Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's repeated visits to the war-related Yasukuni Shrine, territorial disputes and other issues, most of them stemming from the history of Japanese militarism. Japan and North Korea have still to establish diplomatic ties more than 60 yeas after the war.

Recently, a 2-meter-high stone monument, built in 1707 to commemorate Korean militia leader Jeong Munbu's victory over Japanese warlord Hideyoshi Toyotomi's invasion force in the late 16th century and seized in 1905 by Japanese Imperial Army troops during the Russo-Japanese War from what is now North Korea, was returned to North Korea via South Korea. The statue had been kept at Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo, where some 2.5 million war dead, including former prime minister General Hideki Tojo and 13 other Class A war criminals, are enshrined. Before being returned to North Korea, the monument had been displayed temporarily at the National Museum of Korea in central Seoul.

The return to North Korea of the monument commemorating Jeong's triumph comes at a time when South Korea and China have begun to step up efforts to recover cultural relics abroad, whether they have ended up in the hands of people or organizations abroad, legally or illegally.

Some South Korean experts claim that the number of known Korean cultural assets scattered around Japan totals about 34,000, most of which were unjustly pillaged during two periods - first during the invasion by Hideyoshi Toyotomi's force and then during the Japanese colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula.

Hisane Masaki is a Tokyo-based journalist, commentator and scholar on international politics and economy. Masaki's e-mail address is [email protected]

Hisane Masaki is WSN Editor Japan.