Japan is withholding its ¥4.4 billion (US$42 million) contributions to UNESCO for the current fiscal year. While the government is believed to be trying to use the unpaid contribution as leverage in its call for improving the operation of the United Nations body, such a move could weaken Tokyo’s position not only in the organization but in the broader international community. If the government is unhappy with the way the organization is run, it should present rational proposals to improve the operation from within instead of by resorting to financial pressures. It should quickly provide the due funding.

Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida is mum on why the funding to UNESCO is being withheld, but apparently behind the move is the government’s displeasure over the U.N. body’s decision in October last year to include China-submitted documents about the 1937 Nanking Massacre in its Memory of the World list. Shortly after the decision, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said Tokyo will consider halting financial contributions to UNESCO. The government also lodged a protest with China’s Foreign Ministry via the Japanese Embassy in Beijing, saying China “should not unnecessarily use the arena of UNESCO for a political purpose.”

Another possible factor behind the suspended funding is an upcoming examination by UNESCO’s International Advisory Committee of documents related to the issue of “comfort women” forced into frontline brothels for Japanese troops before and during World War II, which had been submitted by civic groups in China and South Korea for inclusion in the Memory of the World list.

Japan appropriated ¥3.85 billion in its fiscal 2016 budget as an obligatory contribution to UNESCO. The ¥4.4 billion includes voluntary contributions. Normally, its contributions are provided to the U.N. body in spring following the Diet’s enactment of the annual budget. This year, the funds have not been discharged yet.

Japan’s obligatory contribution makes up 9.6 percent of the total obligatory funding for UNESCO, following the United States, which is supposed to shoulder a contribution amounting to 22 percent. China follows Japan by accounting for 7.9 percent of the total. Since the U.S. has suspended its funding since 2011 in protest over the participation of Palestine in UNESCO, however, Japan has been the largest contributor for the past several years.

The Nanking Massacre-related documents UNESCO listed on its Memory of the World Register include records from the International Military Tribunal for the Far East in Tokyo, which estimated in 1946 that over 200,000 Chinese were killed, photographs that China claims show the slaughter of people in the city (now called Nanjing) and 16 mm film footage taken in the city by U.S. missionary John Magee. The massacre occurred over a period of six weeks after the city, then the capital of the Republic of China, fell to the Japanese Army on Dec. 13, 1937.

Japan criticizes UNESCO for the lack of transparency in its decision-making process for the Memory of the World Register. The examination of submitted materials by the International Advisory Committee is held behind closed doors. Interested parties are not given chances to express their opinions during the examination process.

It should be recalled that when UNESCO registered the massacre-related documents, it also put on the same list a collection of materials submitted by Japan concerning the interment of 600,000 to 800,000 Japanese soldiers and civilians in labor camps of the Soviet Union after World War II and the survivors’ repatriation from 1945 to 1956, but it turned down China’s other request that photos and other documents related to Japan’s use of comfort women be registered.

In calling for reform of UNESCO’s decision-making process on the registration for the list, the government must be careful to avoid the impression that Japan is doing so merely to push its narrow national interests. Instead it should consider ways to help the advisory committee improve its ability to correctly and objectively assess the historical value of documents submitted for its review.

The Japanese government officially accepts that the killing of a large number of noncombatants, looting and other acts occurred in Nanjing at that time, but that it’s hard to identify the extent of the damage since there are numerous estimates on the number of victims. While China claims that the Japanese Army killed more than 300,000 soldiers and civilians in Nanjing, Japanese historians give various estimates ranging from tens of thousands to 200,000. Tokyo was apparently concerned that registration of the China-submitted documents could bolster Beijing’s claims.

The government should be aware of the risk that withholding the funding to UNESCO could create an impression in the international community that Japan is attempting to deny the killings by the Imperial Japanese Army in Nanjing. Such a perception could play into the hands of China as it attempts to criticize Japan over war-related issues. Suspension of the funds, which makes China the biggest contributor to UNESCO, will end up boosting Beijing’s say and diminishing Japan’s voice within the U.N. organization.

UNESCO is the first U.N. organization that Japan joined in 1951 after its World War II defeat. By taking part in various UNESCO projects, Japan has contributed to helping achieve the organization’s purpose of “advancing, through the education and scientific and cultural relations of the peoples of the world, the objectives of international peace and of the common welfare of mankind.” Withholding the funding could undermine its achievements through UNESCO. The reasonable path would be to disburse the funds immediately.

The News Lens has been authorized to republish this editorial. The original can be found here.

Editor: Edward White