Heritage Soft Power in East Asia's Memory Contests: Promoting and Objecting to Dissonant Heritage in UNESCO

  • Published : 2018.06.30


Heritage has entered the center stage of public diplomacy in East Asia. Competition to claim and interpret memories of World War II in East Asia has driven campaigns to list heritage items with UNESCO. State and non-state actors aim to use heritage listings to present a particular view of the war and related history to domestic and international audiences. This paper highlights the role of heritage soft power in East Asia's "memory contests" by examining the promotion of dissonant modern heritage in UNESCO's heritage programs. It conceptualizes heritage designation as a soft power resource in East Asia and presents a conceptual framework for understanding the hegemonic competition over the "memory regime" that emerged from the structural change in East Asia's regional order. It then uses this framework to analyze the processes by which state and non-state actors promote and/or object to UNESCO recognition of their sites and documents as heritage of outstanding universal value or world significance. The elements of this process are illustrated with case studies of two very different pieces of heritage, Japan's "Sites of the Meiji Industrial Revolution" and China's "Documents of Nanjing Massacre," which were enshrined as significant world heritage in 2015. While state and non-state actors in East Asia are increasingly recognizing the utility of heritage as a soft power resource for advancing specific historical narratives to an international audience, a backlash movement from civil society groups and governments in other countries prevents a purely unilateral interpretation. As a result, the utility of heritage soft power in this context must be significantly qualified.



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