According to an article by Reiji Yoshida in the Japan Times, word choice played an important role in an agreement to list several Japanese industrial sites as UNESCO World Cultural Heritage.

Japan has won UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Status for 23 industrial sites after conceding to South Korea’s demand that the registration make clear that some of the locations used forced laborers from the Korean Peninsula.

But in their official remarks and statements, Japanese officials avoided using the phrase kyosei rodo (forced labor), and instead used hatarakasareta (were forced to work), which is a more colloquial Japanese expression.

Yoshida calls hatarakasareta “more colloquial” than kyosei rodo, and indeed it is. Part of that colloquial sense comes from the part of speech. The word 働かされた (hatarakasareta “was caused to work”) is a verb – the past tense of the causative-passive form of the verb 働く hataraku “to labor; to work” – while 強制労働 (kyouseiroudou “coerced labor”) is a noun. Written Japanese, particularly formal writing, typically uses more nouns than spoken Japanese does. Nouns, especially those constructed from Chinese loan words, often sound more formal than verbs or adjectives describing the same phenomena.

Some background is important here. For the past several months Japanese officials have been preparing a bid to have 23 factories built during the late 19th century listed as a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage property. The sites, known collectively as “Sites of Japan’s Meiji Industrial Revolution” are intended to highlight Japan’s rapid modernization in the late nineteenth- and early twentieth century. South Korean officials, meanwhile, objected to the listing of these sites because seven of them employed forced labor from the Korean peninsula during the colonial period from 1910 to 1945. A few weeks ago the foreign ministers of Japan and South Korea met and reached an agreement to support one another’s applications for UNESCO listing. (Eight historical sites in South Korea have also been added to the World Cultural Heritage list.)

The wording of Japan’s proposal seems to allow both Korean and Japanese politicians to claim victory in the negotiations.

Japan’s application materials were accepted by the World Heritage Committee at a July 5th meeting in Bonn, Germany. As Yoshida of the Japan Times points out, the UNESCO diplomats probably read the English version of the application, while the Japanese-language version was read mainly in Japan.

Japan’s Foreign Minister, Fumio Kishida, told reporters that forced to work “does not mean kyosei rodo” (as quoted in Sankei Shimbun, 「『強制労働』を意味するものでない」).

But to paraphrase Bill Clinton, it depends on what “mean” means. The referent of both expressions is the same: the work done by a person who is caused to labor. But because the register and the part of speech differ one might reasonably say that the sense is not the same.