Japan Wants to Showcase Gold Mines’ History. Just Not All of It.
SADO ISLAND, Japan — About 40 miles off the northwestern coast of Japan, Akiyoshi Iwasaki is eager to share some history of the mountainous, lightning-bolt-shaped isle where he grew up.
After years of lobbying by local residents, Mr. Iwasaki, a bar owner, is delighted that the Japanese government has nominated three gold and silver mines on Sado Island for UNESCO World Heritage designation, hoping to showcase them alongside Mount Fuji, the Hiroshima Peace Memorial and Kyoto’s shrines.
The mines supplied precious metals to the shoguns who ruled Japan during the two and a half centuries when the country was all but cut off from the rest of the world. Yet there is a darker part of Sado’s history that Mr. Iwasaki, 50, knows little about: the period during World War II when about 1,500 Koreans were conscripted to work in the mines as subjects of Japan’s colonial rule.
“People in my generation don’t know about those workers in the mines,” Mr. Iwasaki said.
In Japan, such history is often viewed as best forgotten, or at least consigned to a settled past. But in South Korea, the wounds of Japan’s 35-year occupation remain raw, and that has made Sado the latest flash point between these two Asian neighbors that seem irrevocably divided.
When Prime Minister Fumio Kishida of Japan announced late last month that his country would seek the UNESCO designation, the South Korean government denounced the nomination as “ignoring the painful history of forced labor” and called on Japan to immediately suspend the bid.
Aikawa, one of the towns that prospered during the mining era in Sado.Credit…Shiho Fukada for The New York Times
With that, the two countries, more than 75 years after the end of World War II, are fighting once again over whether Japan has sufficiently atoned for its colonial abuses, not only in financial compensation, but also in remembrance and truth.
The spat has worsened relations that were already at their lowest point in decades. While the United States has urged its two allies to work together to help counter the rise of China and a nuclear buildup in North Korea, the two sides publicly aired their differences after a meeting in Hawaii this month with Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken.
The South Korean foreign minister expressed “strong regret” over the Sado nomination, and his Japanese counterpart called South Korean assertions about the mine workers “unacceptable.”
As elections approach in both countries, politicians have seized on the issue. Mr. Kishida, who faces an election in the upper house of Parliament this summer, is seeking to shore up support with the powerful former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and the rest of his party’s right-wing base, which tends to elide Japan’s wartime atrocities.
In South Korea, Lee Jae-myung, the candidate from the current governing party in the March presidential election, has demanded that Japan apologize to Koreans who were mobilized for wartime labor.
On Sado Island itself, where banners and posters celebrating the World Heritage nomination festoon warehouses and shop windows, residents say any debate about Korean laborers is beside the point.
Although one of the mines started operating in the 12th century and the last one stayed open until 1989, the UNESCO nomination focuses exclusively on the Edo-era history of the mines, from 1603 to 1867, when Japanese workers excavated gold using only basic hand tools.
Locals hope that a heritage designation would lure new visitors to sample Sado’s seafood, kayak along the coastline or trek through verdant mountains that ring the island. Tourism numbers peaked at 1.2 million annual visitors in 1991 but fell to less than half that even before the pandemic.
At the largest mine on Sado, tourists can wander through tunnels where mannequins dressed in cropped kimonos, straw sandals and cloth head wraps appear in tableaus demonstrating how Edo-period workers dug out gold-stippled rocks with axes and picks.
The scenes have an airbrushed Disneyland feel, with some of the life-size dolls bearing ghoulish grins. Korean workers are mentioned only in two lines in a centuries-spanning chronology hanging on a wall, with no indication of forced labor.
Historians say that limiting the World Heritage nomination to the Edo period does a disservice to Japanese cultural memory.
“When you tell the whole story of the history, you respect the history of that country,” said David Palmer, an associate professor at the University of Melbourne in Australia who has studied Japanese mining. “Why should we always feel shame when we recognize the past?”
Even activists in South Korea say they would support the nomination if Japan acknowledged the complete history.
“If you actually go to Sado Island, it’s beautiful, and I think it’s worth sharing with the world, as long as the full history behind it is included,” said Jung Hye-gyung, a historian who works with the Foundation for Victims of Forced Mobilization by Imperial Japan in Seoul.
Records kept by the Japanese government and Mitsubishi, which purchased one of the Sado mines from the government in 1896, show that at least 1,500 workers were brought from the Korean Peninsula to toil in the mines between 1940 and 1945, according to Yasuto Takeuchi, a Japanese historian who has published several books on wartime Korean labor.
Mr. Takeuchi said he had reviewed records of more than 100 Korean laborers who tried to escape the mines — evidence, he said, that they were forced to be there.
Japan’s government says the Korean workers were legally mobilized as citizens of the Japanese empire for a mass industrial war effort that conscripted Japanese nationals as well.
Sado residents see it that way, too. Shinichi Sato, 62, the owner of a clothing store whose family has lived on the island for 10 generations, said his father was called up from high school during the war to work in a factory in Nagoya, a city in central Japan.
“These Korean people were treated the same way that Japanese people were,” Mr. Sato said.
The Sado nomination could be undermined by another conflict involving a Japanese World Heritage site. Last summer, a panel of conservation experts advising UNESCO said Japan had not followed through on a promise to acknowledge the large numbers of Koreans and others who were forced to work under harsh conditions at a collection of coal mines and factories known as the Meiji Industrial Sites.
Japan must respond to the criticism by the end of the year, but some associated with the Meiji sites are defiant.
With the Sado nomination, Japan is at risk of repeating the pattern “in terms of history being camouflaged,” said Christoph Brumann, head of the research group at the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology in Halle, Germany.
On Sado Island, some residents fume at what they see as South Korea’s illegitimate demands. They say Japan settled all colonial claims with a 1965 treaty that provided South Korea with $500 million in aid and cheap loans from Japan.
“There is no other country with this kind of history where they treated their subjects so well,” said Tsutomu Homma, 70, a retired rice farmer who volunteers as a mine tour guide.
Most locals are simply hoping for a tourism boom. Souvenir shops appeared ready — if not downright desperate — for crowds, with stacks of chocolate, crackers and tissues in boxes shaped like gold bricks.
Yayoi Hotta, 45, a transplant from Tokyo who opened a cafe and independent movie theater on a street that retains its Edo-era name, said she was excited for the World Heritage designation but worried whether the island could handle an influx of tourists.
“Until now, not many people have come here,” she said.
That may well end up being a needless concern. A silver mine that was named a World Heritage site in 2007 — with no questions over its workers’ provenance — drew close to one million visitors the year it was listed. By 2018, the number had dwindled to a quarter of that.
John Yoon contributed reporting from Seoul, and Makiko Inoue from Tokyo.