Sado mines plan upsets Asia unity
The Kitazawa Flotation Plant at the ruins of the Aikawa Gold and Silver Mine in Sado on Sado Island. Japan’s bid for a World Heritage designation is the latest flashpoint in its relations with South Korea. Kyodo
Japan’s proposal that its Sado mines be added to the 2023 Unesco World Heritage List is more than just a cultural-driven effort. It is a showcase of the inward-looking politics of Japan’s conservative establishment to use particular events from the past to fit a desired narrative for the present, to purify the record of Japan’s imperialism.
Reigniting the controversy over the several-hundred-year-old gold mines of Sado Island has brought tensions between Japan and South Korea back to the fore. The issue comes at the time when the world needs the old adversaries to unite in tackling the challenges of emerging Indo-Pacific issues, such as China’s threats against Taiwan and other state claimants of the West Philippine Sea, Vietnam’s East Sea — or what the Chinese Communist Party calls the “South China Sea”. There is also the significant matter of how North Korea’s latest weapons are threatening the rules-based regional order.
In a phone call with his Japanese counterpart last month, South Korea’s Foreign Affairs Minister, Chung Eui-yong, expressed his discontent with Japan’s decision to recommend Sado mines to the 2023 Unesco World Heritage List and urged Japan to cancel its proposal. However, Japan’s Foreign Affairs Minister, Yoshimasa Hayashi, said his country could not accept South Korea’s assertion, which he described as groundless and regrettable.
The gold and silver mines of Sado Island financially supported Japan’s shogunate in the 1600s. For generations, it was the nation’s most prolific mining site, producing 70 tonnes of gold and 2,100 tonnes of silver until its deposits were finally exhausted roughly three decades ago. However, it did so on the back of forced labour.
Japan recruited hundreds of thousands of Korean workers, including those forcefully taken from the Korean Peninsula, to compensate for its own labour shortages due to most of its working-age males having been sent to battlefields across Asia and the Pacific region.
In the minds of Koreans, the Sado mines are one of many representations of the horrors of Japanese imperialism, and one for which Japan has yet to express its heartfelt remorse or provide adequate reparations.
Japan’s recent decision also serves as a reminder to onlookers that it did not follow through on a previous pledge about a comparable historical designation matter. A coal mine in Nagasaki prefecture was inscribed into the World Cultural Heritage list in 2015. Japan said at that time that it would recognise the many Koreans who were forced to work at the mine. However, in its 2017 report to Unesco, Japan breached its pledge and even omitted the phrase “forced labour”.
In recent times, Japan has presented itself as a responsible democracy and major international power, especially in the Asia-Pacific region. It has contributed to United Nations Peacekeeping Operations, International Humanitarian Relief Operations, and International Election Observation Operations.
The Japan International Cooperation Agency, a government agency, is also widely embraced by countries around the world, including those in Asean, for its assistance in developing their infrastructure and human resources to enhance their productivity and increase their value-added products and services.
Japan’s insistence on pushing forward with seeking World Heritage status for the Sado mines without acknowledging the use of forced labour from Korea and other countries would significantly negate the contributions and positive image that Japan has so carefully developed.
Known for their attempts to erase Japan’s wartime history, former prime minister Shinzo Abe and his followers are those reportedly pressuring Mr Kishida’s cabinet to go ahead with the Sado mines World Heritage application despite the damage it would cause to Japan’s international reputation.
The push has elicited questions from Japanese scholars. Even renowned Japanese scholar Matsuura Mitsunobu from Kogakuin University said the move to enlist the Sado mines as a World Heritage Site could undermine the efforts of those who have struggled to uncover Japan’s unsavoury historical episodes as well as the many innocent people who suffered as a result of forced labour.
The issue which indeed occurred before Russia’s invasion in Ukraine is ill-timed. The world needs Japanese and South Korean unity more than ever today, given the challenges posed by authoritarian powers like Vladimir Putin’s regime and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
However, the Moon administration is already perceived as appeasing the CCP, while Japan’s hard-headed stance on the Sado mines issue will only push South Korea further from Japan and closer to China, which shares Korea’s sentiments on Japan’s colonial brutality.
The underlying issue is not that Japan is growing too strong in world politics, but rather how inward-looking the Japanese government has become. The question is whether Japan still aspires to remain a responsible major power in the world, or if it is satisfied to relegate itself to a nationalistic entity clinging to its imperial history.
Alexis Dudden, professor of Modern Japan and Modern Korea at the University of Connecticut, summarises this struggle well when she describes how the extreme right-wing group in Japan’s political spectrum is pushing for the Sado mines to become a Unesco World Heritage Site as a way of reinforcing Japan’s history for the consumption of Japan’s conservatives.
“The Sado Unesco attempt reveals a Japan versus Japan struggle more than a Japan versus Korea fight, with the Abe-Suga-now-Kishida administration’s ‘beautiful Japan’ myopia so over-the-top that Japanese citizens who question it are branded anti-Japanese,” she says.
Efforts to legitimise a legacy of cruelty are detrimental to Japan’s standing on the world stage while also undermining Japan’s relations with its allies.
Japan must acknowledge with dignity the sacrifices of all those who perished at the Sado mines, including its own citizens as well as Koreans and other nationals.
Refusal to do so would disrespect the memory of not only those who suffered at the Sado mines but also those who underwent similar cruelty in the name of Japan’s imperial past.