Centuries-old mines fuel tensions between Japan and South Korea

Beneath a split-top mountain on the Japanese island of Sado lies a network of centuries-old mines that have sparked a new diplomatic conflict with South Korea.

Some of Sado’s gold and silver mines off Japan’s western coast are believed to have been in operation as early as the 12th century and were producing until the end of World War II.

Japan believes that the long history and artisanal mining practices used there at a time when European mines were being mechanized deserve to be included in the UNESCO World Heritage List. List.

But in Seoul, the focus is on something that is not mentioned in the application: the use of Korean labor during World War II, when Japan occupied the Korean peninsula.

Japan seeks recognition of three sites—the Nishimikawa gold mine, the Tsurushi silver mine, and the Aikawa gold and silver mines—between 1603 and 1867.

Officials and supporters of the bid say it was an era when the mines were the most productive in the world and mining was done by hand.

But he also pauses before a period when the Korean conscripts labored under conditions that even some supporters of the UNESCO bid call “extremely harsh.”

Work on the World Heritage has been going on for years, inspired in part by the successful recognition of a silver mine in Japan’s western Shimane region.

Ryo Usami of Sado City’s World Heritage Promotion Department said locals hope the recognition will highlight the mine’s contribution to the island’s unique culture and history.

“Many people migrated to Sado to mine gold and silver… They came from all over Japan and brought their local culture with them,” Usami told AFP.

“The history of Sado is mainly the history of these gold mines, and its culture was partly shaped by mining. This is what the city of Sado wants to preserve.”

– “Discrimination existed” –

Production at these sites ceased by the 1960s, when the mining company Mitsubishi Materials began to welcome tourists.

In the 1970s, animatronic robots were installed in some of the mine tunnels to give an idea of ​​what life was like.

The eerie, emaciated figures remain, their heads swiveling from side to side, their hands mechanically swinging their picks up and down in a derelict manner.

Groups of local tourists walk through the cold tunnels and read panels explaining the history of Sado’s mining industry.

Panels note that Edo-era miners were often homeless or undocumented people who were captured and forced to work, and that child labor was sometimes used.

But there is little evidence that roughly 1,500 Koreans worked on the sites during World War II.

Their status is disputed, with some claiming that about two-thirds signed contracts voluntarily, while the remainder were drafted during military mobilization.

“The working conditions were extremely harsh, but the pay was very high, so many people, including many Japanese, applied,” said Koichiro Matsuura, a former director general of UNESCO who backs Sado’s bid.

Others contend that the conditions of employment were effectively equivalent to forced labor and that Korean workers were subjected to significantly harsher conditions than their Japanese counterparts.

“Discrimination did exist,” said Toomi Asano, a professor of Japanese political history at Tokyo’s Waseda University.

“Their working conditions were very poor and dangerous. They were given the most dangerous jobs.”

– “Part of our history” –

Wartime issues such as forced labor soured relations between Japan and South Korea, and Seoul formed a task force to counter UNESCO’s bid.

After the proposal was announced, the government summoned the Tokyo ambassador and issued a statement saying it “strongly regrets” the nomination and “strongly urges Japan to stop its attempts.”

The issue of forced labor also affects other Japanese heritage sites, including the Meiji Industrial Revolution Sites, listed in 2015.

UNESCO last year required the site’s clearing house to properly explain that “large numbers of Koreans and others (were) recruited against their will and forced to work in harsh conditions.”

Matsuura believes that Japan should “avoid repeating the same mistake” on Sado.

“We need to be more specific and more honest about how Korean workers lived and worked in the Sado gold mines.”

This view is shared by some visitors, including 79-year-old Hideji Yamagami.

“Of course they should (explain), I didn’t know about it at all,” he told AFP after visiting the Aikawa website.

“I thought the Japanese did all the hard work.”

Asano hopes UNESCO will push for the entire history of the Sado mines to be put on public display if the site is given World Heritage status, and believes Japan “should not be afraid” of recognizing part of its history.

“Every nation has its own dark history, those nations that are completely liberated do not exist.”