Japan must defend Sado Gold Mine, campaign for World Heritage status

It is only natural for the government to nominate valuable cultural properties for World Heritage listing, so why has it caused unnecessary controversy in the country?

This is an opportunity for the government to change its excessively risk-averse policy on historical issues and strengthen its communication to the world.

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has announced that the government will nominate the Sado Gold Mine for registration as a UNESCO World Heritage site.

The Niigata prefectural government, the city of Sado in Niigata Prefecture and other organizations have been working for more than 20 years to have the Sado Gold Mine registered as a World Heritage site. They must be very pleased and hopeful to have overcome the domestic hurdle.

At the end of last year, the Council for Cultural Affairs advised nominating the Sado Gold Mine, but the government’s decision was delayed until just before the Feb. 1 deadline for submitting the nomination to UNESCO. At one point, the government was said to have been inclined to postpone the nomination in consideration of protests from South Korea. This is hard to understand.

In the end, the decision to nominate the mine was made probably due to priority being given to the voices of conservatives within the Liberal Democratic Party, such as former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. The fact that the government did not make its attitude clear at an early stage may have given the impression that it was shying away from addressing historical issues.

In the first place, South Korea’s claim that the Sado Gold Mine is a “site of forced labor” and its demand that the nomination should not be filed does not make sense.

What the council valued was the fact that while the world’s mines were being mechanized from the 16th to 19th centuries, the Sado Gold Mine developed its own production system using manual processes and became the world’s largest gold producing location in the 17th century.

What the South Korean side is referring to is the issue of laborers from the Korean Peninsula after the Meiji era, which is a completely different time frame. In addition, South Korea’s claim that there was forced labor runs against the facts and cannot be accepted.

Last year, at the initiative of Japan, UNESCO introduced a system that does not allow registration of documents in the Memory of the World unless all the countries concerned agree, but there is no such clear rule for registration of World Heritage cultural sites. It is wrong to equate the two matters and link them to the cautiousness over the nomination of the Sado Gold Mine.

In announcing the nomination, the prime minister expressed his intention to promote “calm and careful discussions” to ensure that the value of the Sado Gold Mine is appreciated. That is not enough, as he did not actively refute South Korea’s unjustified claim.

The registration of the Sado Gold Mine will be deliberated by the World Heritage Committee next year. After an academic review by an advisory body, the committee of 21 countries must approve the value and conservation management system for it to be registered as a World Heritage site.

It is said that there has never been a case in which a candidate that was once rejected by the committee was subsequently registered. Japan must stand absolutely firm and repel South Korea’s propaganda campaign, and broaden the understanding of the international community.

— The original Japanese article appeared in The Yomiuri Shimbun on Jan. 29, 2022.