Japan wants to introduce the history of gold mining. Just Not All.

SADO ISLAND, Japan – About 40 miles off the northwest coast of Japan, Akiyoshi Iwasaki is eager to share the history of the mountainous, lightning-shaped island where he grew up.

After years of lobbying by locals, Mr. Iwasaki, a bar owner, is delighted that the Japanese government has nominated three gold and silver mines on Sado Island to be recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site, hope to recommend them along with Fuji Mountthe Hiroshima Peace Memorial and Of Kyoto shrines.

The mines supplied precious metals to the shoguns who ruled Japan for two and a half centuries when the country was completely cut off from the rest of the world. However, there is a darker part of Sado’s history that 50-year-old Mr. Iwasaki is little aware of: the period during World War II when some 1,500 South Koreans had to work in the mines as subjects. of Japanese colonial rule.

“People of my generation don’t know about the workers in that mine,” said Mr. Iwasaki.

In Japan, such history is often considered best forgotten, or at least tied to a stable past. But in South Korea, the wounds of the 35-year Japanese occupation still linger, and that has made Sado the latest tipping point between these two seemingly irreparably divided Asian neighbors.

When Prime Minister Fumio Kishida of Japan announced late last month that his country would seek a UNESCO designation, the South Korean government denied the nomination was “ignoring the painful history of forced labor.” forced” and called on Japan to immediately suspend the bidding.

With that, the two nations, more than 75 years after the end of World War II, are once again struggling to see if Japan can make up for its colonial abuses, not just financial reparations. , but also about remembrance and truth.

The controversy has soured relations that are already at their lowest in decades. While the United States called on its two allies to work together to help counter China’s rise and nuclear buildup in North Korea, the two sides made their differences public after meeting in Hawaii last month. this with Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken.

South Korea’s foreign minister expressed “deep regret” about Sado’s nomination, and his Japanese counterpart called South Korea’s assertions about the miners “unacceptable.”

As elections unfolded in both countries, politicians got to grips with the issue. Mr. Kishida, who faces an election to the upper house this summer, is looking to bolster support with powerful former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and the rest of the right-wing establishment in his party. tends to undo Japan’s wartime atrocities.

In South Korea, Lee Jae-myung, the current ruling party’s candidate in the presidential election in March, asked Japan to apologize to Koreans who were campaigned for wartime labor.

On Sado itself, where banners and posters celebrate World Heritage-nominated warehouses and florist shops, residents say any debate over North Korean labor matters. important.

Although one of the mines began operations in the 12th century and the last mine remained open until 1989, the UNESCO nomination focuses only on the Edo-era history of the mines, from 1603 to 1867, when Japanese workers only use basic hand tools. .

Locals hope that the heritage title will attract new visitors to enjoy Sado’s seafood, kayak along the coastline or hike through the verdant mountains that surround the island. Tourism numbers peaked at 1.2 million annual visitors in 1991 but have fallen to less than half of their pre-pandemic levels.

At the largest mine on Sado Island, tourists can wander through tunnels, where mannequins dressed in cropped kimonos, straw sandals and headscarves appear in brush sets showing how the miners Edo period workers dug the golden rocks with axes and picks.

The scenes give the feel of Disneyland being outfitted in the air, with some of the life-size dolls sporting ghostly smiles. Korean workers are mentioned in only two lines in a centuries-long chronology hanging on the wall, with no signs of forced labor.

Historians say that limiting World Heritage nominations to the Edo period adversely affects Japan’s cultural memory.

“When you tell the whole historical story, 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 do we always feel ashamed to see the past?”

Even activists in South Korea said they would support the nomination if Japan acknowledged history in its entirety.

Jung Hye-gyung, a historian working with the Organization for Victims of Forced Mobilization of the Empire of 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 sent from the Korean Peninsula to work in the sites. mines from 1940 to 1945, according to Yasuto Takeuchi, a Japanese Historian who published several books on wartime Korean labor.

Takeuchi said he had reviewed the records of more than 100 North Korean workers trying to get out of the mines – evidence, he said, that they were forced there.

The Japanese government said the Korean workers were legally mobilized as citizens of the Japanese empire for a mass industrial war effort that included Japanese nationals.

Sado residents also see the same. Shinichi Sato, 62, a clothing store owner whose family has lived on the island for 10 generations, said his father was called up in high school during the war to work in a factory in Nagoya, a city in central Japan.

“These Koreans are treated like the Japanese,” Mr. Sato said.

The Sado nomination could be destroyed by another conflict involving a World Heritage Site of Japan. Last summer, a panel of conservation experts advised UNESCO speak Japan did not continue a promise to acknowledge the large numbers of Koreans and others forced to work in harsh conditions at a set of mines and coal plants known as Meiji Industrial Sites.

Japan must respond to the criticism later this year, but some regarding the Meiji sites remain adamant.

With Sado’s nomination, Japan risks repeating the pattern “historically in disguise,” said Christoph Brumann, head of the research team at the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology in Halle, Germany. .

On Sado Island, some residents are fed up with what they see as South Korea’s illegal demands. They say that Japan settled all colonial claims with a 1965 treaty that provided Korea with $500 million in aid and cheap loans from Japan.

Tsutomu Homma, 70, a retired rice farmer and volunteer tour guide, said: “There is no other country with a history like this where they treat their subjects so well. so.

Most locals are simply hoping for a tourism boom. Souvenir shops are ready – if not desperate – for the crowd, with stacks of chocolates, crackers and tissues in boxes shaped like golden bricks.

Yayoi Hotta, 45, from Tokyo, who has opened an independent cafe and cinema on a street that retains its Edo-era name, said she is excited about the World Heritage title but worried whether the island Can the island accommodate a large number of tourists?

“So far, not many people have come here,” she said.

That can also become an unnecessary concern. A silver mine named a World Heritage Site in 2007 – no question about the origins of the workers – attracted nearly a million visitors the year it was listed. By 2018, that number had dropped to a quarter.

John Yoon contributed reporting from Seoul, and Makiko Inoue from Tokyo. Japan wants to introduce the history of gold mining. Just Not All.

Fry Electronics Team

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