The centuries-old mines stirring Japan-South Korea tensions

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

Some of the gold and silver mines of Sado, off Japan’s west coast, are believed to have started operating as early as the 12th century and produced until after World War II.

But in Seoul, the focus is on what isn’t mentioned in the bid: the use of conscripted Korean labour during the Second World War, when Japan occupied the Korean peninsula.

Officials and supporters of the bid say that era was when the mines were the world’s most productive and mining was done by hand.

The World Heritage effort has been years in the making, inspired in part by the successful recognition of a silver mine in western Japan’s Shimane region.

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

– ‘Discrimination did exist’ –

In the 1970s, animatronic robots were installed in some mining tunnels to give a sense of what life there was like.

Groups of domestic tourists file through the frigid tunnels and read panels that explain the history of Sado’s mining industry.

But there is little to testify that an estimated 1,500 Koreans worked at the sites during World War II.

“The working conditions were extremely harsh, nevertheless the pay was very high, that’s why lots of people, including many Japanese, applied,” said Koichiro Matsuura, a former UNESCO director-general who is backing Sado’s bid.

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

– ‘A part of our history’ –

After the bid was announced, the government summoned Tokyo’s ambassador and issued a statement saying it “strongly regrets” the nomination and “sternly urges Japan to stop its attempt”.

UNESCO last year demanded an information centre for the sites properly explain that a “large number of Koreans and others (were) brought against their will and forced to work under harsh conditions”.

“We must say in a more concrete and more honest manner how the Korean workers lived and worked at the Sado gold mines.”

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

Asano hopes UNESCO will insist the full history of Sado’s mines is on display if the site gets World Heritage status, and believes Japan “should not fear” recognising a part of its history.

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Originally published as The centuries-old mines stirring Japan-South Korea tensions


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