The February 1, 2022, deadline to submit a recommendation for the ancient gold and silver mines on Sado Island (Niigata Prefecture) to be listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site is fast approaching.
However, there are reportedly some within the Japanese government who are thinking of deferring the recommendation. This is worrying. The government must proceed boldly with its recommendation.
The reason why some officials want to defer beyond a 2023 UNESCO listing is because South Korea has criticized the move, stating that people from the Korean Peninsula were subjected to forced labor at the site.
The hesitant officials want to postpone the listing to 2024 or later, but this judgment is a mistake.
If the recommendation is deferred, it would mean that Japan acknowledges South Korea’s inaccurate claims. South Korea would then push harder to stop the site from being listed. Would a UNESCO listing in 2024 or later even be possible after that?
“I told South Korea firmly that we do not accept their claims. The false media coverage in South Korea about the issue is also deeply regrettable,” said Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Seiji Kihara on January 21.
In that case, Japan should proceed with its UNESCO recommendation without hesitation.
Japan’s Council for Cultural Affairs selected the Sado Island mines as a candidate in December 2021.
The site has a rich handicraft-related history, which includes mining and smelting. And it was one of the world’s largest producers of gold in the 17th century. The site was a huge asset for the Tokugawa shogunate.
“People from the Korean Peninsula were victims of forced labor there,” states South Korea’s foreign ministry, demanding an instant withdrawal of the mines as a candidate. Their accusation is ridiculous.
The period that the recommendation would relate to is “up until the Tokugawa period” (1603-1868), which is different from the prewar and wartime periods South Korea is referring to.
But the notion that forced labor happened at the site is also inaccurate. Between 1940 and 1942, approximately 1,000 people from the Korean Peninsula did work at the Sado Island mines, but they were paid a salary. Even without the Tokugawa period cut-off point, South Korea does not have an argument.
In 2021, the Japanese government approved a written answer in a Cabinet meeting, stating that labor due to recruitment, official mediation, and conscription (on the issue of forced labor of people from the Korean Peninsula) does not equate to forced labor. If Japan defers its UNESCO recommendation, wouldn’t this negate the government’s written answer?
Regarding South Korea’s attempt to list documents on comfort women on the UNESCO Memory of the World Register, the Japanese government has led reforms stating that unless all the relevant nations were in agreement, there would be no application.
However, with regard to UNESCO World Heritage sites, there are no such rules — so South Korea’s opposition is not a reason to defer the recommendation.
The Japanese government should argue against South Korea’s claims using facts, and gain understanding from the international community. If Japan turns a blind eye here, there will be doubts over the Kishida administration’s diplomacy with South Korea.