By Konishi Hiroshi, Jingu Momoko in Tokyo, and Suzuki Takuya in Seoul
On Jan. 28, Prime Minister Kishida Fumio announced that he will nominate the remains of gold and silver mines on the island of Sado in Niigata Prefecture for inclusion in UNESCO’s list of World Heritage sites. Kishida had been leaning toward not nominating the mines but changed course after facing an uproar from the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). The decision will inevitably trigger a protest from South Korea, and the Japanese government has yet to come up with a clear path toward the mines’ eventual designation.
“We’ve decided to nominate [the mines on Sado Island]. It’s not true that we changed our mind or took a different course of action,” Kishida stressed at a press conference on the evening of Jan. 28. But it was a difficult decision that he arrived at after much wavering.
In late December, the Japanese government chose the site on Sado Island as a candidate for inclusion in the 2023 World Heritage list. Despite enthusiasm for the nomination in Niigata, where the Sado mines are located, the Minister of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) and many other parties involved voiced concern about it.
As expected, the South Korean government demanded that Kishida retract his decision to nominate the mines, claiming that the mines were a place where Korean workers were taken to be subjected to forced labor during the war. South Korea also mentioned the Sites of the Meiji Industrial Revolution, which were designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2015. The industrial revolution sites include the Hashima Coal Mine on an island known as Battleship Island in Nagasaki Prefecture. South Korea criticized Japan by saying it has not provided sufficient explanations about the Korean people who were forcefully taken to work there, pointing out: “Japan has not implemented the measures it promised [at the time of the designation].”
When the Sado Island site is officially nominated, South Korea is sure to object. The Kishida administration had previously been concerned that South Korea’s opposition to the Sado nomination would reignite criticism of the designation of Battleship Island.
For the Kishida administration, South Korea was not the only concern. The reaction of the United States was also on the mind of the premier since he had just held an online meeting with U.S. President Joe Biden. The United States hopes to present a united front with its allies in confronting China, and further deterioration of the Japan-South Korea relationship would be undesirable.
Further complicating the issue is the fact that based on an initiative led by Japan, UNESCO introduced for its Memory of the World register last year a rule that bars the inclusion of historical documents that are disputed by any concerned party. Even though the Memory of the World and the World Heritage programs are different, Japan would be going against its own initiative if it nominated the Sado mines despite South Korea’s objection.
Under these circumstances, MOFA had believed that the administration should seek an opportunity that would lead to the mines’ successful designation, and Kishida had repeated at the Diet that his administration would “hold detailed discussions on the most effective path toward ensuring the designation, since that is the most important goal.”
But Kishida’s stance drew an uproar from the LDP. On Jan. 18, a conservative legislators’ group for which former Prime Minister Abe Shinzo is an advisor adopted a resolution requesting the government to make a swift decision to nominate the Sado mines. On Jan. 19, LDP Policy Research Council chair Takaichi Sanae said at a press conference that the issue of the Sado nomination is a “matter of Japan’s honor.” A senior official at the Prime Minister’s Office [Kantei] said at the time: “We have received opinions from all sorts of people. With a few more pushes, the direction might shift.”
On Jan. 20, Abe said to lawmakers belonging to his faction: “It is wrong to forgo the nomination to avoid an argument.” Abe was essentially saying that LDP legislators who are close to Abe would distance themselves from Kishida if he didn’t submit the nomination. Kishida, who is getting ready for the Upper House election this summer, was heard saying, “I have to figure something out.”
When Kishida called Abe on the phone, Abe said: “Even though the conservative administration of Park Geun-hye was in power at the time of the designation of the Battleship Island, South Korea disputed the decision anyway. Deferring the decision this time won’t change anything with South Korea.”
After this conversation, Kishida made an about-face and decided to nominate the Sado mines. Heeding Abe’s advice, the prime minister decided to establish a task force led by Assistant Chief Cabinet Secretary Takizaki Shigeki to prepare for debate with South Korea over historical issues. Abe remarked on Jan. 28 that “[the prime minister] has made the right decision in a cool-headed manner.”
Kishida was pressured by voices from within the party to nominate the Sado mines. Even though he announced that the government would build a detailed and logical argument to convince those concerned, the prospects for the Sado mines’ designation remain murky.
“Kishida’s decision might have appeased some of the LDP conservatives, but that doesn’t mean the Sado mines are going to obtain the designation,” a government source points out. “If the designation is not obtained, it would deal a blow to the prime minister. He is taking a significant risk.’
Legacy of industrial revolution becomes source of contention
The local community in Niigata breathed a sigh of relief when they heard the news of the nomination just ahead of the deadline on Feb. 1.
“It was our fifth try. We thought this was our last chance,” said Nakano Ko (80), the leader of a group that has worked for a quarter century to have the mines designated as a World Heritage site. “I am certain that South Korea will understand if we explain what was actually happening at the time,” said Nakano, who was visibly pleased.
It was very difficult to obtain the World Heritage designation for the “Sites of the Meiji Industrial Revolution,” over which the same gap in historical perspective existed between Japan and South Korea as the Sado site. The South Korean government objected to the designation of the Meiji industrial sites as a World Heritage site by saying they included facilities where Koreans were subjected to forced labor. Kishida, who was serving as foreign minister at the time, led the tough negotiations that led to the designation.
At the time of the designation of the Sites of the Meiji Industrial Revolution, Japan promised to “take measures to clarify the fact there were many Koreans laborers who had been brought to the site against their will to work under severe conditions.” However, the Industrial Heritage Information Center, which opened at the site in 2020, exhibited a testimony that stated: “No discriminating incident was heard of against forced laborers brought in from the Korean Peninsula.” This triggered a protest from South Korea. In the summer of 2021, the World Heritage Committee adopted a resolution expressing “strong concerns that the Japanese government is not doing as much to disclose the negative aspects of the sites as it had promised.”
The Japanese government has argued that it has implemented the promised measures in good faith. “Nominating another site without first responding to the UNESCO resolution could trigger a backlash,” says Nishimura Yukio, a professor at Kokugakuin University. “Japan should squarely face the UNESCO resolution. It would be regrettable if the Sado people were made to bear the burden created by the designation of the [Meiji Industrial Revolution sites].”
The South Korean government declared that it “will resolutely deal with the issue of the Sado mines in cooperation with the international community, including UNESCO,” to prevent their designation. If the voices of opposition to Japan’s nomination grow louder among the South Korean people, ruling party candidates might try to take advantage of the issue as a way to galvanize anti-Japanese sentiment in the South Korean presidential election scheduled for March 9.
The World Heritage Committee is likely to deliberate on the Sado mines around the summer of 2023. If the discussions become deadlocked, the designation will require the approval of two-thirds of the attending/voting committee members. According to the Agency for Cultural Affairs, the committee generally prefers to resolve disputes through dialogue. If the two countries express differing opinions, the committee may defer the decision, making the future of the site’s designation even more uncertain.