Last week, the Cabinet decided it would ask UNESCO to list a gold and silver mine on the island of Sado as a World Heritage Site. The government says the mine, which opened about 400 years ago and closed in 1989, deserves recognition as a prime representative of Japan’s “industrial heritage,” since at one time it produced more silver than any other mine in the world. However, South Korea has already challenged Japan’s version of the mine’s history, saying that the mining company used forced labor from the Korean peninsula during the time when Korea was a colony of Japan. According to a Bloomberg report, the Japanese government “has said little” about the “human rights conditions at the mine.” South Korea’s Yonhap news agency says it is believed that more than 2,000 Koreans worked there between 1910 and 1945. The difference in narratives surrounding the Sado mine mirrors the dispute the two countries had over another Japanese mine that eventually went on the World Heritage list: Hashima, an island off the coast of Nagasaki Prefecture. The South Korean government says that the coal mine on Hashima also used forced labor, but the materials and exhibits at the site claim that the Korean laborers were well-paid and well-treated. South Korea has accused Japan of whitewashing the mine’s harsh conditions.
The Japanese government’s selective memory when it comes to recounting the history of its mining sector isn’t limited to sites it hopes to make into tourist attractions. On Feb. 3, Yonhap reported on the 80th anniversary of a mine disaster off the coast of Ube in Yamaguchi Prefecture that killed 183 workers, 136 of whom were Koreans. The Chosei coal mine, located under the seabed, collapsed at about 9:30 a.m. on Feb. 3, 1942.
None of the bodies have ever been recovered. A local citizens group has over the years recorded testimony and gathered documents about the disaster, and some of it indicates that as early as Nov. 30, 1941, the mine tunnel was showing signs of leakage. However, the company did nothing and kept sending miners into the tunnel. Yonhap says that, at the time, the Japanese media only gave cursory coverage of the disaster, which is one of the reasons the bodies were never recovered. The mining company and the country itself, which was still at war, preferred to forget about it. The South Korean government, however, has not forgotten, and its Truth Commission on Forced Mobilization Under Japanese Imperialism has cited the Chosei disaster as an example of corporate negligence that needlessly put Korean forced laborers in a dangerous situation.
The local citizens group was established in 1991 and subsequently provided the South Korean government with the results of their research. They identified the victims of the disaster and contacted survivors of those who were Japanese nationals. In 1992, surviving families of the Korean victims established its own association. Every year since 1993, the two groups carry out a memorial service on Feb. 3 near the spot where the collapse occurred, though last year’s ceremony was cancelled due to the COVID pandemic. In addition, the Japanese group installed a plaque on the site with the names of the known victims and have worked to conserve the mine piers, which are the only relics still standing. In 2013, the two groups started a concerted effort to recover any remains from the site and repatriate them. The Korean side has been lobbying the South Korean government to positively negotiate with the Japanese government to carry out the recovery. However, according to the Japanese side no progress has been made in this endeavor since the Japanese government has not responded at all, either to South Korean entreaties or to their own.
One member of the Japanese group told Yonhap that she believes if the two governments cooperate on the recovery effort “friendlier relations…will improve as a result,” which is a pretty optimistic view of the matter considering how stubborn the Japanese government has been about denying that there were any Korean forced laborers in Japan during the colonial period. There are also vested interests involved. The mining company behind the Chosei disaster eventually morphed into Ube Industries, the largest private employer in Yamaguchi Prefecture, which happens to be the home constituency of former Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe, who has taken a personal interest in promoting the Sado gold and silver mine as a World Heritage site. The city of Ube also has a PR working relationship with the Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper, which, of course, has said nothing about the disaster or the groups working to recover remains of the victims, but, then again, no mainstream media have ever covered the matter in Japan, only a few independent journalists and Akahata, the organ of the Japan Communist Party. Some vested interests aren’t so easy to see.