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EDITORIAL | Don’t Bungle Sado Mines’ UNESCO Heritage Registration Again

UNESCO has pointed out inadequacies in the nomination documentation submitted by Japan in this cycle. The next opportunity will come two years from now.



Sado gold mines are a Tokugawa-era unique industrial site featured in application for UNESCO World Heritage Site status (©Sankei)

The Japanese government has given up on getting the Sado gold and silver mines in Niigata Prefecture registered as a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Site in 2023. This is because the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization pointed out inadequacies in the nomination forms the Japanese government had submitted for the mines’ World Heritage status.

Once submitted, the nomination file may not be amended. This means that it is impossible for Japan to achieve the planned World Heritage designation in 2023, which was the original goal. The government should seriously reflect on its bungles and ensure the World Heritage registration proceeds without fail the next time around.

According to the Agency for Cultural Affairs, it was at the end of February 2022 that UNESCO pointed out inadequacies in the nomination documentation. The reason why the waterway trace at Nishimikawa Gold Dust Mine, one of the constituent elements of the Sado mines, was interrupted halfway through was inadequately explained, it was said. Regrettably, the local government was not informed of the circumstances until late July.

South Korea had opposed the proposed UNESCO listing of the site, claiming that people from the Korean Peninsula were forced into hard labor at the Sado gold mines. About 1,000 people from the Korean Peninsula did work at the gold mines from 1940 to 1942. However, South Korea’s argument is an unwarrantable accusation as the records show they were paid salaries. 

In 2021, the Japanese government made a Cabinet decision distinguishing the difference in a written response to a question in the Diet, saying, “The wartime requisitioning of workers does not fall under the category of forced labor.”

Historic site of the Sado Gold and Silver Mines (© Sankei Shimbun)

Failures in the Process

Under the UNESCO’s World Heritage registration screening process, a tentative version of a nomination package can be presented voluntarily by the end of September of the year prior to the official deadline for its submission. If UNESCO points out any inadequacies in the document, they can be corrected, and a formal nomination will be submitted by February 1 of the following year. 

However, the Japanese government did not make a decision on the nomination until the end of 2021. 

As a consequence, the provisional version of the nomination package could not be presented by the deadline. It would be a problem if South Korea’s opposition to the nomination had caused the government to hesitate in making the recommendation, thereby becoming ill-prepared in the submission of the final nomination package.

Women in Seoul, South Korea, hold signs that read "Compensate and apologize for victims of wartime forced labor" during an anti-Japan protest. (August 15, 2019. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji)

South Korea’s Influence

What is worrisome is whether UNESCO’s reference to the inadequacies were influenced by South Korea’s opposition to the Sado Island mines registration for World Heritage status.  

The Agency for Cultural Affairs has said UNESCO’s intention in pointing out inadequacies in the letter of recommendation has nothing to do with tensions in the relationship between Tokyo and Seoul. Some have noted, however, that UNESCO is wary of having Japan-South Korea history issues brought before its World Heritage Committee.

South Korea could possibly become a member of the World Heritage Committee in the autumn of 2023. If that happens, a propaganda war can be expected to block the Sado Island mines World Heritage registration. The Japanese government must resolutely refute false claims from South Korea and seek the understanding of the international community.

The government plans to resubmit the nomination package to UNESCO in February of 2023. That means the earliest registration can be approved would be two years from now. 

The government must thoroughly scrutinize the causes of its mistakes this time and take all possible measures to prepare a fully compliant nomination package for its next submission.


(Read the editorial in Japanese at this link.)

Author: Editorial Board, The Sankei Shimbun