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EDITORIAL | Sado Gold Mines' Value as World Heritage Site Cannot Be Denied

Japan must address questions on its Sado gold mines' UNESCO World Heritage Site application while ensuring its history is not distorted by Korean politics.



The Doyu-no-Warito open-cast mine site, worked by hand during the early Edo period, has become a symbol for the entire Sado gold and silver mines complex. Doyu-no-Warito, a site of open-pit mining, which has become a symbol of the gold and silver mines of Sado Island. (© Sankei by Kenichi Honda)

The International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) has recommended a "referral" regarding the proposal to inscribe the Sado gold mines as a World Heritage Site. A referral means the UNESCO advisory body has requested additional information about the Japanese government's application. The historic gold mines are located on Sado Island in Niigata Prefecture. 

Although the "Sado complex of heritage mines" has not yet been selected, the ICOMOS report clearly recognizes their global importance. Additionally, we hope the government will work closely with the local governments to bring about their full inscription. 

A group of Liberal Democratic Party members inspects the historic "Sado Island Gold Mines" site in Niigata Prefecture on May 6th, 2022. (©Sankei by Keiichi Hiroike)

The ICOMOS Report

ICOMOS had four choices: inscription (registration), referral (request for additional information), deferral (postponement of registration), and denial (outright rejection of the registration proposal). 

In its report, the panel concluded that the Sado mines clearly have the value needed for careful consideration for inscription. Furthermore, the report says additional information should be sought concerning three points. They include:

  • Exclusion of some areas where the heritage dates mostly since the Meiji Period; 
  • Detailed explanations of how the mines were operated throughout their history;
  • Plans for exhibition facilities and exhibitions.

Also, proposal content can be partially revised per the recommendations and appropriate explanations provided. If that happens, the UNESCO World Heritage Committee could approve the inscription when it meets in India in July. In 2023, the committee approved all six proposals which had been recommended for referral. 

Considerations in the Responses

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshimasa Hayashi declared that the national government would work in unison to see the inscription achieved. We trust that the officials concerned will promptly coordinate with the concerned local governments and develop a proper response. 

In addition, the advisory body called for "consideration" of a strategy dealing with the entire history of the sites. It suggested including comprehensive explanations and exhibitions covering the various issues that have been raised.

A South Korean foreign ministry spokesperson issued remarks in response. They said, "If South Korea's position is fully reflected, we will not seek to block (inscription)."

However, does that mean Seoul intends to block the inscription, depending on the circumstances? 

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

Sado Mines' Significance

Up to now, the South Korean side has opposed inscription. It has alleged that the Sado mines were the scene of "forced labor" during World War II and called for that claim to be officially recognized. 

However, the fact is that wartime laborers from the Korean Peninsula who worked in the mines were paid for their labor. In short, the South Korean claim is totally baseless. Furthermore, in 2021, the Japanese government affirmed in a written response endorsed by a Cabinet decision that work conditions in the mines at that time "did not constitute forced labor."

Factually, moreover, the cultural value of the Sado mines contained in Japan's proposal only covers its history through the Edo period. That ended long before World War II

Even if there is an explanation of the "entire history," the contents will be the same as in the Cabinet decision. Needless to say, that differs from South Korea's position up to now. 

Thanks to its unique technologies, the Sado mines boasted the largest volume of gold production of any site in the world in the 17th century. That corresponds to the early Edo period. The Sado gold mines should be recognized as a World Heritage Site without any distortion of their historical and cultural value. 


(Read the editorial in Japanese)

Author: Editorial Board, The Sankei Shimbun