Connect with us


Getting History Right: Japan’s Sado Mines a Victory for Korean Immigrants

Koreans were attracted to the high wages and fair working conditions at Japan’s Sado Mines, says economic historian Dr Lee Wooyoun. The notion of forced labor was a “historical myth.”



Sado Kinzan gold mines, nominated for UNESCO registration as a World Cultural Heritage Site.

The afternoon of Sunday, July 10 was hot and muggy in Niigata, a mid-size city on the Sea of Japan side of Honshu Island. A light breeze blew in from the water, but barely enough to provide relief. The sun beat down with a fury. The ocean glistened in the baking heat.

Even in this heat wave, more than 90 people filed into an auditorium in the Toki Messe conference complex to hear the real history of the ancient (but now defunct) mining operation on Sado Island just 20 miles or so off the Niigata coast.

In December of 2021, the Council for Cultural Affairs of the Government of Japan applied to have the Sado Mines registered as a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Cultural Heritage site. But activists in South Korea protested, claiming — as usual — forced labor and human trafficking.

Tsutomu Nishioka — Reitaku University professor, Moralogy Foundation researcher, and president of the Historical Awareness Research Committee (HARC) — has been leading a research project into the history of the Sado Mines. At a Tokyo conference in March 2022, Professor Nishioka, along with five other researchers and scholars, presented his findings on the Sado Mines’ labor history. There had been no forced labor, the group of scholars and researchers concluded.

Sado Kinzan Talk Stage (Photo Credit: Jason Morgan)

Endless Task of Battling Fake News

Professor Nishioka is a veteran debunker of leftist lies about history. In February of 2022, for instance, he replied to Japan Communist Party head Kazuo Shii, and to Mainichi newspaper editor Ko Koga. Both had criticized Nishioka over his claims about the Sado Mines. 

Professor Nishioka replied that the two critics were relying on a discredited and outdated theory rooted in political activism from the 1960s. Primary-source documents, Professor Nishioka explained, had debunked that theory. Those documents also refute Shii and Koga.

Some activists, Professor Nishioka says, rely on a prefectural history of Niigata, the prefecture in which Sado Island is located, to buttress their claims about “forced abduction.” But that book was written by someone heavily influenced by the historiographical theories of anti-Japan activist Pak Kyŏng-sik, himself notorious for writing fake history about Japan.


Many outside Japan also fail to understand Japanese history. Professor Nishioka exposed the New York Times just this year for their deeply flawed Sado Mines reporting.

Professor Tsutomu Nishioka (Photo Credit: Jason Morgan)

Learning the Real History of Sado Island

In Niigata this July, Nishioka led his team — including this writer — on a further fact-finding mission. HARC also coordinated a presentation in Niigata about the history of Sado and of wartime labor in Japan.

Joining Nishioka on stage was Dr Lee Wooyoun, an economic historian and a researcher with the Naksungdae Institute of Economic Research in South Korea.

Dr Lee gained prominence when his careful and empirical analysis appeared in the Korean-language and Japanese-language bestsellers, Anti-Japan Tribalism and The Fight against Anti-Japan Tribalism.

Dr Lee is also well-known for his efforts to have statues of comfort women removed from foreign countries. These statues are racist agit-prop used by North Korean agents working in South Korea and with American academics and activists to gain advantages for Pyongyang and Beijing in East Asia.

Speaking in Korean through interpreter Professor Che Sok-young, Dr Lee cut right to the chase. The notion of forced abduction to the Sado Mines was a “historical myth,” he said.

Dr Lee Wooyoun and Interpreter Professor Che Sok-Young (Photo Credit: Ryosuke Nagatani)

Example of Successful Korean Out-Migration

There are many primary-source documents and other historical materials available for the Sado Mines, Dr Lee pointed out.

For Dr Lee, these documents show that traveling to Japan to work was a “romanticized” dream for many Koreans. The reason was that, in Japan, Korean laborers could earn much higher wages, and enjoy much better working conditions, than on the Korean Peninsula.

“Once people arrived in Japan, they took photos of themselves to send back to their family in Korea. They wanted their loved ones to know they had arrived safely and were doing well. Being able to work in Japan, send money home to Korea, and save up money or pay off debts was something many Koreans longed to do,” Dr Lee said. 

“The photos Koreans took of themselves in Japan were a source of pride for those Koreans,” Dr Lee continued. “And yet, the South Korean government continues to use these photos as evidence of ‘forced abduction.’”


‘Wartime Workers’

In light of the wealth of documentary and other historical evidence available, Dr Lee argues, the Korean laborers in Japan during Japan’s war in the Asia-Pacific should be called not “forcibly-abducted laborers” but simply “wartime laborers.”

“The ‘forced abduction’ thesis is unconvincing,” Dr Lee emphasized. “It is impossible to imagine that rural Koreans would forcibly abduct one another, for one thing. And even if the local police were to order Koreans to go to Japan, Koreans could refuse. There was no penalty for doing so.

“The notion that Koreans were hunted, abducted, or kidnapped and taken to Japan against their will is untenable and simply implausible,” Dr Lee added.

“Well over one million workers entered the Japanese labor market from the Korean peninsula,” Dr Lee continued. “This was in no way forced. It represents a tremendous success, and should be recognized as an example of successful Korean immigration.”

Dr Lee Wooyoun and Interpreter Professor Che Sok-Young (Photo Credit: Ryosuke Nagatani)

Japan Sent Illegal Laborers Back to the Korean Peninsula

In his shorter follow-up talk, Professor Nishioka spoke about a handout of labor statistics for various years prior to the end of the Second World War in 1945.

One particularly interesting statistical table showed illegal out-migration from the Korean Peninsula to the Japanese home islands, beginning in 1930 and running through 1942. In total, there were 39,482 cases of (known) illegal crossing from the Korean Peninsula to the home islands. Of that number, 33,535 Koreans were sent back to the Korean Peninsula by the Japanese government.

Based on these and other statistics, Professor Nishioka argued that it makes no sense to say that the Japanese government was abducting Koreans and hauling them to Japan as forced laborers. In fact, the Japanese government was trying to prevent Koreans from flooding the local labor markets. The “forced passage” flowed in precisely the opposite direction as that claimed by the Korean activists.

Fair Treatment

And once on Sado Island, the Koreans were treated the same as their Japanese counterparts, if not better.

“Inside a rusty old safe in an office of the Sado Mines,” Nishioka said, “we found a copy of a handwritten book by former Sado Mines mining section chief Hirai Eiichi on the daily life of Sado workers. It confirmed what our other documents told us. Meticulous records show that the pay and conditions on Sado Island were good. That’s why so many Koreans wanted to work there.


“Had Japan really wanted to press-gang Koreans,” Professor Nishioka pointed out: 

Japanese police could have just walked through the streets of Japan and arrested Koreans to make up for labor shortages.

But what the police actually did was arrest Koreans who were in Japan illegally and send them back home to Korea. The fact is that there were many Koreans already working in Japan, and many, many more who were willing, eager, and waiting to make the journey to work in the Japanese home islands.

Dr Lee Wooyoun and Interpreter Professor Che Sok-Young (Photo Credit: Ryosuke Nagatani)

The Hidden Chinese Model

Another problem with the “forced abduction” thesis is that the activists who now accuse Japan of abducting Koreans learned about forced labor by studying the activism of Chinese groups.

“After the war,” Nishioka noted, “there was a movement to investigate the ‘forced abduction’ of Chinese POWs who were made to work in Japan. The Chinese POW case has nothing whatsoever to do with Korea or Koreans. But Korean activists, working with Japanese lawyers sensing an opportunity to make money, modeled their activism on the Chinese group.

“There would have been no need to learn from the Chinese POWs if there had been actual ‘forced abduction’ against Koreans in the first place. All that the activists and lawyers would have had to do would be to ask Koreans themselves what had happened,” Professor Nishioka said.

Actually, those activists and lawyers did ask Koreans, Professor Nishioka continued, grinning slightly.

“Japanese researchers interviewed former Korean laborers in Japan. The Korean laborers told the researchers they had gone to Japan willingly, and had encountered no discrimination while working there. The Japanese researchers were angered by these truthful testimonials!”

‘No Forced Abduction’

On the macro and micro level, Professor Nishioka concluded, “on the level of personal anecdotes and government statistics, the history of the Sado Mines matches up. There was no ‘forced abduction.’”


Professor Lee agreed.

“The Sado Mines should be registered as a UNESCO World Heritage Site,” he argued. “Sado was a great victory for Korean out-migration.”


Author: Jason Morgan, PhD

Our Partners