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Sado Island Gold Mines: A Powerful History of Commerce and Community

Two experts share insights on the cultural value of the Sado Island Gold Mines that, without mechanization, led the world in gold extraction volume and quality.

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A gold koban, the characteristic small coin coming from Sado Island Gold Mines. (© Sado City)

This is a "unique cultural heritage in the world where traditions and production activities closely linked to the territory are still preserved," explains Dr Olimpia Niglio. She is discussing the Sado Island Gold Mines in Japan, a little-known site with an outsized influence on Japan's interaction with the rest of the world between the 17th to mid-19th centuries. 

Second part

Read part 1: Sado Island Gold Mines: Time Slip Through 400 Years of Riches and Technology

Niglio, a professor at the University of Pavia in Italy and a visiting professor at Hosei University in Japan, is an expert on the topic of UNESCO Cultural World Heritage sites. In January 2023, Japan presented the Sado Island Gold Mines as a candidate for inscription on the World Heritage List. Dr Niglio is one of the academics interviewed via email by JAPAN Forward in an effort to gain an understanding of the historical and cultural significance of the mines. 

Dr Olimpia Niglio, Professor at the University of Pavia, and an expert on the topic of UNESCO Cultural World Heritage sites. (© Olimpia Niglio)

Gold Mining, The Beginnings

Image from Sado no kuni kanahori no maki showing the minting process at the Sado Island Gold Mines. The document goes back to the first half of the 19th century. (© Aikawa Folk Museum)

Japan was first put on the map in the eighth century, as indicated by findings in ancient documents preserved in Lucca, Italy, as well as the extensive literature by Japanese scholars, says Niglio. 

Japan's gold industry was already active by the eighth century, when records show that envoys would bring generous quantities of the treasure from Japan to China.

Dr Miles Oglethorpe, President of The International Committee for the Conservation of the Industrial Heritage (TICCIH), visited Sado during a preparatory stage for the gold and silver mines' UNESCO Heritage candidacy. He, too, reports on the importance given to Sado's gold on the world stage.

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Oglethorpe delineates how the Venetian merchant explorer Marco Polo, whose travels in the 13th century took him to Asia, established Japan's international reputation. In fact, Polo called Japan "the island of gold." 

Later during the Edo Period (1603-1867), "One of [Sado's] most distinctive products was the 'koban,' iconic oval gold coins which were traded first in Japan and then throughout the world," he specifies.

The Period of Japan's Seclusion

The golden era of precious metal export for Japan started in the Edo period.

At the time, the regime ruling Japan — the Tokugawa shogunate — had severely limited access to Japan by outside countries and companies. As Niglio puts it, "It was a political and partially commercial closure, and a time in which many interesting things developed in the field of arts." 

In the midst of this period, the gold trade served as a surprising exception, in particular through the Dutch East India Company. 

"Japan had cut its relations with the rest of the world. But traders from the Dutch East India Company were accepted. This in turn favored the development of gold and silver trade, and trade more widely, trade with parts of Northern Europe," clarifies Niglio.  

Image from Sado no kuni kanahori no maki showing the mining process at the Sado Island Gold Mines. The document dates to the first half of the 19th century. (© Aikawa Folk Museum) 

Highest Quality Gold

For foreign traders, a fundamental characteristic was Sado's gold quality. Niglio points out:  

The quality of the gold of the Sado mines was highly valued because it was very pure and contained a low percentage of other metals such as copper, increasing its carat weight and therefore its value.

Dr Oglethorpe echoes Niglio's findings on the purity of Sado gold, defining it as "exceptional, especially when compared with European gold mines in the period."

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Image from Sado no kuni kanahori no maki showing the minting process at the Sado Island Gold Mines. The document goes back to the first half of the 19th century. (© Aikawa Folk Museum)

Oglethorpe puts the magnitude of the mine in perspective. "The results of exhaustive research and archaeological investigation in Sado, as well as beautiful records and artifacts dating from many centuries ago, testify that Sado in the 17th century in particular led the world in terms of the volume and quality of production."

He adds:

By the early 17th century Japan accounted for up to one fifth of the world’s gold supply, over half of which is believed to have originated in Sado. A quick look at Japan's exciting geology reveals that there were many gold mines, but none yielded gold in such large quantities.

Dr Miles Oglethorpe, President of The International Committee for the Conservation of the Industrial Heritage. (© Miles Oglethorpe)

Dynamism of the Time

Both experts agree that the singularity of the Sado Island Gold Mines lies in it becoming the gold-extracting capital of the world without using the technology seen elsewhere during the industrial revolution. Oglethorpe describes: 

The fact that mechanization did not happen at Sado makes it very special, and all the more so because of the amazing documentation that exists recording the processes and working lives of the miners. There can be few World Heritage Sites and Candidate Sites that have such an extraordinary record of their past, and this must be a fantastic asset in demonstrating the Outstanding Universal Value of Sado.

Niglio points out that in fact, the period of seclusion might have prompted the dynamic era that ensued. 

I really appreciated the intellectual dynamism of the time and the creativity of the Japanese people. It made me reflect that the country's closure might have stimulated the independence and the sense of responsibility of people, and thanks to that the people of Japan could create so much innovation during a period of almost 300 years. 

The Mining History of Sado Island 

Part of Sado Island's appeal is the unique access it provides to mining history. 

"The extraction method in Nishimikawa [Onagashi (the great flow)] is the most traditional," says Niglio. She draws comparisons to the mining techniques studied elsewhere: "All around the world, the first rudimentary extraction methods, especially of gold, happened near rivers and used the strength of the water."

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Image from Sado no kuni kanahori no maki showing the process of fixing tools and sorting mined ores at the Sado Island Gold Mines. The document dates to the first half of the 19th century. (© Aikawa Folk Museum)

In Aikawa, the mines offer evidence of another technique, which involved digging into the heart of the mountain. This led to the formation of the Doyu-no-warito Opencut Site landscape. Historically, these techniques were also used in Roman-era Europe, in the first century AD, Niglio explains. 

On Sado, vestiges of the two techniques coexist on one island, and "Offer the interesting opportunity to compare mining history with other locations around the world," she adds.

"Drawing of Doyu" is a drawing of Doyu-no-warito Opencut Site from Sado no kuni kanahori no maki, in the first half of the 19th century. (© Aikawa Folk Museum)

Society and Culture 

The cultural richness of Sado Island also grew with the flow of people, indicates Niglio. "In the 1600s, migrants brought with them cultural knowledge such as rice growing techniques, and the ways of building machiya, the traditional houses built of wood, which are present to this day."

Other traditions still continuing to this day include local Shinto rituals and festivals, Noh theater, and more. 

Oglethorpe points out the remarkable effort Sado Island has made in the preservation of its history. He compares it, for example, to the mining towns inscribed by UNESCO in Brazil and Bolivia, which focus less on the gold mining activity itself.

In contrast, the Japanese island's mining activities are uniquely well-preserved, says Oglethorpe: 

With Sado, the focus is on the physical evidence of the technical systems, drainage tunnels, social systems, mining villages and the magistrates' office. These are all put into context and augmented by the outstanding exhibits such as at the Aikawa Folk Museum, including the illustrations of mining, dressing, smelting, refining, and minting from the unique Sado no kuni kanahori no maki scroll. 

For academics, the site also "opens a very important comparison and dialogue between Western and Eastern culture" explains Niglio.

Sharing Sado Island's History with the World

Original mining sites are now accessible to visitors, giving an idea of the craftsmanship during the Edo Period. (©Sado City)

"It is essential to know and to regenerate this history, in order to transmit everything to future generations," Niglio reminds us. 

Looking towards the future, Oglethorpe analyzed the work of the Niigata team. The nomination for UNESCO World Heritage status is an outstanding one, he says, before continuing: 

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It has been an unnecessarily protracted process so far, but they and the people of Sado deserve to have their outstanding mining site inscribed onto the World Heritage List. 

It is genuinely unique, so the time has come for Sado’s treasure to be shared with the world — this is quite literally a golden opportunity.


Read part one: Sado Island Gold Mines: Time Slip Through 400 Years of Riches and Technology

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Author: JAPAN Forward

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