Kishida’s Sado Mines Nomination: Leaving out Meiji industrialization, Mitsubishi, and Koreans

Prime Minister Kishida's nostalgic portrayal of an era that began 400 years ago and ended a century and a half from our own time appears to be a deliberate deception of the genuine history of the Sado mines.
► Kishida’s Sado Mines nomination is highly political and historically inaccurate, playing to right wing nationalism and harmful to improving relations, both economic and political, between Japan and South Korea.

► Prime Minister Kishida should take up the example of other countries such as Germany and Austria and be honest about Japan’s history – something that would benefit the Japanese people as well.









Prime Minister Kishida’s announcement that Japan intends to nominate the Sado mine complex for World Heritage inscription began with his view that the “Sado Mines have a high reputation as a rare industrial heritage site that continued to operate on a large scale over a long period of time, taking advantage of traditional handicraft unique during the Edo period.”[1] This nostalgic portrayal of an era that began 400 years ago and ended a century and a half from our own time appears to be a deliberate deception of the genuine history of Sado mines. It is neither a “rare industrial heritage site” nor is its importance confined to the centuries of the Tokugawa Shogunate. As for the “traditional handicraft” depiction, this description is at odds with Japan’s tentative list nomination of the site in 2010, which described the Sado mines’ significance for Meiji era industrialization and the purchase of the complex by Mitsubishi from the new Meiji government.[2]


South Korea’s President Moon voiced regret at Japan’s decision, but commented that “the Korean Government is open to any proposals and looks forward to resolving the issues through dialogue. He commented on the growing need to also strengthen bilateral cooperation to deal with future tasks. He called for a “solution that can be accepted by victims and promote true reconciliation.” As background to the issue, Yonhap reporter Lee Haye-ah noted that the use of Korean forced laborers at Sado Mines involved “turn[ing it] into a facility to produce war-related materials, such as copper, iron and zinc during the war.”[3]


Reviewing the contrasting statements by the leaders of Japan and South Korea, we could be looking at two entirely different mines on Sado Island, Niigata prefecture. What has Kishida conveniently left out? And why has Moon’s response been so strong? Far more is at stake here than just another historical tourist location that will attract more people because it is World Heritage listed. Far more is at stake, also, than just the question of Korean forced laborers at Sado Mines during World War II. When we analyze the details of the history of the Sado Mines, the far right nationalist historical narrative falls apart wherever we look.


Japan’s 2010 tentative nomination of Sado Mines emphasized technological innovation, both during the Edo and Meiji eras. But that nomination misrepresented how the technology was introduced. When the Meiji Restoration government took over the mines in 1868, it did not just make improvements “accompanied by the vigorous introduction of Western mining technology.” Between 1868 and 1883 foreign experts were brought onto the site to utilize this technology from the West: five from England (an ore preparation expert, an instrumentation and ore preparation expert, and three skilled miners); one from the United States (a mining and ore preparation expert); and one from Germany (a tunnel expert). Japanese subcontractors who hired laborers resisted these modernization efforts, along with the workers under these subcontractors. Contrary to Kishida’s vague claims and the more specific statements in the 2010 nomination, Fumio Yoshiki found that “the owner-operators of the mines, the shogunate and han governments, had no practical knowledge of, and none of the technical skills needed in mining, while the yamashi and kanako (subcontractors) who ... were entrusted with the entire process of production, were the sole masters of the specialized know-how, techniques, capital, and manpower needed.” These same type of subcontractors, Yoshiki concludes, were the main obstacle to modernization at Sado during the early Meiji era.[4]  


The Sado Mines were crucial to Japan establishing a stable national currency under the leadership of Finance Minister Matsukata because the mines were a major source for domestic gold and silver that underpinned government issued paper currency. By 1886, Matsukata led Japan’s policy establishing a stable, silver-backed currency system centered on the Bank of Japan.[5] Japan reverted to the gold standard in 1897, which made gold production at Sado extremely important for convertibility and underpinning the value of yen in the international economy of the time. Contributing to this decision was the indemnity from China gained by Japan in its victory in the Sino-Japanese War allowing for the purchase of domestic gold.[6] This war, as we know, gave Japan hegemony over Korea, pushing out China’s influence and preventing Russian interference. The history of Sado Mines is closely connected to Japan’s rise as an imperialist power in East Asia.


Sado Mines also were crucial to the consolidation of one of the most powerful zaibatsu: Mitsubishi. Finance Minister Matsukata helped carrying out the sale of government factories and mines between 1880 and 1896. These occurred in three phases, with the second phase including the sale of Nagasaki Shipyard to Mitsubishi (1887) and the Miike Coal Mine to Mitsui (1888). Mitsubishi put in a bid for Miike, but Mitsui bid higher and won the mine. These huge sales occurred after Matsukata had stabilized the currency. To offset its weak position in mining relative to Mitsui, Mitsubishi bought the Sado Mines in 1896. Sado’s assets were valued at ¥445,250, on a par with ¥448,549 for Miike’s asset value in 1888 and Nagasaki Shipyard’s ¥459,000 asset value in 1887.[7] Sado Mines helped consolidate Mitsubishi’s mining division, with 57.5 per cent of Mitsubishi’s earnings between 1894 and 1917 coming from mining operations, the majority from coal mines, but Sado Mines substantial as well.[8]


None of these acquisitions by Mitsubishi would have been profitable without a labor force - workers. In its coal mines, Mitsubishi’s work force included convict Japanese workers until the early part of the nineteenth century, as did Mitsui and Sumitomo, the other dominant mining zaibatsu. The same was true for the Sado Mines. By the 1930s, Korean workers were a major part of the Mitsubishi mining empire, and by 1939 Mitsubishi turned to Korean forced laborers. The actual number of Korean forced laborers at Sado is important, but should not be the sole issue under dispute. Sado Mine’s Korean forced laborers were just part of the larger labor system used by Mitsubishi in wartime throughout Japan in all its mines, factories, and shipyards.


Sado Mines required Korean forced labor for its operations during the war in order for the government to conscript Japanese workers to fight and die for the Emperor and the empire. The company employment report for 1943 lists a total of 1,293 employees at Sado, with 584 of those Korean (45.2 per cent of the workforce). Koreans were concentrated in the hardest and most dangerous underground jobs: 123 in rock drilling, 82 per cent of that category; 56 in underpinning tunnels, at 58.9 per cent; and 294 as common transport workers, at 78.6 per cent.[9] Takeuchi Yasuto calculates that seven Koreans died in underground accidents in 1941 and 1942, so the size of the Korean workforce in 1943 and afterward would certainly indicate there were further deaths not yet discovered.[10]


The reality is that Kishida’s Sado Mines nomination is highly political and historically inaccurate, playing to right wing nationalism and harmful to improving relations, both economic and political, between Japan and South Korea. The level of deliberate misinformation and reactionary political involvement in the Meiji Industrial Revolution sites has been thoroughly documented by Nikolai Johnsen in his recent Japan Focus series.[11] If the full history of Sado Mines is considered, it would actually be more appropriate for the nomination to be added to the current “Meiji Industrial Revolution” sites World Heritage listing, with the proviso that the full history be told to the public, a criticism made unanimously by the international committee last year.


Will Japan’s reputation be harmed by telling the full history of the Sado Mines? International precedents indicate the opposite. The plantation home of George Washington in Virginia is a major tourist destination. It now includes the dwellings of Washington’s slaves and historical information on how he owned and used slaves. But as America’s first president, he still is recognized as a founder of the Republic, and his birthday is still celebrated on President’s Day, a national holiday. Germany and Austria have acknowledged and paid compensation to foreign forced laborers. Both countries also have many exhibitions on the history of foreign forced laborers used by the Nazi regime. One of the most remarkable museums is in Linz, Austria, Hitler’s home before his rise to power. This is the voelstalpine museum of contemporary history, which I visited in 2017. (The museum deliberately uses only lower case letters in its name.) The museum has four sections, including one with the theme “Forced labor and its many faces.” Guides at the museum are multilingual, and the exhibits are in German and English. The website for the museum provides has an introduction, that opens with these two sentences:

“It is the sincere desire of voestalpine that the historical museum covering the time period between 1938 and 1945 will adequately remember the forced laborers under the N[ational] S[ocialist] regime and Reichswerke Hermann Göring [steel foundry] in Linz. Never before had more foreigners worked in Upper Austria than during the NS regime: forced laborers citizens from foreign countries, concentration camp prisoners and prisoners of war.”


This description would fit Mitsui’s former Miike Coal Mine, Mitsubishi’s former Hashima Coal Mine, and Mitsubishi’s current Nagasaki Shipyard. All are World Heritage sites, with former Mitsubishi Sado Mines now nominated as one more. The Linz museum is on the property of Voestalpine Steel Foundry, which is a large and dynamic manufacturing site still operating and part of the international division of the corporation. The company is completely open about its past and is honest with the many visitors who come to the museum.[12]


Shouldn’t Mitsubishi follow this example and repair its reputation not only with Koreans, but also with the rest of the world? Shouldn’t Prime Minister Kishida take up the example of Germany, Austria, and other countries and be honest about Japan’s history, something that would benefit the Japanese people as well?




[1] “Press Conference by the Prime Minister regarding the Status of Consideration toward the Inscription of the World Heritage Cultural Heritage List of the Sado Complex of Heritage Mines, Primarily Gold Mines,” Speeches and Statements by the Prime Minister, Jan. 28, 2022.

[2] “The Sado complex of heritage mines, primarily gold mines,” UNESCO submission by Japan, Nov. 11, 2010.

[3] Lee Haye-ah, “Moon expresses regret over Japan’s push for UNESCO recognition of mine linked to forced labor,” Yonhap News Agency, Feb. 10, 2022.

[4] Fumio Yoshiki, “Metal Mining and Foreign Employees,” The Developing Economies (14), 1979, pp. 493, 496, 500.

[5] Steven J. Ericson, “Smith rhetoric, Listian practice: the Matsukata ‘retrenchment’ and industrial policy, 1881-1885,” Japan Forum, vol. 30, no. 4, 2018, p. 499.

[6] Janet Hunter, “Currency,” in Hunter, Concise Dictionary of Modern Japanese History, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984), p. 30.

[7] Ericson, p. 508.

[8] Masaaki Kobayashi, “Japan’s Early Industrialization and the Transfer of Government Enterprises: Government and Business,” Japanese Yearbook on Business History, vol. 2, p. 78.

[9] Hirose Teizō, “Sado Kōzan to Chyōsenjin rōdōsha, 1939-1945 (The Sado Mine and Korean Workers, 1939-1945).” Bulletin of Faculty of Information Design and Culture, Niigata University of International and Information Studies, c. 2000.

[11] Nikolai Johnsen, “Katō Kōko’s Meiji Industrial Revolution - Forgetting forced labor to celebrate Japan’s World Heritage Sites, Part 1,” The Asia Pacific Journal / Japan Focus, vol. 19, issue 23, no. 1, Dec. 1, 2021.

Johnsen, ““Katō Kōko’s Meiji Industrial Revolution..., Part 2, vol. 19, issue 24, no. 5, Dec. 15, 2021.



David Palmer is Associate in History at The University of Melbourne. He is the author of Organizing the Shipyards: Union Strategy in Three Northeast Shipyards (Cornell UP); “Foreign Forced Labor at Mitsubishi’s Nagasaki and Hiroshima Shipyards: Big Business, Militarized Government, and the Absence of Shipbuilding Workers’ Rights in World War II Japan,” in van der Linden and Rodríguez García, eds, On Coerced Labor: Work and Compulsion after Chattel Slavery (Brill); articles in The Asia Pacific Journal / Japan Focus, including “Japan’s World Heritage Miike Coal Mine – Where prisoners-of-war worked ‘like slaves’” (July 2021); and other publications on the labor and business history of the U.S. and Japan. He previously taught at Flinders University, Adelaide. Before moving permanently to Australia, he taught at Harvard University (Social Studies) and published case studies as a Research Associate at Harvard Business School. His Ph.D. is from Brandeis University. He can be reached at: