This is the first of a three-part series on the closure of Mitsui Coal Mining Co.'s Miike colliery.
OMUTA, Fukuoka Prefecture--Takashi Ukegawa, 54, is among the 1,200 Mitsui Coal Mining Co. employees who will be out of work when the Miike mine here closes March 30.
But Ukegawa knows nothing about this. And he probably never will.
A survivor of a coal dust explosion at Miike in November 1963, Ukegawa has never recovered from permanent brain damage caused by carbon monoxide poisoning.
The explosion claimed 458 lives and left another 839 with varying degrees of carbon monoxide poisoning.
Ukegawa was a strapping young man of 21 at the time. After being rescued, he remained in a coma for 66 days, which resulted in total paralysis of the body and loss of speech.
He has been bedridden ever since, requiring round-the-clock nursing care. His mother used to take care of him until her death 17 years ago.
"The closure of Miike is tantamount to abandoning people like Ukegawa to their fate," noted Keiko Matsuo, the 65-year-old wife of another Miike collier who survived the 1963 disaster but still suffers from after-effects of carbon monoxide poisoning.
The closure also promises to bring economic hardship to a 56-year-old subcontract miner who currently ekes out a living as a part-time boilerman at a public bathhouse in Omuta.
Ten years ago, the man switched from underground work to working above ground when an old injury from a traffic accident began acting up. His wages plummeted to about 150,000 yen a month--hardly enough to support his wife and two children.
His wife started working as an insurance saleswoman, but in order to clear her required monthly target, she took out loans to bear some of the premiums for new customers.
Her debts kept mounting, until the husband was forced to beg the mining company two years ago to advance his retirement pay.
"The company paid me the money and fired me on the spot. I've since worked for the company on and off on a subcontract basis," he said. "But with my wife's debts still snowballing, I really don't know how we are going to survive after the mine closes for good."
In a small town in Okayama Prefecture, Hiroko Kubo, 68, reminisced about her late husband who was stabbed to death by a right-wing gangster during the historic labor dispute at Miike in March 1960.
Her husband Kiyoshi, then 32 years old, became a symbol of the labor movement of the era.
Widowed with two small children, Kubo moved to a small town in Okayama where her younger sister was living.
"I've willed myself all these years not to dwell on those events of 1960," she said. "I haven't told much to my daughter-in-law, and I haven't said anything to my three grandchildren. I want to keep it that way."
But she will be marking the 37th anniversary of her husband's death on March 29, the day before Miike's history winds up for good.
The demand for imported coal continues to grow in the electric power, cement, and paper and pulp industries. And in Asian nations where energy needs are soaring, air pollution caused by sulfur dioxide from coal has become a grave problem.
In 1960, Mitsui Coal Mining Co.'s Miike mine in Omuta, Fukuoka Prefecture, was the scene of the biggest labor dispute in Japan's postwar history.
A workers' song written at that time goes: "Let's not give up/Let's raise our fists to the sky/The fists of men of iron/The fists of women afire/The fight starts here/The fight starts now."
That historic mine is going to be closed.
Today, most young people born and raised in cities have probably never seen real coal. But there was a time when coal was a common household fuel for stoves and baths.
Dubbed "black diamond" for its value, coal was dug from deep mines, mostly in Kyushu and Hokkaido, and "fueled" the nation's drive for postwar economic reconstruction.
In its heyday, the Japanese coal industry produced a whopping 55.4 million tons annually from 570 mines around the nation. But in the ensuing "energy revolution," coal lost out to petroleum and was driven further out of competition by cheap imports. The annual output is now less than 6 million tons from two mines in Kyushu and one in Hokkaido.
The Miike mine produced 2.35 million tons last year. The decision to close it means that the historic mission of domestic coal is about to be terminated.
The closure will drive 1,200 employees out of work, along with another 1,800 or so in the subcontracting and affiliated sectors. Mitsui Mining says the entire Mitsui group will join forces to give a job to everyone. But even if this turns out to be the case, many will probably have to relocate.
And these people are not young. In offering them new places of employment, we strongly hope their age and individual circumstances will be taken into careful consideration.
Ten years ago, the government announced in its "Eighth Coal Policy" a full withdrawal from supporting uncompetitive domestic coal. This triggered a mass closure of mines that were struggling. In 1992, a new 10-year coal policy was announced by the Minisry of International Trade and Industry and the Natural Resources and Energy Agency. When this policy expires, there will be no more state subsidies for domestic coal mines.
The history of coal mining in Japan reveals how the industry was constantly at the mercy of the government's fickle policy. And with such somber episodes aplenty as mine accidents, closures and workers getting the sack, the history is certainly not a cheerful one.
But there is another aspect to it, too.
Because mining is a job in which the possibility of sudden and violent death is always real, colliers have tended to develop a very strong sense of comradeship. From that mental clime were born such great literary figures as the late Hidenobu Ueno and Kazue Morisaki.
The aforementioned workers' song was penned by Yaeko Morita, a homemaker in Yamada, Fukuoka Prefecture, who followed the labor dispute at the Miike mine very closely. Her husband was a miner at the Chikuho coalfield.
In Omuta, which flourished as a Mitsui "castle town" since mining began there in 1895, there are now signs of an incipient citizens' movement to preserve as a cultural heritage some of the mining facilities that supported Japan's modernization.
The domestic coal industry may be all but dead now, but the demand for imported coal continues to grow in the electric power, cement, and paper and pulp industries. And in Asian nations where energy needs are soaring, air pollution caused by sulfur dioxide from coal has become a grave problem.
From now on, all the know-how accumulated over the years on mining technology, boiler efficiency and pollution control should be put to effective use.
At the Miike mine, a coal dust explosion in 1963 claimed 458 lives. And there are survivors who are still suffering today from after-effects of carbon monoxide poisoning.
Miike's closure does not mean the end of Japan's coal-related problems.
(Asahi Shimbun, Feb. 18