Into the dark underground. A glimpse into the harsh working environment of Fukuoka’s coal mine “Shura-ko”.

In the year 2020, an unpredictable pandemic has struck humanity, and many things in our lives are now done online. As the number of “untouchable” memories increases between people, I would like to dare to think about what memories have been connected by tangible objects throughout history.

With this in mind, from November 2020 to February 2021, THE LEADS ASIA will lead a series of workshops entitled “Conversation of Tangible Memories“. From February 2021 to February 2021, THE LEADS ASIA will lead a series of workshops called “Conversation of Tangible Memories”.

Even as our ancestors have left this world and our individual memories have shifted, the “objects” left behind by history continue to speak to us of “that time”.

What do we, who live in the present, perceive and how do we inherit them?

This time, the spotlight is on the tangible objects that people left behind to pass down history to the next generation, and which were registered as World Cultural Heritage in 2015. In a slight change from before, this time, the members of THE LEADS ASIA have actually visited the sites and brought you a record of their thoughts.

Click here to read the first article “When Urban Communication Meets Transnational Asia”.

(Professor and Director of the Institute of Korean Studies, School of Cultural Interaction, Waseda University)

Click here for the article of the second session “Inheritance and Challenge of History in the 21st Century

(Miriam Zadov, Director of the Munich Nazi Documentation Center, in collaboration with the NPO Holocaust Educational Resource Center Tokyo)

Click here for the article of the third session, “A bird’s eye view of Japan-Korea relations on art: The world seen through East Asian art beyond the framework of nationalism

(Hans Thomsen, Professor and Director of the Institute of East Asian Art History, University of Zurich, Switzerland)

What memories should be passed on by “cultural heritage” that changes depending on who sees it?

In 2015, the “Industrial Revolutionary Heritage of Meiji Japan: Iron and Steel Manufacturing, Shipbuilding, and the Coal Industry” (hereinafter referred to as the “Meiji Industrial Heritage”) was registered as a World Cultural Heritage site. 

The neighboring governments of South Korea and China strongly opposed the listing, considering the history of the many people who were conscripted and forced to work in the past. In the end, the Meiji Industrial Heritage, which attracted international attention and went through many twists and turns before being registered, became an event that made us question how we can pass on history to future generations through the tangible things we have left behind.

The Mitsui Miike Coal Mine, located in Omuta City, Fukuoka Prefecture, and Arao City, Kumamoto Prefecture, was in the middle of the debate over whether or not to register it as a World Heritage Site.

This time, members of THE LEADS ASIA visited the Mitsui Miike Coal Mine. The fact that the central government, local government, and local citizens have all dealt with history in different ways until now came to light.

We explored the perspective of how we as individuals should look at our heritage in the future.

Deconstructing: the country’s most important industry was supported by prisoners

About 60 years ago, that is, before oil was replaced by coal, the supply of energy was supported by coal; Japan’s energy self-sufficiency rate in the fiscal year 2018 was 9.6%, compared to 58.1% in the fiscal year 1960 when coal was the mainstay of energy supply, Shimizu said, “Pacific Coal Mine Workers Union ‘5 Minutes In “The Convergence Process of the Postwar Japanese Coal Industry from the Perspective of the Pacific Coal Mine Labor Union’s ‘Five Minute News'”, Shimizu points out that at its peak, the coal industry was a huge industry with 450,000 workers in Japan alone.

Coal was used to produce a variety of processed products that were essential to daily life in those days, far beyond our imagination. It is not hard to imagine that coal was an important industry for Japan at that time.

(Photo: Coal Tree / Ayano Sasaki, THE LEADS ASIA)

Working in a coal mine is always fraught with danger of death. On November 9, 1963, the Miike Coal Mine suffered the Mikawa Anti-Coal Dust Explosion, said to be the “worst coal mine accident in the postwar era.

The accident killed 458 people and poisoned 839 with carbon monoxide.

Coal, known as the “black diamond,” was an industry where the more you mined, the more money you made. On the other hand, the faces of the people who worked in the coal mines, which were feared to be extremely dangerous, are rarely seen in the history told by the victors.

There was a time when dangerous work in the mines was treated as a form of punishment.

According to the book “Spirit, Rest in Peace: A Collection of Photographs of Prisoners’ Labor at the Miike Coal Mine,” from 1873, prisoners sentenced to death or life imprisonment for criminal offenses were sent from all over western Japan to the Miike Coal Mine to work in the mines.

Into the dark underground of Shura-ko

Brick walls peeking through the peeling cement. This is where the prison laborers lived since 1883, at the Miike Juji Prison. Part of the wall still remains on the grounds of Miike Technical High School, and can still be seen from the outside.

(Photo: Jujigon Castle Wall / Joomi Park, THE LEADS ASIA)

About 500 meters away from the Juju Prison is the Miyahara Antique Mine, also known as Shirako (Shura Mine), where prison laborers were engaged in coal mining under poor conditions.

The temperature inside the mine was over 30 degrees Celsius and the humidity was almost 100%, and the prisoners mined coal for 12 hours a day. Once inside the mine, they were not allowed to eat. In Nakagawa’s “My Town 1995: Abandoned Mines in the Middle of Summer,” he writes that the only “food” they ate was rice, millet, and a few greens.

(Photo: Elevator with bare rebar at Miyahara Pit / Joomi Park, THE LEADS ASIA)

Even today, the elevators (boxes of rebar) used to send prison laborers underground remain as they were then. What were the thoughts of the prisoners as they boarded this box that led to a dangerous dark world where they might never return? It could have been the moment of the “last light of day.

The punishments, in the form of reduced meals or torture, were also extremely inhumane. Prisoners were usually confined in a small room with no light, given only a small amount of staple food, salt, and water, and kept without bedding for seven days. This torture was first used at the Miike Detention Center and has since been used at other detention centers throughout Japan. According to Nakagawa’s “My Town 1995: Abandoned Mines in Midsummer,” there were many prisoners who could not endure the torture and hard labor and took their own lives.

According to the records of the Omuta Prisoners’ Cemetery Preservation Association, not only the castle walls but also an underground tunnel exists within the high school grounds. It is believed that this was a tunnel leading to the coal face, but the entrance is now sealed.

Even after the mines were sold to the Mitsui conglomerate between 1888 and 1889, prisoners continued to be mobilized as laborers in the Miike coal mines. According to Takahashi’s “Migration of Coal Miners and Social Change in Former Coal-producing Areas,” 2,144 of the 3,103 miners were prisoners, accounting for about 70% of the total number of miners in that year. Although the amount of coal produced per prisoner was twice that of Chikuho’s, the wages were less than half that of Chikuho.

The mortality rate under the harsh working environment was extremely high, and bodies were buried all over the city. Even today, there are many monuments and gravestones of combined burials, mainly in Omuta. However, according to the Omuta Prisoners’ Cemetery Preservation Association, these cemeteries are difficult to manage and not many of them are in a good state of preservation.

(Photo: Inside a building at Miyahara Pit / Joomi Park, THE LEADS ASIA)

(Photo: Explanatory diagram of the Miyawarakeng mine / Joomi Park, THE LEADS ASIA)

People marginalized by war and social unrest –mobilized to fill the shortage of labor.

The early Showa period (1926-1989) was marked by a major global recession, and Japan also experienced the Showa Depression in 1929. The coal industry and other important industries in Japan saw their production drop by 40-50%. Coal mines all over Japan were closing their mines and laying off workers, and in 1931, the Miyahara Mine, also known as Shirako (Shurakeng), was closed.

At the same time, the warden of Miike Prison and the director of Miike Mining finally signed an agreement to abolish prison labor for prisoners, women, and children, which had been criticized for some time. This put an end to all forced prison labor in Japan, according to the chronology of the “Spirit, Rest in Peace: A Photo Album of Prison Labor at the Miike Coal Mine.

Heavy labor in the coal mines was known to be extremely dangerous, and the fact that prisoners were the mainstay of the workforce made it an occupation that was looked down upon by society. Later, as the war progressed and the labor force to support the country’s important industries was needed, the government policies and management strategies of coal mines across the country, including Miike Coal Mine, shifted to use colonial labor and prisoners of war for this role.

(To be continued in Part 2)

English ver. by Hinako Kojima

Interview and text by Ayano Sasaki, Joomi Park, Momoko Tajima

Edit by Kaori Kohyama

by Ayano Sasaki
by Ayano Sasaki


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