Mining Women pp 153-170 | Cite as

Coal Mining Women Speak Out: Economic Change and Women Miners of Chikuho, Japan

  • Sachiko Sone


History has not often been kind to the coal miners of Japan. They have as a group at times been characterized in economic labor histories as “illiterate peasant workers” or as “premodern laborers.” Female coal miners have not only been described in extreme terms as shameless and lacking in feminine dignity, but they have also been celebrated as “super women,” and as fulfilling the Meiji1 ideal of “Good Wife, Wise Mother.”2 This essay looks beyond these stereotypical images into the reality of the lives of ordinary coal mining women, as seen through the eyes of two second-generation coal miners whose lives, with those of their families, span the final thirty years of the Japanese coal mining industry and encompass experience of its preindustrial and modern phases. The essay argues that categorization of the women miners under labels has overlooked their resilience and their capacity to adapt to their circumstances, and to exercise a degree of control over their lives.


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  1. 2.
    The concept, promoted by bureaucrats of the new Meiji government, defined womanhood at least partly in terms of motherhood. A “wise mother” would be one educated to better perform her home and child rearing duties. (Gail Lee Bernstein, ed., Recreating Japanese Women, 1600–1945 [University of California Press, Berkeley, 1991], 7).Google Scholar
  2. 3.
    Yamamoto Sakubê was born in Kaho district, Fukuoka prefecture in 1892. He worked as a miner/hauler or blacksmith until 1955. During 1955 and 1963 he created his unique document—a detailed illustration of works underground and the miners’ way of life aboveground, to pass on to his grandchildren. He received the 1977 “Western Japan Culture Prize” for the artistic merit and historical quality of his illustrations. His publications include: Meiji Taisho Tankô Emaki [The Picture Scroll of Coalmines in Meiji and Taisho Period] (Fukuoka: Private publication, 1963); Chikuho Tankô Emaki [The Picture Scroll of Coalmines in Chikuho] (Fukuoka: Ashi Shobô, 1973); ôkoku to Tamî [The Kingdom and Darkness] (Fukuoka: Ashi Shobô, 1981).Google Scholar
  3. 6.
    Evidence of the lives of the coal mining women of Chikuho is based almost entirely on oral accounts, of which more than one hundred have been recorded, mostly in the 1960s. Coal mining women of the generation of my two subjects were almost invariably born into coal mining families that had taken up the occupation out of economic necessity. Typically, the women’s earliest recollections were of their domestic labors, and after little or no education they entered the mines as early teenagers or younger, usually working with a relative. They may have worked in as many as ten different small mines in their lifetime. See Morisaki Kazue Makkura [Pitch Dark] (Tokyo: Rironsha, 1961). Tanaka Hôichi, “Onna Kôfu no Kiroku.” [Record of Mining Women] Enerugî Shi Kenkyû Nôte, no. 5 (June 1975): 86–96; Shindô Toyoo, Chikuho no Onna Kôfutachi [Mining women in Chikuho] (Kyoto: Buraku Mondai Kenkyûjo, 1978); Idegawa Yasuko, Hi o Unda Onnatachi [Women who gave birth to fire] (Fukuoka: Ashi Shobô, 1984); Hayashi Eidai, Yami o Horu Onnatachi [Women who dig the darkness] (Tokyo: Akashi Shoten, 1990); Tajima Masami, Tanko Bijin [Beautiful Coal mining Women] (Tokyo: Tsukiji Shoten, 2000).Google Scholar
  4. 7.
    Coal was the major source of fuel, though not a major employer. As a percentage of all manufacturing, employment in coal mining nationally peaked at 8.6% in 1914. Data from Tadashi Fukutake, The Japanese Social Structure: Its Evolution in the Modern Century (Tokyo: University of Tokyo Press, 1989, 2nd edition), 18; and Shiozawa Kimio, ed., Nihon Shihon Shugi Saiseisan Kozô Tôkei [Statistics on the Structure of Reproduction in Capitalism in Japan], (Tokyo: Iwanami, 1973), 157, 159; and Kawahigashi Eiko, “Nihon Shihon Shugi to Joshi Rôdô” [Japanese Capitalism and Female Labor], in Shin Joshi Rôdô, ed., Takenaka Emiko (Tokyo: Yûhikaku, 1994), 55–56.Google Scholar
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    For example, Nakamura Masanori, Rôdôsha to Nômin [Laborers and Peasants] (Tokyo: Shôgakukan, 1976). Ueno Hidenobu, a leading activist in Chikuho, worked as a miner between 1946 and 1952. Soon after his earliest and moving book Owareyuku Kôfutachi [Miners being Forced out] (Tokyo: Iwanami Shoten, 1960) was published, a concerned group was established to help miners and their families employed in small- and medium-scale mines. At the time, among the most important female writers and members of the group working on labor issues and people’s history, was Morisaki Kazue.Google Scholar
  6. 11.
    Nagaoka Shinkichi and Ishizaka Akio, Ippan Keizai Shi [A General Economic History] (Tokyo, Mineruva, 1988), 71.Google Scholar
  7. 13.
    Regine Mathias, “Female Labor in the Japanese Coalmining Industry,” in Japanese Women Working ed., Janet Hunter (London: Routlege, 1996), 119.Google Scholar
  8. 14.
    Nihon Shi [The Japanese History] (Tokyo: Tokyoshoseki, 1985). Atarashii Shakai Rekishi [The New Social History], (Tokyo: Tokyoshoseki, 1991).Google Scholar
  9. 15.
    There are a number of research papers and books about female labor published in the 1950s and 1960s, most of which take a Marxist viewpoint. See Ôkôchi Kazuo and Isoda Susumu, eds., Fujin Rôdô [Female Labor] (Tokyo: Kôbundo, 1956), and Shakai Seisaku Gakkai, eds., Fujin Rôdô, (Tokyo: Yôhikaku, 1961). Female labor in the textile industry in relation to trade union activities has been the central concern among Marxist labor and economic historians since the 1950s. There are also a few studies of other female workers such as Kangofu (nurses), Jimushokuin (clerical workers), and Tenin (shop assistants). The main research in this period was undertaken on labor regulations as well as the wage system. See, Takenaka Emiko and Nishiguchi Toshiko, Onna no Shigoto-Onna no Shokub [Women’s Jobs and Women’s Work places] (Tokyo: Sanichi Shobô, 1962). As for the primary source, see the series of statistics published annually by Rodo Shô Fujin Shônen Kyoku [the Office for Women and Minors in the Ministry of Labor].Google Scholar
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    Nakamura Masanori, (ed.), Gijutsu Kakushin to Joshi Rôdô [Technological Innovation and Female Labor] (Tokyo: Tokyo University Press, 1985).Google Scholar
  11. 18.
    In a 1994 historical review of Japanese female labor, Kawahigashi Eiko, an expert in the field, devoted only one line to the role of coal mining women in Japanese industrialization between 1880 and 1900, while devoting six pages to factory women in the textile industry, detailing their wages, working conditions, and dormitory life. See Kawahigashi Eiko, “Nihon Shihon Shugi Kakuritsu Ki no Joshi Rôdô” [Female labor in the period of Establishment of Japanese Capitalism], in Shin Joshi Rôdô Ron [New Essays of Female Labor], ed., Takenaka Emiko (Tokyo: Yûhikaku, 1994) 37.Google Scholar
  12. 19.
    Katô Shizue, Facing Two Ways (London: Cassel, 1935), 167.Google Scholar
  13. 21.
    The most recent work on women’s history in Japan included the topic of Buraku women for the first time in a Japanese women’s history work and it relied solely on secondary sources. Thus the interview material given here is very rare. See Yasukawa Junosuke, “Hisabetsu Buraku to Josei” [Segregated people and Women], in Nihon Josei Shi (Tokyo: Tokyo University Press, 1990), 185–222.Google Scholar
  14. 27.
    This, incidentally, tallies with other evidence of the involvement of Buraku in the coal mining industry in the Chikuho region. Many mines opened before the turn of the twentieth century were located in areas of Buraku concentration, as these sites possessed abundant coal of high quality and were also situated close to the bank of the Onga river, which was especially convenient for transporting the coal from the mouth of the mines to the ports. Then, in the 1900s, some railroad lines were built right through the heart of the Buraku mining communities as it was the shortest way to transport coal from the mines to the central stations. See Nagasue Toshio, “Chikuho ni okeru Buraku no Keisei” [The Formation of Buraku in Chikuho], in Kindai Buraku Mondai (Osaka: Kaihô Shuppansha, 1986), 96–97; and Buraku no Bunka Sôzô to Saisei [For the Cultural Creation and Regeneration of Buraku], Fukuokaken Dôwa Kyôiku Kenkyû Kyôgikai (ed.), 1984, Vol. 2.Google Scholar
  15. 35.
    James C. Scott, Weapons of the Weak: Everyday forms of Peasant Resistance, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985).Google Scholar

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© Jaclyn J. Gier and Laurie Mercier 2006

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  • Sachiko Sone

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