Culture, No.8  Nov. 24, 2011


Painted records of coalmining now registered as Memory of the World

Photo : Arima Manabu

Arima Manabu

The news that Yamamoto Sakubei’s painted records of coalmining were added to UNESCO’s Memory of the World (MOW) register on May 25 this year remains fresh in our minds. Accurately termed The collection of annotated paintings and diaries of Yamamoto Sakubei, this record includes 585 paintings, six diaries and 36 manuscripts among other documents at the Tagawa City Coal History Museum, together with four paintings, 59 diaries and seven manuscripts/documents donated by the Yamamoto family to Fukuoka Prefectural University (in Tagawa), for a total of 697 items.

Yamamoto, who worked as a miner and metalsmith in mines in Chikuho for over 50 years, began working on his paintings after the age of 60. They total over 1,000 and were not particularly secret, known well to those who were interested. Many people, including the late Nagasue Toshio, president of the Tagawa City Library and an influential figure in bringing the Sakubei paintings to light, the late Ueno Eishin, author and resident of Chikuho, and contemporary artist Kikuhata Mokuma, have conveyed the presence and value of the works from over 40 years ago. Several publications, including Okoku to yami-Yamamoto Sakubei tanko gashu (The kingdom and darkness-collection of coalmine paintings of Yamamoto Sakubei) (Ashi Shobo, 1981), produced with a level of time and money almost inconceivable in today’s commercial business, also introduced Sakubei’s unique and diverse works. A look at Sakubei’s history shows that he held exhibitions and appeared many times on television shows from the late-1960s until his death.

Photo : Yamamoto SakubeiPhoto : Yamamoto Sakubei
Recorded image of coalmine paintings by Yamamoto Sakubei. Courtesy of Tagawa City Museum of Coal History

Yet three decades have passed since his collection was published and his paintings have received little public attention in recent years. Therefore it was understandable that their inclusion in MOW caught many Japanese by surprise and brought joy to people associated with the works. The fact that the subject of registration was modern painting by a member of the general public, and that it was the first Japanese work to be registered in MOW resulting from an application not from a government institution, and rather from the Tagawa City and Fukuoka Prefectural University, added to the surprise and greatly affected how the media reported the news.

Indeed, any non-governmental institution (an organization or even an individual) can file a nomination for MOW, so there is no mystery in Tagawa City filing an application bypassing the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT), but the public probably was unaware of this fact. MEXT also hardly seemed enthusiastic about making a nomination either. This May, it finally decided to nominate the Mido kanpaku-ki and Keicho kenoshisetsu kankei siryo (Documents on the Keicho envoys to Europe (both National Treasures). (Incidentally, the Agency for Cultural Affairs oversees World Heritage matters and MEXT oversees MOW.) We can see from these circumstances how some would be thrilled about how artwork by a common miner and self-learned artist with no formal art training would gain MOW registration over numerous national treasures.

However, I have to resist the temptation to proclaim this commoner’s success, and express that there is something strange about being so thrilled about this achievement. I feel that merely sounding our joy over this makes us lose sight of its importance. The Sakubei Collection’s approval for MOW inclusion gives us some difficult things to think about. Since I am familiar with the process from nomination to registration, I would like to address some of its issues below.

I must add that the entirety of Sakubei’s works remaining today is still unknown. It seems that he received orders from many individual clients since he gained such attention, and we hear that he accepted these orders quite casually. We have no way of knowing all of these works stored in private homes. (But we do know, almost for sure, that none of his paintings were for the purpose of selling.)

MOW nomination process

Concerning this latest MOW inclusion, we need to strongly consider that the coalmine heritage at Chikuho is excluded from the list of assets comprising the “The Modern Industrial Heritage Sites in Kyushu and Yamaguchi” which aims for World Heritage inclusion. Chikuho’s exclusion and Sakubei’s registration in MOW stand perfectly opposite each other.

To help understand this situation, I would like to touch on the process behind the debate that took place. The “Industrial heritage of modern industrialization in Kyushu/Yamaguchi” that six prefectures from Kyushu and Yamaguchi jointly nominated for the World Heritage was registered with the Agency of Cultural Affairs’ tentative list in 2009. An expert committee is currently reviewing the nomination form and eying official nomination for UNESCO. Leading the work of drafting the form is a foreign committee experienced in registering modern heritage in the United Kingdom and Australia as World Heritage and has a great deal of expertise in industrial archaeology and heritage management.

I was shocked during a discussion after a tentative list was drafted that the foreign committee unanimously proposed it wanted to exclude the Chikuho Coalmine assets from the World Heritage nomination list. (The proposal was ultimately approved.) The debate within the expert committee concerning Chikuho grew extremely tense. As a member of the expert committee, I voiced my discomfort with this proposal.

The reason for excluding Chikuho was simple: the physical condition of the properties simply was not good. Compared to some of the modern industrial heritage in the UK or Germany that has been registered as World Heritage, what remained in Chikuho was too poor. Even in comparison to national heritage such as the Miike Mine, also in Fukuoka Prefecture, Chikuho undeniably fared worse in appearance.

 Photo : Tagawa are monumentsThe twin smokestacks and head frame that stand as symbols of the coal capital of Tagawa are monuments, but these remaining surface structures alone indeed do not suffice as evidence supporting World Heritage inclusion. There are hardly any production-related sites worth promoting; no remains of residences symbolizing the presence of a local community. We considered preserving a small part of the employer residence that remained, but the tight financial conditions made it unable to reverse the city’s predetermined policy to demolish and redevelop the site.

The views of the foreign committee seemed to have sufficient logic. Yet as much as I can accept that, I cannot accept the proposal of excluding Chikuho from the tentative list of heritage. For me and for many other Japanese of my generation who may not have seen actual coal-waste heaps, mining facilities or residences, but have through various media developed a clear image of them, excluding Chikuho from the list of “The Modern Industrial Heritage Sites in Kyushu and Yamaguchi” or even that of Japan is simply unacceptable.

There are two key points behind my view. One is the discomfort of referring to “The Modern Industrial Heritage Sites in Kyushu and Yamaguchi” without mentioning Chikuho. The decisive role that Chikuho coal played in Japan’s industrialization is just too apparent. Moreover, Chikuho is a society created from a force of modernization, coal production, and a unique community that people who lived there had formed and was then forced to disband due to a shift in the nation’s energy policy. Chikuho is a historical space and its culture that Japan’s modernization created and dismantled. Physical weakness in the conditions of its remains does not mean the site lacks heritage that serves as evidence of the rich and diverse stories that lie in its history.

The second point is that there are historical reasons for the terrible state in which the site remains, which in itself leads to the significance of discussing industrial heritage of modernization today. Chikuho is a community that was tossed around by all the changes that Japan’s modernization intensely forced on the nation. The name “Chikuho,” which expresses the region between Chikuzen (western area of current Fukuoka Prefecture) and Buzen eastern area of the prefecture), would not have initially come about without the assumption of coal production. A farming village of beautiful rice fields suddenly had redbrick smokestacks, at which workers–both single and with families–from around the nation gathered. Centralized capital such as Mitsui, Mitsubishi and Sumitomo came and eventually formed cities such as Iizuka, Nogata and Tagawa, which were dubbed coal capitals. Rough yet dense communities that developed over underground labor were considered the very root of Japan’s modernization, and the pitch-black coal-waste heaps that rose above ground was a landscape feature that symbolized Japan.

This iconic Chikuho came to a destructive end in the late-1950s. As mine after mine shut down, communities collapsed and the local economy plummeted to a level that placed cities and villages teetering at the edge of survival. The Chikuho region thus came to be characterized for its high ratio of welfare recipients.

In a sense, the once star industry of modernization was tossed out, together with its communities under a national consensus. Chikuho and other mining cities had to rely on the Law on Special Measures to Promote Coalmine Regions (enacted 1961, expired 2001) for the only hopes of rebuilding their communities. If there were a possibility of a new business coming and building a plant, they immediately stripped away their coal-waste heaps and the scenic landscape underwent drastic change. (Yet construction of an industrial park that was schedule to be built did not proceed at all.)

In the half-century history since the mines closed, coal became nothing but a memory the local people had to deny and forget as soon as they could. No mining city that wanted to completely eliminate anything related to coal would be criticized, which is why Chikuho’s industrial remains are in such a bad state. The idea of cultural heritage is a latecomer. The fact that so few sites remain is itself a type of heritage that conveys the fate of the coal industry to this day. This was the conflict present in the debate on excluding Chikuho from the World Heritage nomination list.

The foreign committee certainly understood these circumstances well, and almost as exchange, they proposed nominating the Sakubei Collection for MOW. I must note that this involved the understanding of Sir Neil Cossons, chairman of the expert committee and former chairman of English Heritage, and of foreign committee members including Dr. Michael Pearson, as well as the extraordinary efforts of Tagawa City that began with hosting the symposium.

From this history, it is a remarkable match that the Sakubei paintings have remained as if to fill in for what Chikuho lacked. The move to nominate “The Modern Industrial Heritage Sites in Kyushu and Yamaguchi” for World Heritage registration and the inclusion of the Sakubei Collection in MOW form a pair, complementing each other.

Yamamoto Sakubei and his painted records of the coalmine

According to his autobiographic Nenpu [Chronology], Yamamoto Sakubei was born on May 17, 1892 in Kasamatsu Village (currently Iizuka City), Kama County, Fukuoka Prefecture. His father, Fukutaro, closed his family business operating a riverboat on Onga River when Sakubei was seven, and became a coalminer at the Kamimio Mine. Sakubei, after graduating from elementary school one year later than children his age, helped out in his father’s work and cared for the family’s baby, and ended up quitting senior class of elementary school after attending for just 80 days.

At age 12 he became an apprentice to a pickax smith, but quit after two years and entered the mines at 14. That began his 50-year miner’s life at Chikuho as a metalsmith and coalminer. According to Fukumoto Hiroshi, the mines that Sakubei worked for in Chikuho were all medium-scale or larger, most of which were run by the government (managed directly by Yawata Iron & Steel Co., Ltd. or Japan Iron & Steel Co., Ltd.) or by Aso family and other local business owners. (Yama no kataribe–Yamamoto Sakubei no sekai [Storyteller of the coalmines–the world of Yamamoto Sakubei], Tagawa City Coal History Museum/Tagawa City Art Museum, 2008)

Since his childhood, Sakubei had loved drawing pictures. The extent of this love is shown, again, in his autobiographic chronology, which reports that his earliest childhood memory of discovering his passion for drawing was when his eight-year-younger brother for his first sekku (seasonal festival) received an unglazed, porcelain samurai doll of Kato Kiyomasa (1562-1611, one of the famous daimyo in Kyushu), which Sakubei sketched day after day.

Sakubei’s elementary school did not have a period for art. A classmate told the teacher when Sakubei was drawing on calligraphy paper that he had pasted together. Unable to draw at school, he found time to do so at home. With one sen (1/100 of a yen) he was given, he bought western paper, which he cut into long pieces and made a booklet, and drew themes like the Genpei gassen [Battle of the Genji and Heike clans in the late 12th Century] to make a picture book. There was an art teacher at the senior class of elementary school he attended for only 80 days. When Sakubei drew a sketch of the teacher’s hat, the teacher walked around the classroom showing it to the students. “What a happy moment that was,” Sakubei wrote in his chronology.

At one period during his mid-teens, his daily chore was drawing pictures upon coming out of the mine. He recalled this was “drawing from imagination”–reading heroic novels by Kanda Hakuryu and Murakami Namiroku and drawing what he imagined. He bought western paper at 2 sen a piece and a 5-sen set of watercolors for elementary children, and drew scenes of sword battles. But from when he was around 20, he would not pick up a paintbrush for the next 40 years of his mining life.

When Nagao Kogyo’s Ito Mine in Iikane-mura, Tagawa, where he had worked since 1940, shut down in January 1955, Sakubei was released. From 1957, he began commuting to the company’s main office as a night guard. It was in the leisure of this night shift that he worked on the painted records of the mine. Sakubei wrote the following about the circumstances of again picking up his brushes. (Yama ni ikiru [Living in the coalmine], Kodansha, 1967)

The job was a night guard, so the nights were long and it got boring. And when I did nothing, I would keep thinking about the son I lost in the war. He served on the battleship Haguro, but on the night of May 16, 1945, he perished with the ship in the Strait of Malacca.

Thinking that it might be fun to paint scenes of the old mine for the sake of posterity and also to find something to do, I started to paint picture after picture as images dawned on me. Once I started painting I became engrossed and before I knew it, it would be 2 or 3 a.m.

Amazingly, Sakubei’s mine paintings have no rough or second drafts. The reason why he “never tore up any work and finished each one as it was” was because since childhood, buying paper had always been difficult and he could never get over this.

As we see here, the mine paintings began when Sakubei was 64. This gives us important perspectives for understanding Sakubei’s works.

One is that they were painted on site at Chikuho as it underwent dismantling. The night guard’s job was to guard leftover materials in the discontinued mine. As Sakubei himself recalled, “It was troubling because there were so many metal thieves.”

Also, as Mokuma Kikuhata had emphasized, is the fundamental fact that these were not realistic paintings of mine workers he was watching, but rather were painted based on his “unusually exceptional memory.” Sakubei’s artistic production began suddenly, as soon as he lost the very subjects of his work. (Kikuhata, Kawasujiga kyojin Yamamoto Sakubei [Yamamoto Sakubei–a madman of emotionally straight paintings])

What exactly are the Sakubei paintings?

To date, much has been said about Sakubei’s paintings. Mokuma Kikuhata, who writes that his encounter with the Sakubei paintings was “the greatest challenge to my philosophy” (Jisei no hijutsu [Secrets for living alone]), studied as many Sakubei paintings as he was able to see in 1970 and found that Sakubei had painted 300 different themes (multiple works had the same title). They largely classify into work inside the mine, work outside the mine, life in the residences, machinery work, visitors to the residence, taboos and superstitions at the residence, the rice riot, lynching in the mine, drinking/fighting and others.

They roughly separate into his earlier sumi-e (ink-wash painting) works and later color paintings. His painting style is unique, as if his passion for painting during his childhood and teenage years, as mentioned earlier, had erupted from the earth after 40 years. Particularly characteristic are the explanations of themes and phrases from a song (“Gotton-bushi”) written in fine handwriting and in some cases taking up more than a third of the paper. Sakubei would draw a circular frame within the picture in which he would draw or write in another picture or sentences that expand on a detail or explain the picture.

From this characteristic style some people debate whether they are paintings or should be considered reference materials. We should probably coin them now as cultural heritage, which supersedes such classifications.

Even today, when it seems that so many topics on the works have received ample discussion, the Sakubei paintings continue to offer fodder for debate. For example, as Toshio Nagasue pointed out (in his commentary for the compilation Yama ni ikiru), the mines that Sakubei drew were primarily those of his childhood and youth, which was from the mid-Meiji to mid-Taisho periods. The detailed paintings of labor at work faces and mining machines were from the same period, and the pictures become simpler through the years. This fact must be considered together with the fact that the works were painted as the mines were being dismantled and from his memory, but the meaning of all this has yet to be sufficiently solved.

Another interesting point is the confronting relationship between the earlier sumi-e works and later color works. Critical assessment of the sumi-e works embodied by dramatic emotions behind them and the highly detailed color works was, in fact, a subject of debate from early in discussions on Sakubei’s paintings. Toshio Nagasue talked Sakubei into doing color, and it was the source of all this debate (Tokunaga Keita, Kaiga sakuhin to shite no tanko kirokuga [The artwork of coalmine paintings], Yama no kataribe–Yamamoto Sakubei no sekai [Storyteller of the coalmines–the world of Yamamoto Sakubei]). Having met Sakubei in 1962, Nagasue began transcribing Sakubei’s notes, while at the same time requesting his cooperation with the Tagawa History Research Group’s movement to collect references of the coalmine. This was when Nagasue begged him to do color works based on motifs in the sumi-e works, and supplied him with large-sized drafting paper and mineral pigments. Sakubei from that point began producing color coalmine paintings at a pace of one every two days, and donated some 260 works to the library by the end of 1966. (These were later transferred to the Tagawa City Coal History Museum, which manages the works to this day.)

Sakubei, who “hates drawing even the slightest bit of a lie” (Nenpu), initially found it difficult to give color to the mines, which were pitch-dark and colorless except for the faint light of a lamp. He would later refer to his colored works as the only lie in his paintings. He painted color works as a result of yielding to Nagasue’s eagerness. Yet when we find that these works were yet more images from his memory that he recalled from over 40 years, we realize that they actually draw greater attention to the circuit of illusion that connects the past and reality. Together with their significance as reference, we need only appreciate them.

Most of the key commentaries on the Sakubei paintings come from abovementioned Toshio Nagasue and Kikuhata Mokuma, and from Ueno Hidenobu, who introduced Kikuhata to Sakubei. These three were undoubtedly the ones who gave critical acclaim to the Sakubei paintings and introduced them to society.

But there is one fact that is barely mentioned despite being written in all accounts. The very first people that paid attention to the Sakubei paintings were the owners of the mine that Sakubei last worked for Nagao Kogyo Co., Ltd., and these small/medium-sized mine owners had published Sakubei’s first collection. (Meiji taisho tanko emaki [Pictures of coalmines in the Meiji/Taisho era], Publishing Committee, 1963) It would be unfair to forget this fact.

In discussions concerning industrial heritage of mining cities, some tend to exclude the sites of mine owner residences from the heritage list, for the reason that they are not labor culture. I do not agree with this view. This is because the presence of the mining capital (even if it was violent at times), together with other elements, is undeniably a part of what formed the culture called Chikuho.

Ueno Eishin wrote Owareyuku kofu-tachi [Coalminers driven out] (Iwanami Shinsho, 1960) two years after Sakubei began painting his works. (Ueno did not know of Sakubei at this point.) Important to note here is that the creation of Sakubei’s paintings and their discovery involving Ueno, Nagasue and the small-/medium-sized mine owners had all taken place as they directly faced dismantling of Chikuho.

Disappearance of modernization; ruins

Photo : GunkanjimaPhoto : Gunkanjima

So we can now go back to the World Heritage issue and its relationship to the Sakubei paintings under MOW.

The most interesting part about the recent trends concerning World Heritage registration is that we are undergoing the first-ever experience of assessing a “ruin” as a cultural resource because modernization had built it. The “Coalmine as ‘Cultural’ Resource” exhibition held by the Meguro Museum of Art in 2009 garnered much attention as an innovative attempt at such a move. While this was an extremely professional approach, the other wave in recent years is symbolized in “fan clubs” of coalmine ruins, as seen in tour cruises to Gunkanjima (Hashima Island, Nagasaki Prefecture) and at Miike and former mining towns in Hokkaido.

Researchers may criticize the Gunkanjima tour cruises and these fan clubs. The notion of a fan club does seem too light for historical coalmines that embody the multiple layers of modernization. But I personally have a strong and positive interest in such recent trends. I am interested because they seem to imply the beginning of a new stage in the involvement of the coal industry and local community at former mining cities.

The most important point has a great deal to do with the historical reason mentioned earlier of why Chikuho’s industrial sites are in poor condition. In other words, the local communities at these mining cities are finally capable of facing up to this view of coal that had been an unwanted memory, and more communities are beginning to re-acknowledge their identity by looking directly at coal when they had previously (and for good reason) avoided it. The World Heritage issue is undoubtedly prompting such moves.

The situation is the same at Miike. Miike had a major dispute in 1959 and 1960 that dismantled the community as if to shred the dense human relationships that were there. To make things worse, a coal dust explosion occurred at the Mikawa Mine in 1963, in what was considered the worst industrial accident in post-war history, causing 458 deaths and numerous victims of carbon monoxide poisoning who suffered long-term aftereffects. A documentary movie, Miike –The Unending Story of the Mine (2005), directed by Hiroko Kumagai, attempted to revive the literally unending story of the mine by conducting numerous interviews and going back and forth between Miike’s past and present. This movie played nationwide and in former mining cities and attracted a great deal of attention, but even then, there was strong local resistance during the movie’s production toward the filmmakers for touching on a past people did not want to examine.

But I feel that there is something behind the movie’s successful production that allowed the local community to face up to the mine. I feel there must be some commonality between this “something” and the fan clubs. I believe that the act of being attracted to ruins and the time lapse that allowed a former mining city to somehow face up to the issue of coal achieve a balance at some point. Chikuho today is regaining what it has lost. The keywords behind this issue are “lost” and “ruins.”

The appeal of ruins, the effort to face up to the negative heritage of coal, the lapse of time that barely made it possible–this “lapse of time” expresses an important point.

This is when the fact that the Sakubei paintings were produced during the leisure of a night job monitoring abandoned materials during the mine’s closure becomes truly symbolic. The paintings, when they were created, were already witnessing modernization disappear. As they are about to become a memory of the world (MOW) today, modernization’s disappearance is entering its next phase. In other words, the reality of the historical evidence of modernization that is disappearing is itself disappearing.

The conventional view of trying to make Chikuho and other former mining cities a historical subject always brought with it something heavy and burdening, as if the move was something naturally needed. The presence of fan clubs may come across as mere “lightness” and disrespect when seen from such perspectives. But the lightness of the young generation, which almost seems as if it forgot to bring its heaviness, is no sin of the fan clubs. I hope no one will take it badly when I say that I think this is in balance with the fact that historical reality’s heaviness is finally disappearing.

This is not a question of right or wrong. The real issue for us, I feel, is about identifying the circuit that links the Sakubei paintings and the fan clubs. And I believe a means of doing this lies in seeing the Sakubei paintings as a means of affirming history.

We can revisit Kikuhata Mokuma’s words. Kikuhata described the significance of Sakubei’s paintings produced on site as Chikuho underwent comprehensive dismantling. “In terms of artistic work, he was in a negative space, yet that space was the command headquarters of his soaring imagination and an important space in his artistic endeavor” (Kawasujiga kyojin Yamamoto Sakubei). Soaring imagination from a negative space–that must be his memory that erupted from the negative space undergoing dismantling. This indicates how Sakubei’s painting unintentionally embodied a means of affirming history that today, despite our efforts, we cannot easily find.

Discussions concerning industrial heritage always involve criticism of thoughtlessly turning everything into a cultural resource. Anyone is capable of criticizing endlessly. I, instead, want to condemn the act of thoughtlessly criticizing moves to create cultural resources. In such cases I want to take, say, the lightness of the term “fan club” to help develop a method of affirmation. I would love to have old Sakubei sit in the middle of this, if he would forgive me for calling on him so many times.

Translated from “Yamamoto Sakubei tanko-ga wo megutte: Shometsushita ‘kindai’to sekai kioku isan,” Chuo Koron, September 2011, pp.212-221. (Courtesy of Chuo Koron Shinsha) [September 2011]