A life in the coal mines

This May brought unexpected news of the selection by UNESCO of annotated paintings and diaries by Sakubei Yamamoto of life in the Japanese coal mines for entry in its Memory of the World Register.

The Memory of the World Program was begun in 1992 to preserve the documentary heritage of humanity.

Works already registered cover historical, religious and legal documents related to companies, individuals and social causes — including the Magna Carta, the Gutenberg Bible, composer-pianist Johannes Brahms, inventor Nikola Tesla, the Dutch East Indies Company, Nelson Mandela, the fight against slavery and the Polish Solidarity movement.

Yamamoto’s works were first submitted to UNESCO by the Tagawa city government in Fukuoka Prefecture as supplementary materials in an application for consideration as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. That bid failed, but the UNESCO panel took special notice of the Yamamoto diaries and drawings.

The photos and English translations of the Yamamoto collection on the UNESCO website (under Communication and Information) make it clear why.

Sakubei Yamamoto (1892-1984), born in Fukuoka Prefecture, started work in the Kyushu coal mines as a child. In his 60s he started making watercolor and ink paintings of the miner’s life from the late Meiji Era into the 20th century as a record for his grandchildren. In the blank areas of the paintings he wrote eyewitness details on what life was like then.

Although untrained as an artist, his works, as UNESCO notes, have a rawness and immediacy missing from the official record, and are informed by his unique perspective as an ordinary laborer in that period of early industrialization.

In his time, children worked in the mines from the age of 7 or 8; women washed coal on conveyor belts in 12-hour shifts.

As well as detailing changes over time in work methods in the coal shafts, Yamamoto also depicts scenes of daily life — breakfast at home, gambling, the public baths — and of events such as the rice riots of 1918.

In a time of growing nostalgia for prewar days, when people worked diligently with a firm sense of national purpose, Yamamoto provides graphic evidence of just how hard such a life could be in a very vivid and very human record.