The curtain will soon fall on a coal mine on an outlying island off Kyushu, once again reminding older people that twilight is falling on the days when coal was cherished as “black diamonds” and played a pivotal role in sustaining Japanese industries.

Coal miners at Ikeshima go to work after the announcement that the mine would close next month.

The operator of Ikeshima Mine, one of the two remaining coal mines in Japan, agreed with the company’s union earlier this month to effectively shut down the Nagasaki Prefecture mine at the end of November.

Its termination will leave Taiheiyo Coal Mine in Asahikawa, Hokkaido, the nation’s sole remaining coal mine.

Ikeshima Mine began operation in 1959 and at its peak dug out 1.53 million tons of coal in fiscal 1985.

Ironically, the mine’s management was being pressed to make a final decision on the future of Ikeshima Mine when Tsutomu Tashiro, president of Fukuoka-based Matsushima Coal Mining Co., which manages Ikeshima Mine, greeted trainees from Vietnam at a formal ceremony on Oct. 2.

“We intend to do our most in passing from person to person the safety and production technology we cultivated since the founding of our business,” Tashiro said at the ceremony.

The ceremony proceeded in a friendly atmosphere as the Vietnamese trainees introduced themselves in faltering Japanese.

Matsushima Coal Mining’s capital deficit totaled 1.6 billion yen during the financial year that ended in March last year as the price gap grew between imported and domestic coal.

The government plans to stop subsidizing the coal mining industry at the March 31, 2002 end of fiscal 2001.

Previously, the former Ministry of International Trade and Industry (now the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry) had worked out an arrangement with electric power companies to buy domestically produced coal until fiscal 2006.

But the utility companies, which are effectively the key consumers of coal in the country, had asked Matsushima Coal to slash prices to less than 10,000 yen per ton from 13,000 yen within three years. The company would have eventually driven itself out of business if it had remained in operation.

A fire that closed the mine’s highest-yield shaft in February last year dealt it a punishing blow by forcing the mine to sharply reduce its annual output target of 1.2 million tons. Intensified water leaks at other shafts only sealed the company’s fate.

“The fire led (the company) to an early closure of the mine,” complained an executive of Matsushima Coal.

Power company officials feel the government is making it a national policy for them to buy high-priced domestic coal and appear indifferent to the impending closure of the mine.

An executive of Kyushu Electric Power Co. said Ikeshima Mine’s closure “will have no impact on us because we have a stockpile of coal.” Earlier, his utility was scheduled to purchase 230,000 tons of coal from Ikeshima.

Nagasaki prefectural officials have tried to distance themselves from Ikeshima’s plight, even though they are well aware that the mine’s closure will leave 600 people jobless.

“We are not in a position to extend financial assistance (to Ikeshima Mine) because of financial difficulties,” an official from the prefectural commerce, industry and labor division said.

Now the days of black diamonds are nearly at an end, a victim of oil and other advanced energy sources.

There is “no way for Ikeshima Mine to survive in the way it operates now,” a miner said.

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