Hiroko Kumagai will never forget the day in 1998 when she first stepped inside the red-brick building at the entrance to the closed and shuttered Miyahara shaft in the Miike coal mine in Omuta, Fukuoka Prefecture.

“I felt I heard the voices of people working underground,” she said during a recent interview. “I have never had an experience like that before in my long career as documentary filmmaker.

“I felt the power emanating from that place and from its history — the history of the people who had worked in the mine and lived in the mining town had imprinted itself on that place.”

That was when Kumagai, 60, made up her mind to make a film about the Miike mine, which was once Japan’s largest and produced a quarter of the nation’s coal in its 1930s and ’40s heyday. It closed in 1997 after being in operation for more than 120 years.

“Miike — Owaranai Yama no Monogatari” (“Echoes from the Miike Mine”) was first shown at a cinema in Tokyo’s Higashi-Nakano district in April 2006, before touring more than 20 prefectures from Hokkaido to Kagoshima in Kyushu.

On the day it opened in Tokyo in April 2006, so many people turned up that some had to stand through the 104-minute screening. When it closed there nine weeks later, 5,000 people had seen it — an astonishing number for a documentary film at a suburban venue.

Now, Kumagai has also made a DVD version of “Echoes from the Miike Mine” with English subtitles.

The film covers many of the key episodes in the mine’s history. These include the use from 1873 of prisoners to labor underground; the discriminatory treatment of workers from Yoron Island, Kagoshima Prefecture’s southernmost outpost that’s close to Okinawa; and the forced labor of both Koreans and Chinese from Japan’s wartime empire and Allied prisoners of war during World War II.

As well, the film focuses on a fierce, yearlong labor dispute at the mine from 1959-60 and a devastating explosion that occurred there in 1963.

“I would like foreign people to know that there were people who lived and struggled with all their might at this place that is a microcosm of Japan’s modern history,” Kumagai said of her film, one of whose many strong points are the miners and their families who candidly relate their often harsh experiences.

“Some foreigners have been surprised there were such historical episodes in Japan. Others were astonished by the gap between the harsh lives of those in the film and their bright faces — while a German said it gave him a new understanding of forced labor in his own country’s history,” Kumagai said.

“Coal mines are actually an international theme,” she added. “The economies of many European countries and America were long driven by coal, and many great movies set in coal mines have been made there dealing with such basic issues as miners’ lives and deaths and conflicts between labor and capital. But even though coal was important here, too, there are only a few Japanese films featuring coal miners, so I believe my documentary is especially meaningful.”

As further evidence of that history’s “universal value and meaning,” Kumagai pointed to the decision in May by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) to designate as a “Memory of the World” around 700 annotated paintings and diaries by Sakubei Yamamoto (1892-1984), who spent some 50 years from around age 7 working in small and mid-size pits in the Chikuho area of Fukuoka Prefecture.

“Yamamoto’s paintings and UNESCO’s decision show that coal mines are not things of the past, but are connected with the current age,” Kumagai said. “His paintings are naive and primitive … and he depicts not only men but also females and children working underground.

“The images convey the gentleness, the warmth and the toughness of those people who worked and lived in places where death could come at any time. I believe that coal mines created their own distinct culture.”

Part of that culture also involved labor disputes and fatal accidents, and in her film Kumagai portrays both at the Miike mine — the 1959-60 struggle that still remains Japan’s largest and most bitter postwar labor dispute, and an explosion in 1963 that is the nation’s biggest-ever mining accident.

In December 1959, with oil fast replacing coal as the nation’s primary energy source, the operator, Mitsui Mining Co., sent letters to 1,492 Miike miners “recommending” them to “voluntarily” quit. The angry miners burned the letters. Then the company notified each of 1,278 miners that they were to be dismissed. And so the strife began.

The Miike dispute was widely dubbed as “a struggle between total labor and total capital,” and the General Council of Trade Unions of Japan (Sohyo), then Japan’s largest organization, mobilized tens of thousands of workers nationwide to join rallies and protests in the area of the mine.

On Jan. 25,1960, the Miike miners declared a strike. On March 17 that year, a new union was formed, including miners prepared to take a severance payment and quit “voluntarily.” Then, on March 29, Kiyoshi Kubo, a member of the original labor union, was stabbed to death by a mobster and, on April 18, members of the new labor union, protected by police, went back to work down the mine.

But that wasn’t to be the end of the dispute, and on July 17 a 100,000-strong throng of protesters held a rally inside the mine compounds. But a clash between them and riot police was averted thanks to mediation efforts by the Central Labor Relations Commission. Eventually, though, the strike broke, and on Dec. 1 most members of the mine’s original union went back to work — while some were forced to agree to “voluntarily” quit and were paid off.

To this day, scars from that dispute continue to be divisive in the city of Omuta. To document those wounds for her film, Kumagai interviewed people from the original union and others from the newer, compliant union formed during the dispute, who are commonly regarded as betrayers of the labor cause. And that despite the fact that talking about the new union has been taboo in the area ever since the dispute.

What comes out vividly through these interviews, however, is how the Miike miners and their family members all struggled in their own various ways to just keep going with dignity through that testing yearlong trial.

As Kumagai put it, “The film shows people who exemplified in their lives the importance of working — even if it involved exposing themselves to physical dangers. These days, people hardly ever actually stake their lives on anything.”

To get people to break their ingrained taboo against talking about the labor dispute, Kumagai first had someone from the Omuta City government — which commissioned her to make the film — speak with a potential interviewee. Then she would talk with the person without a camera before finally, in the third contact with them, using a camera.

In that way, she succeeded in getting people to explain frankly why some chose to remain in the original union while others joined the new union — and the difficulties they faced financially, psychologically and in terms of their relationships. She even managed to interview a former official of Mitsui Mining Co. who had maneuvered to help establish the new union, which adopted a conciliatory attitude to management.

“I wanted to present in my film people who lived a hard life not for the sake of ideology but for the sake of living their own life,” Kumagai said. “One man who saw the film and used to hate the new union told me that by watching it his hatred went away. This is a rare case of a documentary movie contributing to reconciliation.”

Nonetheless, a comment made to camera by one woman testifies to the difficult situation in which each Miike coal miner and his family found themselves. She says: “The collapse of a labor struggle starts with women. If wives tell their husbands that they cannot sustain their family’s economic life any more, the men have no alternative but to change their mind.”

But as that phrase “a struggle between total labor and total capital” indicates, the Miike labor dispute also had an ideological dimension. Well known in this regard are the activities of the late Itsuro Sakisaka, then a professor of economics at Kyushu University. As an influential scholar of Marxist economics, and chief theorist of the leftist faction of the Japan Socialist Party, Omuta-born Sakisaka nurtured activists in the Miike labor dispute and held classes there to teach people that poverty is inevitable under the capitalist system.

However, a comment by another woman interviewed in Kumagai’s film is revealing. She says: “I believe Sakasaka’s classes and he himself were responsible for the tragic outcome of the labor dispute. We were forced to dance to his tune. I guess that he took what he had learned at his desk and regarded the people involved as his guinea pigs. I did not attend his classes, but I am still angry with him.”

Despite this impassioned observation, it cannot be denied that Sakisaka’s activities were indispensable to strengthening the core leadership of the original Miike labor union and injecting pride into its members and their wives.

In one scene, a housewife reminisces about Sakisaka telling her that there was no need for Miike workers to be ashamed of being poor because their poverty came not from their laziness but despite them working hard.

Then, three years after the dispute ended, tragedy on a grand scale was visited on the Miike coal mine. At 3:12 p.m. on Nov. 9, 1963, an explosion deep underground in the Mikawa shaft killed 458 men and exposed 839 others to carbon monoxide poisoning. Many of those survivors suffered brain damage that caused a complete change of character, including many who began to behave violently to family members.

Paradoxically, many of those people and their families remain doubly victims to this day, as they are regarded with suspicion for receiving compensation while outwardly appearing normal.

Kumagai faced considerable difficulty in interviewing these people due to issues of patients’ privacy. However, she did manage to film around 30 patients and some of their wives. One of those women is shown saying, “Every day I experience hardship, agony and sadness that cannot be described in words.

“You cannot see my husband’s injuries as it is brain damage. This is the complete destruction of a human character. Where can I take my suffering to protest — and who takes responsibility for my suffering?”

Meanwhile, among those appearing in the film are a Korean man who was forcibly brought to Japan to work in the Miike coal mine during World War II; and Lester Tenney, a survivor of the 1942 Bataan Death March in the Philippines, who, as a prisoner-of-war, was also forced to work there during the war.

Now, with her project finally realized after first being mooted in the autumn of 1998, Kumagai applauds the staff at the municipal Omuta Coal Industry and Science Museum for the tireless help they gave.

Back then in 1998, the city government had invited her to a symposium on how to integrate local history into the creation of a sense of urban community. That was because she had already made a documentary about people and their communities in Mukojima, an old-style district of Tokyo, and those in Ottensen, a town that was swallowed up into the German city of Hamburg.

In the symposium, Kumagai proposed making a documentary film dealing with the history of Miike because she could not forget that sensation of hearing voices when she first went to that red-brick entrance building of the mine’s Miyahara shaft.

At first, however, several others present were opposed to her idea, saying that Omuta’s history was a “negative legacy” involving the use of prisoners as workers, wartime forced labor, the fierce labor dispute and the tragic explosion accident.

But one participant who supported Kumagai’s idea from the start was Michio Yoshida, then secretary general of the museum. He told her to send him a project proposal and a budget request — and he also sent her books and other materials.

Subsequently, though, proposals she submitted in two consecutive years were both rejected by the city government. Then in the third year yet another one was finally accepted and she was granted a budget of ¥12 million for the project.

Kumagai started shooting in the autumn of 2001, and over two years she interviewed around 100 people. After that, she spent two more years editing her work down to 104 minutes.

Looking back, Kumagai now believes that she was lucky to have been shooting her film at just the right time because, as she explained, “After the filming was over, many of those people I interviewed died. Also, if I had shot the film earlier, people would not have talked about their experiences because they felt they were still too recent.”

Nowadays, though, her skills and persistence are paying off with every showing of the film. During some screenings, Kumagai said, she’s seen many young people shedding tears. “And sometimes,” she said, “young people make such comments as, ‘The film made me reflect on my own life, and made me ask whether I am living my life to the full’ — or, ‘For anyone who thinks that it’s difficult for them to live their life, this film will give them courage to take a new step forward.’

“And in addition, I am sure that the film will convince people it is completely wrong to write off as ‘negative legacy’ a history that’s characterized by people’s indomitable efforts to just keep on living their lives,” the proud director said.

“Echoes from the Miike Mine” is available in Japan from Siglo, either via fax to (03) 5343-3102 or email to siglo@cine.co.jp or by visiting www.cine.co.jp/miike. It is also available in the United States through Zakka Films, via email to info@zakkafilms.com or via the website www.zakkafilms.com.

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