By Tomoo Ota / Yomiuri Shimbun Senior WriterOMUTA, Fukuoka — After about a five-minute drive from JR Omuta Station, a 22-meter-tall steel tower appears among houses and fields. This is the Miyanohara Pit of the Miike Coal Mine, part of the “Sites of Japan’s Meiji Industrial Revolution: Iron and Steel, Shipbuilding and Coal Mining” that joined UNESCO’s World Heritage list in 2015.
Coal mining at the pit began in 1898. Although the tunnel has been filled, a second vertical shaft, which was mainly used for carrying workers into the pit, still remains. Using an elevator installed inside the tower, it reportedly took only one minute to reach the 160-meter underground level at the time of operation.
The pit used to yield 400,000 to 500,000 tons of coal annually as the main pit at the Miike Coal Mine. Notably, its workers were predominantly prison inmates. About 1,000 people, including some civilians, used to work here in three shifts. Called kiriha, mining sites were hot and humid, and there was a risk of cave-ins. The working environment here was so severe it was dubbed the “pit of hell.”
Making prison inmates work inside coal mining pits was banned in 1930, and Miyanohara Pit was closed the following year. But, when I entered a room for a hoisting machine for the elevator, it smelled of oil. The thick wire of the hoisting machine was shiny black, with plenty of oil soaked into it, as the elevator was used until 2000 when inspections were carried out inside the pit.
Yoshimitsu Miyawaki, a 79-year-old volunteer guide for visitors, is a former miner who worked at the Miike Coal Mine for over 30 years from 1956. He experienced the Miike labor dispute from 1959 to 1960, and the 1963 coal dust explosion at Mikawa Pit that killed 458 people.
“It was about the end of my shift and I was preparing to go back above ground, when there was a blackout. Then the gas [carbon monoxide] came. I fainted as I was trying to escape while carrying my coworker,” Miyawaki said.
The labor-management confrontation when the nation was shifting its major energy source from coal to petroleum oil and the tragic accident threw a dark shadow over the city. The closure of Miike Coal Mine in 1997 became a great turning point for the city.
At the Omuta Coal Industry and Science Museum, exhibitions describe the history of the coal mine and progress in mining technology. One of the main attractions is a mock pit named the “dynamic tunnel.” Visitors take an elevator, and when the door opens, a mining site is right in front of them.
“This is a reproduction of Yotsuyama Pit, which is located about 400 meters below the surface of the Ariake Sea,” said Kunitoshi Cho, a 39-year-old staff member at the museum. Real items actually used at mining sites are displayed there, including a cutter to mine coal and an electric engine to carry it. It was striking to see the large blades turning when the cutter was switched on — even though it was not actually mining.
There are other components of the UNESCO World Heritage site in surrounding areas — Manda Pit in Arao, Kumamoto Prefecture, which is located about 1.5 kilometers south; Miike Port, which was used for shipping coal; and the remains of the Miike Coal Railway. If you open a map, you will see the remains of the U-shaped coal railway, which was 150 kilometers long at its peak, connecting pits, Miike Port and other related facilities. JR Kagoshima Line runs through the middle of the area. Omuta was truly the “capital of coal.”
Miike high school’s glory
In 1965, two years after the explosion, Miike technical high school won the national high school baseball championship in its first appearance in the nationwide competition. Led by skipper Mitsugu Hara, the father of former Yomiuri Giants skipper Tatsunori Hara, the team achieved a great feat that cheered up the town, which was depressed by the labor dispute and the tragic accident.
Half a century has passed since then, and Mitsugu died three years ago. When I visited the city, however, elderly people there proudly recalled that time whenever we talked about the high school’s achievement.
It takes 110 minutes from Haneda Airport to Fukuoka Airport by air. After traveling to Hakata Station by subway from the airport, it is 70 minutes to Omuta Station on the JR Kagoshima Line. It takes about 10 minutes by car from the station to Miyanohara Pit. Visitors can also take the Nishitetsu Tenjin-Omuta Line that connects Omuta Station and the Tenjin area in central Fukuoka. Call the Omuta city government’s sightseeing hospitality section at (0944) 41-2750 for more details.
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