1960- Japan's Coal Miners Strike

Strike breakers attack picket
Strike breakers attack picket

A history of Japan podcast about the massive coalminers strike in Miike on the island of Kyushu in 1960, and its impact on the Japanese economy, Japanese unions and the Japanese left.

Submitted by Reddebrek on August 27, 2018

This week, we cover the Miike coal mine strike of 1960. As labor and management do battle over the future of the mines, how will the future of the country be shaped by their clash?


Link https://youtu.be/p5G8A7oCa6I

Hello and welcome to the History of Japan podcast, episode 245 the Summer of Rage Part II. Last week we covered the protests that brought down the Kishi government and set the tenor for the next half century of Japanese politics. A consensus on economic growth and nothing else. This week I want to talk about another protest which also stretched into the summer of 1960, and which helped set the tone for the future of post-war Japan.

Last week we looked at what is by any measure the beating heart of Japan, Tokyo itself. This week our focus is about as far away from that as you can get, a small called Miike, split between Fukuoka and Kumamoto Prefectures in central Kyushu. The area would be insignificant in the grand sweep of Japanese history except for one thing, it was one of the few areas in Japan with serious natural resource deposits. Specifically Miike was loaded with coal. Coal mining in the region goes back to the mid 1700s, when the local ruling clan the Tachibana, first started up a small mining industry to fuel a very minimal for coal. Used primarily during the Tokugawa period for the manufacture of salt.

However Miike transformed from a niche product exporter to a major cog in the Japanese economy after the Meiji restoration. Japan’s newly industrialising economy needed naturally a large volume of coal, to fuel its factories and to power it’s trains and ships, especially those last ones as the Imperial Japanese Navy was growing by leaps and bounds. Mines like Miike let the Meiji government acquire coal domestically rather pay out the nose for imports. In 1872 the Miike mines were nationalised by the government, however as was the case with most of the early Meiji experiments in state-owned corporations, they proved to be a bit of a flop. Samurai trained bureaucrats as it turned out had plenty of understanding of why coal was important, but no idea of how to you know actually run a coal mine.

So instead the mine was sold in 1899 to the Mitsui Zaibatsu. The Zaibatsu were remember these powerful economic mega conglomerates where a single family would control an economic empire owning companies in fields ranging from steel to weapons to energy to shipping to banking to God knows what else. They had tremendous wealth and influence, especially in the industrialised areas of the economy. And man Miike was a cash cow for Mitsui. The coal Miike produced became a crucial fuel for the industrialisation of Japan and for the economic expansion of Mitsui. At the same time conditions in Miike were terrible, safety precautions were relatively minimal and until a 1930 law forbade the practice, convicts were regularly forced to labour in the mine as part of their sentence.

Remember that a few years back we did an episode on the Socialist and Feminist Kōtoku Shūsui*? Well it was when she lived in Miike with her first husband and saw conditions at the mine, that this daughter of social privilege who had never really worked a day in her life became a radicalised socialist. It was really that bad. And yet coal mining was better than any of the other work reliably available in Kyushu, so people kept coming for the job. But they wanted protections and so they did the natural thing, they unionised.

Unionisation during the first half of 20th century Japanese history was to say the least, risky business. Unionised labour was considered one step from banner waving socialism and trying to unionise would get you uncomfortably close scrutiny from the government in many cases. The Miike union in particular suffered constant attacks from the government which was concerned that unionised labour could interrupt a vital supply of coal that was crucial to Japanese industrialisation. It wasn’t until after World War II that a progressive American backed occupation government allowed the unfettered right to unionisation, something that the Miike workers took full advantage of.

However just as the Miike workers thought they were securing their future, the economic winds shifted. Generally speaking the post war government of Japan was hesitant to rely too much on imports. The legacy of World War II taught the Japanese government just how vulnerable Japan was to targeted embargoes; particularly in the energy sector. However post war Japan was also not a military power and didn’t have to worry about fighting new wars any time soon. It could afford to calculate its future based on the economic bottom line and the economic bottom line was that importing energy was a lot cheaper than domestic coal was.

Natural gas and petroleum were both cheaper than coal, especially thanks to the help of the good old US of A, which was more than prepared to prop up it’s Cold War bastion in Asia, by helping to arrange favourable terms for energy imports. This was particularly true in the case of petroleum which was produced in large quantities in the American South and which had also been recently discovered in ample quantities in a previously back water place known as the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

So the Kishi government decided it was time to cut down on domestic coal production in favour of imports and even after Kishi left office the new government of Prime Minister of Ikeda Hayato stayed the course. Kishi and Ikeda may have had very different views on foreign policy, but in the end both men were career bureaucrats, they knew how to read a balance sheet. The decision was passed onto Mitsui which was informed the government would be purchasing less coal in the future. And Mitsui in turn started laying people off.

For the families of Miike the resulting economic catastrophe was to say the least devastating. Thirty two thousand nine hundred workers lost their jobs in 1959 as the result of coal mine closures and could not support their families as a result. Perhaps the most stark indicator of the resultant catastrophe was that the 1959 health survey of the region found only 7% of the children in the area to be in good health. The rest were suffering from inadequate health care brought on by the inability of their parents to afford doctor’s visits, or that old classic malnutrition.

The straw that broke the camel’s back was the announcement by Mitsui that a further 60,000 labourers were scheduled to be let go in 1960 with further layoff planned for the coming years. Overall some 100,000 people were scheduled to be let go by 1963. Layoffs on the scale by Mitsui planned would have devastated any community economically but in the Japanese case they were uniquely troubling. The Japanese economy was remember built on a system of lifetime employment. Employers essentially offered iron clad guarantees of job security after hiring, this was quite comforting if you kept you job, but if you lost it good luck finding a company that was ever prepared to hire someone not coming straight from out of school. In such a nonelastic labour market finding a decent new job was far from guaranteed.

This second round of layoffs also targeted a different population than the previous ones. In particular the layoffs started targeting the mines that were affiliated with the miners union called Tanro a wing of Japan’s largest Union Sohyo, the one that called the general strike against Kishi. Tanro dominated mines had previously enjoyed a lot of autonomy in how they were run, with most of the major operational decisions made by a sort of workers council. The first round of implemented layoffs was not coincidentally designed to target the leadership of these councils and the Union more generally. At first Mitsui attempted to couch the move by sending letters to about 1,000 workers suggesting that they “voluntarily resign”.

When the workers burned those letters Mitsui pulled out the big guns and fired them. And so in January 1960 Tanro called a strike. This was not the first time this had happened, in 1953 Mitsui had attempted to rationalise the workforce of Tanro dominated mines by forcing workers over 50 as well as women and quote unquote “bad character” out of the mines. The resulting Tanro strike cost Mitsui over 4 billion yen and led to resignation of Mitsui’s president and only resulted in only half the proposed layoffs ever going forward with the by the by a promise extracted from Mitsui `never to attempt unilateral dismissals of mine employee’s again`.

So it was not unreasonable for Tanro to expect to win out. After all they’ve done it before, so they can do it again right? That was particularly true because even if Mitsui could get scabs -workers to replace the strikers- into the mines, Tanro had one other card to play. The miners could physically block the trains carrying the coal from leaving their stations preventing Mitsui from fulfilling its coal contracts. This time however Mitsui was confident in its ability to beat its miners, it was prepared to take bigger losses than it had in 1953 in order to break the power of the Union. And this time it had the backing of other coal producers who agreed to service Mitsui’s contracts while the Miike mines were shutdown. After all if Mitsui could break the Union’s power, it would be good for all coal producing companies not just Mitsui. In addition

Mitsui had two other cards to play, the first was the support of the national government, which was prepared to deploy police to the area to “keep order”. The second was the fact that the local Yakuza offered their services to Mitsui, remember the Yakuza has a very long history of anti-leftist activity, going back to Japan’s very first elections. Union busting was a speciality of theirs. Thugs associated with the Yakuza started attacking the miners in March of 1960. On March 29th Kubo Kiyoshi one of the leading members of Tanro was stabbed to death by a member of the Yakuza who managed to sneak through the picket lines.

This violence did succeed in intimidating some of the workers who broke off from Tanro to form a new union that was prepared to accommodate some of Mitsui’s demands. Partially from the economic pressure and partially because some of the union members were afraid that militant workers calling for an ongoing strike, were tied too tightly to the Japanese Communist Party. It looked like the workers were now starting to turn on each other, which meant it was only a matter of time before Mitsui won out. Indeed some three thousand miners, about 20% of the mining workforce -not the broader workforce of the town generally affiliated with Mitsui- did go back into the mines and resume mining in the middle of March despite violent attempts by the strikers to stop them. The coal trains still couldn’t leave the station but the mines were technically open for business once again.

At the same time Mitsui was very carefully containing the protest and preventing it from spreading to its other holdings. Other Mitsui owned coal mines such as the Bibai mine in Hokkaido were not subject to mandatory layoffs. Instead Mitsui returned to the old canard of voluntary retirement, essentially offering severance bonuses to ease people out instead of forcing a confrontation. It really looked that this was going to work, Union solidarity was breaking down, strikes in other Mitsui mines hadn’t materialised.

But what kept the protests going was ANPO. In light of the growing security treaty protests in Tokyo events in Miike took on a new aura. No this was not just a labour dispute it was one wing of a broader struggle against businesses and government bureaucrats who wanted to roll back the reforms of the Occupation and return Japan to the bad old days.

National Unions started to take up the Miike cause. Calling a wave of strikes in support of the Miike workers; the largest covered 300,000 workers across Japan. Activists also started flooding into the area itself, many of them in fact the same activists who’d just been protesting ANPO. They made their way south after the treaty passed and Kishi resigned in June and July. Unions across the country also started to send representatives to join the miners and their strikes and to begin collections to support the miners.

The story grabbed national headlines right next to ANPO. My personal favourite example is a letter from a Junior Highschool girl from Miike named Tanabata Sumiko published in Sohyo run newspaper in April 1960, the letter itself was from December. The letter reads in part:

“My father has done Union work for the Miike local Union since before I was born. He also works in the mines. Because my father is easy going every morning I get to talk with him a little bit about his work. My father spends every day organising or participating in Union demonstrations down at the mine, but I’m worried about him. My older sister said something the other day I think shows how things are here. `Cut off the heads of those who would cut off ours`”.

That really demonstrates I think the ferocity of feeling among the miners and their families who perceived their very livelihood’s as being fundamentally under threat. That line about slitting throats Ku-bi-o-Ku (Phonetic approximation, trans ed) in Japanese, is a reference to a Japanese colloquialism, Kubini Naru, which is a very euphemistic way of saying someone is fired, literally that their head is rolling. The letter closes by the way on a sadder and less violent note:

“soon it is going to be New Year’s and there is nothing I really want for a gift. Because my father is being laid off money is pretty tight. My family is going to be spending the New Year’s season by taking care of each other.”

The letter was likely selected by Sohyo of course to publish because of its heart wrenching ending, but it also demonstrates the extent to which this was a life and death battle for the miners. The protests continued the whole summer and into the fall, it wasn’t until October that an exhausted Miners Union caved in. Its strike funds were running out, popular interest was drying up and so on November 1st 1960, the strike ended.

The Union agreed to sit down with Mitsui and a team of outside mediators to determine where things should go from here. In the end Mitsui had the resources to wait out the protests. The mediators decided overwhelmingly in Mitsui’s favour, the layoffs mostly went ahead, safety improvements were never made and Tanro as a Union had its power broken. Mitsui had proven they could be beaten.

In 1963 a mine explosion killed 450 people and injured over 800 more at Miike, another explosion in 1984 claimed over 80 lives. The mine was eventually shuttered all together in the 1990s. If as some protestors claimed the Miike and ANPO struggles were linked attempts to defend the New Japan against those who wanted to roll back the tide, those attempts were it seemed failures. The miners lost, the protestors in Tokyo lost.

And yet as with ANPO a new consensus emerged from the ashes of Miike, that would inform the future of Japanese society. The Miike protests you see were messy, they looked bad and they undercut the new Ikeda administrations focus on the consensus for economic growth. If the goal was to paper over the difference of Japanese society by focussing everyone’s attention on getting rich, fights over how to distribute those riches were in essence counterproductive.

So government and business policy began to shift. Lifetime employment guarantees were shored up in order to avoid the kind of direct confrontation that Miike represented. Even as this was happening big Japanese firms also worked to undercut the power of Unions like Tanro. After all powerful Unions represented an organisational threat to the ability of management to guide certain business decisions. Even if management was committing to avoiding certain kinds of actions which would upset the Unions.

Most Japanese Unions were and are what are called enterprise unions, in other words Unions not organised across an entire sector like Teamsters or Sanitation workers or what have you, but across a single business. A Mitsui Union a Toyota Union and so forth. After Miike businesses began pushing harder for unionisation along this model figuring not incorrectly that if a worker’s energy could be channelled into these narrower business specific unions it would be harder to organise mass protests and easier to keep the unions under control.

In some cases, the president of a given company would even lead the unionisation charge and become president of the Union as well. All of this was pitched to workers as more responsive and not unreasonably, after all a narrower union can respond to narrow issues as well. In my mind the most interesting way this played out was in the 1990s during the early days of the great Japanese recession. With the overt support of the Japanese government many firms avoided outright firings to the greatest degree possible even as Japan’s economy ran straight into a brick wall. The economic cost of keeping workers whose jobs no longer produced much if anything of economic value employed was considered less than the social cost of breaking the lifetime employment contract and inviting a new Miike on a greater scale.

And one that would hit places a lot close to the centre of Japan than some coal mine in rural Kyushu. That’s the extent to which fear of a new confrontation with labour became a major factor in policymaking. In the end that’s what’s interesting about the summer of 1960. It wasn’t despite what some protestors might have envisioned a great uprising against the forces that wanted to turn Japan’s clock back. In the end the establishment won both cases, a new age of progressive Japanese politics was not on the horizon.

Indeed probably the most powerful visual moment of the summer of 1960, really underscored the degree to which the progressive dream had bloomed in the 1940s had died. On October 12th 1960 the Socialist representative of Tokyo’s first District, Asanuma Inejiro was taking part in a debate with an electoral opponent that was being broadcast live on the local NHK affiliate. Asanuma had a long history as a Socialist firebrand, most recently for having gone on a state visit to Beijing and praised Chairman Mao, while denigrating the United States, at a time when Japan still refused to recognise the People’s Republic of China as a legitimate government. In the middle of the debate a right-wing ultranationalist all of 17 years old stormed the stage with a Katana and stabbed Asanuma to death.

Asanuma’s death became a stand in for the death of the old Socialist Party, for a vision that the JSP could take control of Japan from the LDP and direct the future of the country. Asanuma Inejiro was mourned nationally and in his wake peace protests broke out across Japan. But that was really it, the JSP and left-wing movements that had led ANPO and Miike had become generalised peace movements content to throw out the occasional protest while the LDP governed the country.

This shift from a left-wing that was vying for power to a left that was content to defend what it had, a peace constitution, labour laws, lifetime employment was not a direct result of the death of Asanuma. Instead his murder took on a symbolic value, the death of Asanuma became a stand in for of the old Socialist Party. And in more concrete terms it served as a threat to future socialist politicians, `stay in your lane, don’t push to far, or else!`

In addition to a weakened left, one that had gambled on two big victories and lost both what emerged from 1960 was a renewed Conservative movement. Kishi’s wing of the LDP the pro rearmament crowd was now gone from power. It would not return seriously in any meaningful sense to the political discourse until the mid to late 2000s. When Kishi Nobususke’s grandson Abe Shinzo got his first term -but not his last- as Japan’s Prime Minister.

Meanwhile, while Mitsui had defeated Tanro in a labour showdown the result was not the end of Union power altogether. Unions remained and were still capable of shows of force, but that kind of direct confrontation between management and labour became less and less common. A new understanding had been reached that Unions would accept what they were being given in exchange would restrict themselves to pro forma protests, often scheduled in advance every year with a short walk out followed by some speeches and low-key marching followed by a return to work. A far cry from the old days of Yakuza backed unionbusting.

In the end that transformation is what I think is really interesting about the events of 1960. So often commenters on post war Japan focus on this idea of harmony “Wa” of a society where conflict had been subsumed by the greater interests of the whole. Look at Western writing on Japan or even Japanese writing on Japan in some cases, from the 1970s and 1980s you’ll see this brought up over and over again. Where did it come form? The commenters wondered, something unique to Japanese institutional history, Japanese culture too, or as some more racialistic thinkers in Japan suggested Japanese ancestry itself?

The explanation really is a lot simpler, that emphasis on harmony was born out of conflict. The summer of 1960 was a compressed version of a sort of Hegelian synthesis. If that means nothing to you very simply put Hegel proposed a sort of process of intellectual evolution for humanity in three steps. First a new vision a thesis would be put forward, say the progressive vision of the Japanese left who embraced Union activism, article 9 and the image of Japan as a disarmed and neutral friend to all. Then an antithesis would come forward, an opposed agenda energised by disdain for the original thesis, men like Kishi or the Mitsui board of directors would step forward and oppose it. Finally their conflict would result not in ultimate victory for one side or the other, but in compromise, in synthesis a new path forward would be found incorporating both sides and the process would begin again.

The system that governed Japan to the 1960s until the 1990s, arguably still today was just such a synthesis. Born out of a desire to prevent further confrontation and instead to refocus Japan’s energies on the one area of agreement, on the power and importance of economic growth. It became the guiding principle of the New Japan. And hey it worked, today that’s how ANPO and Miike tend to get remembered. As bloody violent depressing footnotes on the way to that synthesis. And yet I do think they deserve a little more than that, these were events that rocked Japan, that captured headlines, that were instrumental in driving the new Japanese order forward. The Japan of today, the worlds third largest economy, rich, stable, it’s the product of ANPO, the product Miike, even the product of the death of Asanuma. And everything that grew from those moments in 1960.

That’s all for this week, thank you very much for listening.

*I believe this is a mistake as Isaac Meyer says Kōtoku Shūsui, but seems to be talking about Kanno Sugako who was his lover and grew up around mining companies.


Mike Harman

5 years 8 months ago

In reply to by libcom.org

Submitted by Mike Harman on August 27, 2018

Thanks for posting this.

Pretty sure there were significant strikes and/or occupations at Miike just post war (during the production control movement) in 1946/47 although I don't have my copy of Joe Moore's Japanese Workers and the Struggle for Power to hand to check this.

Also another strike in 1953 during the Korean war which only seems to get mention in relation to the '60/'61 strike.

Some more references, looks like someone made a film about it the 1960/61 strike, including a DVD with english subtitles:

https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2011/08/14/national/history/film-mines-rich-seams-of-history/#.W4NvTC2Q0cg can be bought here: https://www.zakkafilms.com/product/echoes-from-the-miike-mine/#

On the use of convict labour in the Miike mines up until at least the 1930s: