In July 2015 UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee approved the inscription of “Sites of Japan’s Meiji Industrial Revolution” on the World Heritage List. In this seventh article of a series introducing the twenty-three components of the inscription, we take a look at the three sites listed in Miike on the island of Kyushu.
At this point in our introduction to the Sites of Japan’s Meiji Industrial Revolution, our focus moves further away from the trial and error experimentation with Western technologies that began in the 1850s and the direct importation of such technologies beginning in the 1860s towards full-blown industrialization at the turn of the twentieth century.
Miike Coal Mine, Railway and Port are located along the coast of the Ariake Sea extending from southern Fukuoka Prefecture to northern Kumamoto Prefecture on the island of Kyushu. The sites of the UNESCO inscription are physically connected and together represent one of the earliest examples in Japan of an industrial mass distribution network.
The development was initiated by Takuma Dan (1858–1932), a former student of mining engineering in the United States, who was appointed General Manager of the Miike Coal Mine Company when the Mitsui conglomerate acquired the old mine in 1888. The technical challenges faced by Mitsui were considerable.
The high-quality coal seam at Miike had proven difficult to exploit as excessive groundwater in the area led to flooding in the mining tunnels. Mitsui however had the financial means to invest in the import of cutting-edge pump and winch equipment from Britain, heavyweight tools which soon solved the problem. The Miyanohara Pit was the first to open at the new Miike Coal Mine, in 1898, followed by the Manda Pit, 1.5 kilometers away, in 1908. Together the pits, each having two shafts, produced 10% of Japan’s coal at their peak.
Mitsui also installed an electric railway—one of the nation’s first—to transport the coal from the two pits to the nearby port for distribution. Development of an industrial-scale port is where the company’s biggest challenge lay.
The Ariake Sea has an unusually wide tidal range of 5.5 meters, which made docking impossible for ships of the size needed to efficiently carry coal. Mitsui thus embarked on a large scale civil engineering project that entailed among other things draining a section of the tidal flats and construction therein of an inner basin and connected inner harbor. They reclaimed land for the loading of coal and dredged a long, straight navigation channel far out into the sea of a design that enabled large ships to enter and depart the dock on either side. Viewed from above, the design resembles a hummingbird. Lock and sluice gates were imported, again from Britain, to maintain equal water levels inside and outside the new artificial dock. The port officially opened in 1908 and is still in operation today.
The coal mine, railway and port of Miike would become one of Japan’s biggest and most important industrial complexes. Although the coal mine closed in 1997, the giant headframes of the two pits still dominate the local landscape, monuments to the origins of Japan’s transition to an advanced industrialized nation and memorials to the workers, including women and prisoners, who toiled — and on tragic occasions perished — within.
Alex Hendy, The Japan Journal