On the afternoon of 10 December 2019, the New Directions in Coal Mining History in UK and Japan group visited the Omuta City Library. Omuta, on the southern island of Kyushu, was the site of the Miike mines, the largest mines in Japan. The UK members of this group were former miners, academics and those involved in mining heritage (and many who belonged to more than those groups) and we were joined by both academics and those involved in remembering the mining industry locally.
In 1960, the Miike mines had undergone a year long strike. Confrontations between miners and the police had got very physical. Draconian regulations had been passed that forbid miners from carrying sticks. The night before we had heard from strikers and seen a club that had been modified so that the carrier could claim it was a pipe.
During this strike the libraians at the Omuta city library, started collecting material copies of leaflets and minutes and material from the government, because they thought it was important. Thanks to this work, the Omuta library now has an incredible collection of material about mining history that would otherwise have been lost.
Three years later, in November 1963, a massive explosion at Mikawa mine killed 458 miners, mostly from carbon monoxide poisoning. We had met survivors of that explosion, and heard about the difficulties they had had having their experiences recognised. Many people suffered the effects of carbon monoxide poisoning, but the company did not acknowledge their injuries. Toshihide Ohara, an Omuta libarian from 1985 to 1999, was particularly interested in recording the ongoing legacy of this disaster. Thanks to him the collection contains a range of documents related to this accident, including oral histories with the women who led the campaign for recognition and compensation for their husband’s deaths and injuries.
In 1997, the closure of the last Miike mines received substantial media coverage. Toshihide Ohara collected an issue of every magazine that had covered the closures. One of these had Bruce Springsteen on the cover; a matter of great joy to the Springsteen fans in our party and also a reminder of the importance of understanding events in their full historical context. Keeping the whole issue, rather than just clipping individual articles, created a much richer source.
The Omuta library had started collecting this material when miners were looked down upon and many people did not think their material was worth collecting. Thanks to generations of librarians we could look through a bound copy of union propaganda during the strike and images of the mines’ history.
Again and again throughout our research into the coal industry we have come face to face with the contingency of what survives in the archives. Previous blog posts about the NUM and NCB records, expolored the role that history plays in the survival of archives. But agency is also key — the decisions made both by those companies, unions, workers, and archivists have a significant impact on what we can know about the past and what is erased. In this case librarians who valued the archives of miners and their unions, at a time when they were generally dismissed, have enriched the knowledge of Japanese coalfields in an invaluable way. Paul Darlow, a former miner who has dedicated the last few years to trying to ensure the survival of the NUM archive, has been part of the network and this trip , and it was particularly important to have him there to see the echoes between these different sets of records and the circumstances under which they were preserved.
While we’re currently in the middle of another crisis of a very different sort, it’s even more important to recognise the value of the work of Toshihide Ohara and all the people who kept their material. They ensured that a wide range of perspectives about the coal industry (and Bruce Springsteen) have survived. What is available of these current times will depend on the decisions that people make. Records of the state will eventually be transferred to the National Archives; the voices of those in power are never hard to find. Luckily there are many librarians like Toshihide Ohara who are already thinking about how to make sure a wide range of voices from the current crisis are preserved.