top of page
  • Grace Millar

Coalmining in History and Memory in the UK and Japan

Updated: Jan 8, 2021

On Saturday 13 July 2019, a group of Japanese scholars from the Japan Association for the Study of Former Coalfields (JAFCOF) marched behind the University College Union’s banner as part of the Durham Miners’ Gala. This was the culmination of three days of exploration and collaboration as part of the first workshop for the New Directions in Coal Mining History and Heritage in the UK and Japan project.

A group of people carrying flags and banners walking past a railway bridge

JAFCOF scholars at the Durham Miners’ Gala

The project was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council and the Arts and Humanities Research Council as part of their UK-Japan Social Sciences and Humanities research collaboration scheme. The project was organised by Mark Pendleton, from Sheffield University, and co-organised by Nakao Shimazaki and Keith Gildart from this project.

The 19 researchers involved in this collaboration met together for the first time on Thursday 11 July for a day of papers at Sheffield University. In each panel, Japanese and UK scholars addressed key themes: such as nationalisation and organisation of the industry, unionism and collective organising, and community and family.

One of the most powerful areas of difference was in the memory of the coalfield communities. In Japan, there was mass outward migration from mining communities after the mines closed. Families encouraged silence around mining to enable them to settle into their new communities. Hideo Nakazawa’s paper ‘The Unmaking of Japanese Working Class: Compressed Rise and Decline of Miners’ Union, 1902–2004’, suggested that this forgetting was key to the unmaking of the Japanese working class as whole. He described Japanese miners burning their union banners after the mine had been closed. By contrast, Keith Gildart gave a paper about how actively UK miners remembered that history, and as the workshop went on we definitely saw that remembering in action.

As well as comparing the Japanese and British mining history, we also talked about connections between the coalfields — thinking transnationally. Mark Pendleton presented his work considering Marie Stopes’ travels in Japan, she did key research as a palaeobotanist examining fossils from mines. He revealed interesting connections between the coal industry and contraception/control of reproduction particularly in Japan. In addition, some of the Japanese papers gave a sense of the influence of British socialism on the mining coal fields of Japan. It’s a useful challenge for British researchers to explore reverse influences.

After the last session we had a great methodological discussion about oral history and interviewing, which many of those present had done as part of their research. One of the most pertinent questions was about how the people we approached about being interviewed saw the past. We had had similar experiences, with some interviewees who felt that they had a lot to contribute and understood the value of their life to history, but often the most interesting interviews were with people who were less confident about their place in history.

Communicating across language and cultural differences can be challenging. Mark Pendleton was the only Japanese speaker among the UK delegation, although the Japanese delegates all spoke some English. Bethan Jones acted as an interpreter and told us a little bit about the process of interpretation. She had prepared by learning mining terms in both languages. Two students from the School of East Asian Studies, Sheffield University, Oliver Moxham and Alexander Thacker, travelled with the group and helped us communicate. For those of us who spoke no Japanese, it was fantastic to have people work to make dialogue possible, despite our linguistic shortcomings.

A large hall with banners in the background, in the foreground are people looking at the hall

Exploring the NUM headquarters in Barnsley

The second day started with a visit to the NUM headquarters in Barnsley. Paul Darlow gave a tour of main hall, banners and the NUM archives (which we’ve written about here). Then we went to Wakefield to visit the National Coal Mining Museum of England, which has a substantial underground tour as well as above ground buildings such as the pithead baths, pay office and pony stables. One of the Japanese researchers was particularly interested in the impact of changing mining technology and so studied the many machines on display intently. The second workshop, in Japan is going to include a visit to a Japanese mining museum, which will enable us to deepen our comparisons of how mining is remembered are forgotten.

County Marriott hotel with people on the balcony and more people marching past.

Marching past the Country Hotel with the UCU banner

On the third day we went Durham for the Miners’ gala and got to see many banners in action. JACOF had made flags to wave and we marched behind the UCU banner (all the UK members who work for universities are UCU members). The UCU banner followed the Bearpark and Esh Colliery Band through the streets of Durham to the County hotel where they played for the assembled figures from the labour movement. Then we all proceeded to the race course, where there were stalls, rides, food and drinks.

The structure of the gala is a result of its history. Collieries would march into Durham from coal mining villages across the county, behind their band and their banner. The gala is a living example of the Durham Miners’ slogan: ‘The past we inherit, the future we build’. The speeches were very much about the present (with many references to Brexit) and Laura Pidcock, a local MP, was a definite highlight. Campaigns of the current moment were on display throughout the racecourse field that day: the WASPI women, demanding pension justice, and the Extinction Rebellion banner, which marched as part of the gala.

The Extinction Rebellion banner entering the race course grounds

Myrtle McPherson, an Easington woman who had cooked food throughout the miners’ strike and who died this year, was mentioned both in the in memorium and by Jeremy Corbyn from the stage. Women in County Durham have been working to get their experiences recognised and have created a women’s banner (more about their work here). The acknowledgement of Myrtle McPherson and the women’s banner are both a reminder that memory is a contested field. Women who felt their experiences and work was invisible within the Durham Miners’ Gala have challenged, although not completely changed structures of remembering.

The Women in County Durham banner

We ended the afternoon sitting on a bank and listening to speeches(until it started to rain too much and most people found somewhere drier to be). The difference in cultures of memory between Japan and the UK was so stark at the Miners’ Gala, after hearing about the ritual burning of banners in Japan. One of the most useful things comparative history can do is destabilise our idea of what is normal, natural and inevitable and therefore allow us to return to our research with new and more curious eyes.

Edda Nicholson has written a great account of our workshop and Ewan Gibbs and Tom Blackburn and Rhian Jones wrote really interesting pieces in the aftermath of this year’s gala.


bottom of page