• Grace Millar

Painting and Mining in Japan and the UK

Updated: Nov 30, 2020


Sakubei Yamamoto was born in 1892 and loved painting as a child, but like the rest of his family he had to work in the Chikuho coal mine. After working for 50 years he retired and began drawing and painting his mining experiences. In 2011, his paintings and writings about mining were included as Japan’s first UNESCO memory of the world. An exhibition of his work is touring the UK and US this year and next.


On Friday 4 October, the exhibition opened in the Japanese Embassy in London and members of the project attended as part of the ‘New Directions in Coal Mining History and Heritage in the UK and Japan’ network. Mark Pendleton, the organiser of the network spoke about how mining is remembered (and forgotten).

A woman reading in front of a screen with an image of mining in the background

Mari Natsuki, prominent Japanese actress, read from Sakubei Yamamoto’s work


Sakubei Yamamoto’s work will be on display at the Embassy of Japan Gallery until the 15th of November; early next year it will stay in London at the Brunei Gallery, SOAS. It has already been displayed at Big Pit and will move to the National Mining Museum of Scotland from June-September next year (both museums are partners on this project).

A particular highlight of the exhibition was a painting that showed miners who were known for their flashy dressing. Sakubei Yamamoto was interested in representing his life, the lives of people he’d known, and the cultures that mining families had created. Historians of mining are very grateful his work was created, survived and that its importance has been recognised.


In his introductory speech, the Ambassador to Japan compared the mining histories of UK and Japan and wondered if there were any similar artists from the UK. The most obvious comparison is the Ashington Group, often called the Pitman Painters. The group grew out of a Workers Education Association class on art appreciation that decided to make art themselves, rather than just appreciate other people’s art. The Ashington Group received some critical acclaim in the 1930s and 1940s. Their work can be seen at the Woodhorn Museum.


Sakubei Yamamoto was a contemporary of most of the Ashington Group and it’s interesting to think about what enabled men who started work in the mines in the early twentieth century to create art. In the UK, the space for miners to create art was created collectively and facilitated by the WEA. In both the UK and Japan, it was unusual for miners to have the time and resources to represent their lives. Alongside celebrating the work that does exist, it’s worth thinking about the way that the mining industry limited miners, and women in mining communities, from creating art.


The next step for the network is for the UK members to visit Japan in November and we will be privileged to visit the museum that holds Sakubei Yamamoto’s materials. Sitting in the Japanese embassy hearing more about Sakubei Yamamoto and thinking about the Ashington Group emphasised the value of our exchange with Japanese scholars. Comparative and transnational work reaching beyond national borders allows us to see common threads — such as miners’ desire to represent their experience.