Home > Events, Reviews > Exhibition Review: ‘Sakubei Yamamoto and the Rich Seams of Japan’s Coal Mining History’

Exhibition Review: ‘Sakubei Yamamoto and the Rich Seams of Japan’s Coal Mining History’

4th Oct – 15th November 2019 at the Japanese Embassy in London

yamamoto sakubeiIt was Monday 30th July 1973 when, just before 620 am, Colin Burton (a maternal uncle), who had moved from Bolsover Colliery to work at Markham Colliery at Stavely in Derbyshire, stepped off the pit cage having had to ascend back to the surface during the early part of the shift. As he moved away twenty-nine fellow coal miners boarded the double decker pit cage to begin the journey down the shaft to join their shift mates on the coal face. As Colin headed towards the locker room he heard the cage operator shouting and could see sparks coming out of the braking cylinder. The general and emergency brakes on the cage had failed and the cage with all twenty nine miners on board plummeted 1,329 feet to the bottom of the shaft impacting the wooden baulks at the bottom of the shaft with tremendous and fatal force. Thirteen men were killed outright, five died later and eleven were seriously injured while four others were treated for shock. The equivalent at the time Sakubei Yamamoto was mining would have been the Sumitomo Tadakuma Coal Pit Incident (please click link for Sakubei Yamamoto’s notes and pictures) involving the man car or jinsha in which 83 people were killed on April 15, 1936.

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Tachibori (mining coal in an upright position) (please click link to see Sakubei Yamamoto’s notes) © Yamamoto Family / Owned by Tagawa City Coal Mining Historical Museum

At the reception at the Japanese Embassy in London to launch the ‘Sakubei Yamamoto and the Rich Seams of Japan’s Coal Mining History’ exhibition there the Ambassador, Mr. Koji Tsuroka, spoke about the commonalities that tie mining communities together and unfortunately pit disasters and accidents, in spite of distance and cultural differences,  are one of them.

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Suwaribori (mining coal in a squatting position) (please click link to see Sakubei Yamamoto’s notes) © Yamamoto Family / Owned by Tagawa City Coal Mining Historical Museum

Coming from humble origins Sakubei Yamamoto (1892 – 1984) worked in coal mines in the Chikuho region of northern Kyushu for over 50 years and was born into a ‘working class’ family not known for artistic achievements. It wasn’t until in his mid-60s, after he had retired from mining, that he put his hand to paint and paper, initially in black and white, as well as penning diaries to produce an unparalleled record of the early 20th century life and culture of the mining community to which he and his family belonged. The latter part of the 19th century into the early part of the 20th century was a time when there was much cultural, economic and industrial change in Japan. Such is the importance of the collection, of which the pictures on show at the Embassy form a relatively small part, that in 2011 it became recognised as Japan’s very first addition to UNESCO’s Memory of the World Register alongside the likes of ‘The Diary of Anne Frank’ and ‘Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9’. What is remarkable is that the collection of pictures and the accompanying notes isn’t just confined to coal mining but includes fascinating paintings and notes on the community’s social and cultural history and activity. As time progressed his technique developed from the sort of naïve early black and white paintings to far more detailed semi perspective paintings using a bright and colourful palette which was exemplified in his later folk-art like oeuvre.

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Meiji Kami-chuki Bara Sura [The Basket Coal Sled in the First Half and the Middle of the Meiji Era (1868-1912)] (please click link to see Sakubei Yamamoto’s notes) © Yamamoto Family / Owned by Tagawa City Coal Mining Historical Museum

The Rugby World Cup 2019 ambassador, singer, producer and songwriter Naomi Suzuki introduced the ‘Bridge Together Project’.

Naomi Suzuki

Naomi Suzuki © T. Skingle

The project is aimed at using the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics to give people around the world a greater understanding of Japan, and she spoke passionately about its role in bringing the pictures of Sakubei Yamamoto to the rest of the world.

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Tachibori (mining coal in an upright position) (please click link to see Sakubei Yamamoto’s notes) © Yamamoto Family / Owned by Tagawa City Coal Mining Historical Museum

Naomi then introduced the actress Ms Mari Natsuki who gave a reading of ‘Makkura’ (Pitch Dark). Written by Kazue Morisaki the recital covered a section of Sakubei Yamamoto notes describing life for the coal miners.

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Meiji Yama o Otozureshi Shonin: Bummawashi [A Vendor Who Visited the Pit (Yama) in the Meiji Era (1868-1912): Bummawashi (Lottery by Spinning a Needle on a Scale Board)] (please click link to see Sakubei’ Yamamoto’s notes) © Yamamoto Family / Owned by Tagawa City Coal Mining Historical Museum

This was followed by a presentation by Dr Mark Pendleton, a Lecturer in Japanese Studies at the University of Sheffield. Mark covered some of the more academic issues relating to the development of coal mining in Japan. Mark’s presentation highlighted the role of Thomas Blake Glover, the Scottish entrepreneur based in Japan at the time, in the development of coal mining in Japan. Glover’s Trading Co. Guraba-Shokai also supplied the influential Bakumatsu figure Sakamoto Ryoma’s Nagasaki based Kaientai Trading Company with firearms and it’s quite possible, even likely, that as a result Glover facilitated the supply of coal for the Shimazu Clan’s newly established firearms foundries in Satsuma.

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Yama no Kome-sodo #8: Bon Odori [Rice Riots at Coal Pits (Yama) #8: The Bon Dancing] (click link to see Yamamoto Sakubei’s notes) © Yamamoto Family / Owned by Tagawa City Coal Mining Historical Museum

Though the Japanese Ambassador mentioned that he had yet to meet a coal miner who was also an artist there is in fact a group of coal miners that in the UK mirrors closely in time the work of Sakubei Yamamoto; that of the Ashington Group formed mostly of miners from Northumberland with no formal artistic training who were celebrated by the British art world during the 1930s and 1940s.

https://www.ashingtongroup.co.uk/home.html

Sakubei Yamamoto’s paintings and notes are absolutely charming and startlingly and invigoratingly ‘fresh’ and for anyone wishing to follow up on the exhibition there is a comprehensive collection of 585 of the 589 works registered to ‘The Memory of the World’ with notes in English at the following website http://www.y-sakubei.com/english/

After the exhibition at the Japanese Embassy concludes the collection will continue its World Tour schedule with exhibitions at The Brunei Gallery, SOAS (January – March 2020), The Nippon Club Inc, New York (21st May – 28th May 20200, and the National Mining Museum Scotland (June – September 2020).

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Author’s Profile:

Trevor Skingle was born and lives in London where he works in the field of Humanitarian Disaster Relief. He is a Japanophile and his hobbies are Kabuki, painting and drawing and learning Japanese.

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The Taste of Chūbu 

 

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