Sakubei Yamamoto and his Historical Coal Mine Paintings
The Sakiyama and the Atoyama in the Meiji Era

Male sakiyama miners carry pickaxes and lanterns down into the mine.

Work officially began at 3 a.m., but some went down earlier while others arrived later.

The sakiyama (front-line) male miners of Meiji-era coal mines generally let their hair grow a bit longer than usual to give their head some extra protection against being bumped against the cramped mine ceiling. They would go down into the mines wearing a short, old kimono, with a towel tied around their head as a sweatband.

Going down with them into the mines would be 5 or 6 indispensable pickaxes slung over their shoulders, a tonkotsu (tobacco pouch) and pipe tucked in back, a tin lantern and oil (a mixture of half kerosene and half rapeseed oil), and a hiyakashibo (an implement used to hang the lantern).

They wore straw sandals when going down into or coming up out of the mines, but while working at the actual mining site they would go barefoot, wearing nothing but a loincloth and a towel wrapped around their head as a sweatband. Before they left their house, they would smudge some charcoal from the stove on their foreheads, asking Sanbokoshin (a Buddhist guardian diety) for protection.

Female atoyama (workers carrying coal to assist the sakiyama miners) performed all of the housework in addition to working in the mines.

Male workers would enjoy some sake after work. Their wives, meanwhile, were quite busy with housework.

The female atoyama workers wore light, short-sleeved, short outer garments with a sort of wrap-skirt underneath. They also wore towels wrapped around their heads, but not in the traditional manner, which would have required them to cover their ears. They would carry with them two packed lunches (one for themselves, and one for their sakiyama), karui (ropes used to pull the sura, or wooden coal boxes), bills to affix to the coal boxes, lanterns, and so forth.

After coming up out of the mines, the sakiyama workers would usually take a bath and then have a drink of sake. The atoyamas would then take a quick bath and get on with dinner preparations. Men at the time generally did not do anything to help with the cooking. Husbands who were devoted to their wives would get a reputation at the yama and be mocked behind their backs – women didn't have it easy. And if they had a baby, things only grew tougher.

It was fashionable in the Meiji era for women to stain their teeth black once or twice a month, but the yama women didn't have the time to spare and generally just left them white. However, they were still to be envied, being that a household in which the woman is busily working was considered fortunate; households where the wife couldn't work would become swamped with the needs of daily life, with the children naturally having to share the burden, helping out down in the dark coal mines instead of going to school.

Song lyrics such as "Carrying down the lanterns from ages seven or eight, down into the mines – mom and dad's punishment" were born out of these circumstances.

a scene at the Yama : Handling the Coal Carts
The coal-haulers who would pull the coal carts up out of the mine and let them back down again were like the rock stars of the coal mine. Many of them, for some reason, were quite handsome, and their work clothes likely made them all the more attractive to the young ladies of the yama (the workers' term for the mine). It took some degree of deftness and skill hopping from cart to cart – anyone who saw them must have admired them, or at least thought they were pretty cool.