Sakubei Yamamoto and his Historical Coal Mine Paintings
Rice Riots at the Yama

Rice prices were rising day by day – a critical issue for miners, whose wages were equal to the price of 10 cups of rice.

In 1918 (Taisho 7), Sakubei Yamamoto was 26 years old. In spite of the favorable economic conditions bubbling in the wake of World War I, the price of rice suddenly began to rise by the minute, day after day. In July, 10 cups of rice cost about 22 sen (1/100 of 1 yen), but just one month later the price had climbed above 50 sen, reaching 56 sen in urban areas.

At the yama (coal mine), the price of coal had suddenly risen on account of inflation, but the miners' corresponding wages were deferred. Some only received enough to buy 10 cups of rice per day. Since there were no labor unions, the person in charge of each storehouse took the lead and requested an increase in wages, but conditions continued unchanged.

The Toyama Rice Riots spread throughout Japan

Assaulting the yama shop, throwing goods outside and breaking everything in sight.

In August of the same year, rice riots seeking better wages and a cut in rice prices were triggered by an uprising in the fishing industry in Toyama prefecture, and went on to spread throughout all of Japan. There was an air of unrest in every district, and soldiers armed with swords were put on patrol at Iizuka station in the Chikuho district.

The most severe of the yama (coal mine) rice riots is said to be that which occurred at the Mineji mine in Tagawa. Miners guzzled sake and could be seen assaulting the yama shop, throwing goods outside and breaking everything in sight, while others were throwing sticks of dynamite and dividing up stolen money – all depicted in striking detail in Sakubei's paintings. It was too much for the police to handle alone, so troops waiting to be dispatched for Siberia were compelled to come in and put down the riot by force. One can imagine how severe it must have been.

For workers, simply asking for better wages was itself a crime

Throwing sticks of dynamite

Not all of the coal mines in Chikuho were affected by the rice riots. In fact, the number of mines where riots occurred didn't exceed what you could count on your fingers. Just asking for an increase in wages was a crime; this was not the first time that the workers had felt frustrated. The workers at many coal mines likely just grit their teeth and dealt with it as usual.

There are also recollections of instances where workers had tried to hold meetings at the rock (bota) dump to discuss what to do in response to their requests for wage increases being ignored, but they were dispersed by military troops. The law at the time was set up only to protect capitalists; for the laborer working under such harsh conditions, this was no easy time to live in.

a scene at the Yama : Haru-koma (Hobby Horse Riders)
When New Year's would come, the traveling entertainers who came to the coal mines would go around from house to house, dancing and singing to the rhythm of bells and clappers: Hurrah, hurray, come celebrate this glorious day! / The gods of luck and the hobby horse have come to play / If the horse is giddy and jumping about, then so am I / Cherry blossoms adorning the horse? Oh, why!? / If he's giddy and jumping about they're bound to fly! The people around the coal mines carried many superstitions, and thus made sure to bring in the new year with traditional rice cakes. When it came time for the entertainers to go back home, it seems that they would receive so many rice cakes that even a real horse wouldn't be able to carry them!

Here we introduce you Sakubei Yamamoto’s documentary paintings on coal mining through some of the columns from “Furusato Sansaku Series-Yamamoto Sakubei Oh to Tanko Kirokuga (Hometown Walking Series-Mr. Sakubei Yamamoto and His Coal Mine Paintings)” written by the former Coal Mine Museum curator Hiroyuki Morimoto, which had appeared in “Koho Tagawa (Tagawa City News Report)” from September 1, 1995 until March 1, 1999.