Sakubei Yamamoto, a painter

Sakubei Yamamoto was a pure-bred coal miner.

In the town of Tsurumio (presently Iizuka city), in Kasamatsu Mura of the Kamagun (later became Kaho district) in Fukuoka prefecture, Sakubei was born the second son of Taro and Shina Yamamoto on May 17, in the year Meiji 25 (1892). That same year, the Chikuho region's coal production exceeded 1,000,000 tons. Sakubei's father Taro was a riverboat worker on the Onga River. However, business got tough when railroads began to replace boats as the preferred method of coal transportation, so he became a coal miner, working here and there at various small-scale coal mines in the Chikuho region such as the Kamimio Coal Mine. When Sakubei was about 7 or 8 years old, he began to accompany his brother, going down into the mineshafts and pushing coal carts to help with the family budget. He still managed to graduate Elementary School. In the 39th year of the Meiji era (1906), at age 15 he began his life as a coal miner, taking on a position at the Sannai Coal Mine in the Kaho district. He continued to work at a total of 18 different coal mines over the next 50 years or so, finally retiring in the 30th year of the Showa era (1955) upon the closure of the Tagawa city Ito Coal Mine. Sakubei passed away on December 19th of the year Showa 59 (1984) at the age of 92.

Sakubei Yamamoto(1892-1984)
Photo by Masakatsu Hashimoto

Sakubei's budding artistic talent first saw the light of day when he was in 2nd grade, around the time that he began to go down the mine shafts along with his older brother. An acquaintance had given him a kabuto ningyo, a sort of action figure, of the famous general Sayomasa Kato for boys' day – he made sketch after sketch after sketch of it. There was a period during his youth when he quit his work as a miner and set his sights on becoming a painter – he even became an apprentice to a house painter in Fukuoka city – but he had to consider his family's circumstances as well, and eventually returned to life as a coal miner. From that time on, his paint brushes did little more than collect dust as he spent the next 40 years or so absorbed in the affairs of everyday life. In the year Showa 32 (1957), after the Ito Coal Mine closed, Sakubei finally picked up his paintbrush again to record life in the coal mines. He had gained employment as a night watchman at the main office of the Nagao Mining Station at Yugeta in Tagawa city. He couldn't stop thinking about his elder brother who had died in a naval battle at the Strait of Malacca, so he would distract himself by spending the night hours making illustrations of the coal mines in blank sections of his journal or on the back of information pamphlets. Sakubei describes the point when he finally made up his mind to start rendering his coal mine illustrations in sumi-e (Japanese ink painting) on proper drawing paper in a journal entry made in May of the 33rd year of the Showa era (1958): "The yama [the miners' term for the coal mines] is fading away, leaving 524 mountains of rubble in the Chikuho region; and as for me, I'm no spring chicken. I've decided to leave behind something of the work and feelings from the yama for my grandkids. It'd be faster just to write something down, but after a couple of years, who knows, maybe the notes would just get thrown out during spring cleaning. With pictures, though, so much can be taken in just with a single glance – I've decided to paint." (From Jihitsu Nenpu, a chronology of Sakubei's writings) Sakubei's inborn love for painting took hold once again, as he absorbed himself in his work as if no time had passed at all since he first started drawing. In the winter of Showa 36 (1961), these coal mine paintings caught the attention of Tatsuo Nagao, head of the Nagao Mining Station. By that time, Sakubei's works had already filled up 15 sketch pads (designed for children, 35.5 x 25.5 cm), about 220 sheets. Beginning with "Folks of the old yama," depicting mines and miners of the mid-Meiji era, each work carried a powerful impact, illustrating the mines' interiors, work done outside the mines, facilities and supervision, everyday life, folk beliefs and superstitions, merchants and entertainers who visited the mines, popular songs, animals, the kome sodo (riots that occurred around 1918 concerning a sudden jump in rice prices), fights, lynchings, and various important incidents that occurred. Each work was also annotated with a written explanation. Only someone who had actually labored in the coal mines could have produced works like these; they touched everyone who saw them. Eventually, as conversation began to lean towards editing and publishing the works, Shigeyoshi Kiso of Chuko Mining Industries, Inc. put forth a plan to do so in cooperation with other important figures from small coal mines in May of the year Showa 37 (1962). However, just at that time a scrap-and-build policy was put forth concerning coal mines on account of the Energy Revolution. Naturally, this spelled crisis for the small-scale mines.

Right in the midst of all this, in September of Showa 38 (1963) Sakubei Yamamoto's series Coal Mines of the Meiji and Taisho Eras was published using private funds by the Coal Mines of the Meiji and Taisho Eras Publication Committee. According to the preface, "This collection originally consisted of over 300 works from approximately 20 volumes... these have been whittled down to the 140 works appearing in the present publication." For Sakubei, having his own art set to be published in a book was like a dream come true; he even wrote that he was a bit nervous about the fact. In spite of the uniqueness of Coal Mines of the Meiji and Taisho Eras, its distribution was almost non-existent; it never even reached the point of being displayed in a bookstore. The book's mass-media coverage was limited to a brief mentioning on a special feature aired on the NHK television network entitled "Chikuho: 100 Years."

In February of Showa 37 (1962), Toshio Nagasue (curator of the Tagawa City Public Library) happened to meet Sakubei through Tatsuo Nagao. Perceiving the material value of Sakubei's notebooks and paintings, Nagasue determined to obtain copies for the library, seeking the cooperation of the Tagawa Folk Research Committee, which had begun a project in June of Showa 39 (1964) to collect materials concerning the coal mines. Sakubei was more than willing to help. Beginning in November of the same year, he proceeded to fill 23 sketchbooks (35.5 x 25.5 cm) with watercolor paintings of the yama (coal mine) children, donating them as a present to the library.

Nagasue appreciated Sakubei's kindness, and at another time requested additional historical coal mine paintings from him based on the motifs from the 300 or so monochromatic sumi-e ink paintings he had made previously. It was also requested that he use color this time, in order to increase the material value of the paintings – he was provided with traditional high-archival quality Japanese painting supplies far superior to ordinary watercolor implements, as well as high-quality large-size (54 x 38 cm) kento art paper. In order to increase the material value of the paintings, he was also asked to use color this time.

Thus, Sakubei began anew to make color historical paintings of the coal mines at a pace of one piece every two days. By the end of the year Showa 41 (1966), he had gifted over 260 paintings to the library. He was now 74 years old. The addition of color gave birth to a delicate precision in his works, a new development from the profound simplicity of his powerful sumi-e brush strokes.

Thanks to a man named Eishin Ueno, the story of Sakubei's historical coal mine paintings was picked up by NHK educational TV, and was televised in a special program called A Life, A Mountain of Rubble in February of the year Showa 42 (1967). By chance, the program happened to catch the eyes of Japanese publisher Kodansha's editorial department, and was published towards the end of the year as Life in the Coal Mines: An Anthology. Once the color paintings were finished, Nagasue took up the endeavor of publishing a comprehensive collection of Sakubei's historical coal mine works, collaborating with acquaintances Hidefumi Kimura, Eishin Ueno, and Naoki Tanaka to publish Sakubei Yamamoto Anthology: The Chikuho Coal Mine Collection in Showa 48 (1973). During the years spanning the publication of these two volumes, Sakubei's depictions of the coal mines received a great deal of publicity. Almost overnight, they seemed to catch the attention of the whole world. On the other hand, as personal requests for works by Sakubei increased, the resulting paintings were for the most part scattered and lost. It is unknown precisely how many works are unaccounted for, but what can be said here is that Sakubei's style of incorporating annotations into his works causes them to be appreciated in a manner slightly different from that of most artwork; the illustrations resonate together with their annotations and serve to convey the intentions of the artist quite clearly.

These depictions of coal mine life from days past from the Meiji and Taisho eras through the beginning of the Showa era were painted with minute detail and unbelievable accuracy – all by an "average" person who used to be a coal miner, based on his own experiences. They came to be evaluated as having an unprecedented historical value. They depict the detailed inner workings of the coal mines, the life style of the miners, and various aspects of coal mining companies in a manner feasible only to someone who had actually experienced them. The works in Records of Life in the Coal Mines, born out of raw life, continue to touch the hearts of everyone who sees them.

584 items of precious historical folk art by Sakubei Yamamoto (306 original sumi-e, 278 water colors) concretely detailing every aspect of the coal mining business were officially designated as tangible folk-cultural assets on July 3rd, 1996. Additionally, 585 paintings, 6 journals, and 36 notebooks, manuscripts and the like in the possession of Tagawa city, along with 4 paintings, 59 journals, 7 manuscripts and other papers owned by the Yamamoto family and held in trust by Fukuoka Prefectural University (a total of 697 pieces), were included in the Memory of the World register on May 5th, 2011.

Hiroyuki Morimoto
(Department of Commerce, Industry and Tourism assistant manager / Former Coal Mine Museum curator)