2nd Quarterly, 2007 No.144

My Work Experience in Kyushu Island - Part I

By Fumi Yamada

I never told anybody about my experience working in the coalmining industry because I felt ashamed. There must be many people in Osaka who have worked in the industry but remained silent about doing so. It has been six years since I began literacy lessons here in the Hagusa Literacy Class. Each time I hear a story of the tough life faced by another classmate, I realize it is not only me who has faced hardship. Our literacy class recently took a trip to Liberty Osaka, the human rights museum. In an exhibition there I saw a photograph of a women working in a mine. My days in the coalmines flooded back to me as I looked at the photos. It was painful to remember them, but they were days I will never forget. Our literacy class teacher encouraged us, "It is your personal history. Unless you write it down now, your children and grandchildren will never know the road you walked." Now, I feel less ashamed when I look back to my past.

My Life in the Coalmines

I was born in Osaka in 1923. I am the eldest of three sisters. My younger sister left home when she was 18 years old because she did not get along with our mother. She had a friend in Kyushu so moved there to start life as a probationary nurse, taking care of wounded soldiers. She met the man who would become her husband in the hospital when he was hospitalized. They lived in Kitagata in Kyushu.

In 1946, when I was 23 years old, my sister called me to Kyushu to introduce me to a man named Kazui Nakamura. He was a coalminer like my sister's husband and 11 years my elder. I married him and began a new life in Kitagata. After some time my neighbors asked me, "Why did you decide to marry him? Did you and your sister not know about his family? Before marrying you, he had already divorced twice." When I decided to marry him it was with the thought that it would be much better than staying home with my family.

I have been unlucky since childhood. My mother died when I was young, and my stepmother did not pay much attention to my younger sister and me. We felt very frustrated whenever our stepmother ignored us, but comforted ourselves in the belief that some day we would become happy.

I was also unlucky in my marriage. My husband and I lived together with my mother-in-law. She was a strong-minded woman whom the neighbors called "devil". However, my husband worked in a large coalmine and was paid well so our life was not so difficult.

In the fourth year of my marriage when I was pregnant with our second child, Fusae Ichikawa came to our coalmine and gave a series of lectures about contraception. I attended three of the lectures. She was a very respectable person.

** Fusae lchikawa (1893-1981) dedicated her life to women's involvement in politics. She was a member of the House of Councilors (non-partisan) for 25 years, from 1953 through 1981, advocating for improvements in the status of women and the purification of politics both within and outside the Diet.

After learning about contraception I did not have to seek abortions. If we women from the coalmine had not attended the lectures, how many abortions would we have had? We owe Ms. Ichikawa a great deal. Still, every household in our neighborhood had many children, lending legitimacy to the saying that the rich feed while the poor breed. None of our children were dressed well.

This relatively peaceful life did not last long. The coalmine company eventually fired my husband. He was active in the union, and at the time of the retrenchment, he was the vice chairperson of his trade union. Although he had done nothing wrong, the company labeled him a communist. One month after he lost his job, I saw him talking to his mother at the table, on which there was a wad of bank notes. I asked my husband what was the money for. He did not show it to me, but said it was redundancy payment of 130 thousand yen, which was a lot of money at the time. I remember he and his mother were pleased at the amount.

My husband had no choice but to look for work at smaller mines. He knocked on the doors of several large mines, but they had been given information about my husband and refused to let him in. Even mines far from our home had been informed. Smaller mines, however, did not refuse my husband as they knew he was a skillful miner. However, six months later he was still moving from one mine to another. Our eldest child was three years old at the time. I lost count of the number of small mines at which he worked. The shortest duration he remained at a mine was just a couple of days. Work conditions were very hard.

The tunnels of the big mines were large and wide so it was not difficult to dig forward. The tunnels of the smaller mines, however, were narrow and miners had to dig while squatting. The layer containing coal was thin, and miners would dig forward while searching for this layer. There was only one entrance, but inside the tunnel diverged into many branches.

I worked alongside my husband, separating quality coal from slag and loading the pannier to transport the coal back to tunnel entrance. The narrow tunnel, which hardly allowed the passage of one person, forced me to bend as I walked and I had to use a stick to ascend. Carrying the heavy pannier was hard work. I walked up and down carrying coal from seven in the morning until around three in the afternoon.

The highest risk was from falling rock. We were always alert for such incidents. I remember three serious incidents occurring in the coalmine close to our house where my husband once worked. One incident occurred before noon when many coal miners were killed by gas. When I was 35 years old I barely avoided one such accident myself. Rock fell behind me just as I passed a section of one tunnel. My foot was trapped in the fallen rock. I narrowly escaped death by desperately ripping up my cloth shoe and pulling my foot out of the rock.

The accident resulted in a broken leg, which prevented me from working for a time. I had to visit the hospital regularly for two months. When my husband did not have work, we went together to Hakata to sell homemade steamed potato cakes. They were made from a simple recipe of flour and sweet potato. We sold the cakes for 1 yen for 10 pieces at the black market around Hakata station. Out potato cakes always sold out very quickly. The black market was very big and there was always a wide variety of food for sale. You could buy anything as long as you had money.

My husband was a skilled calligrapher so he was sometimes asked to write letters, documents and signboards. With the money he was paid, he would buy expensive goods like fountain pens, or drink a lot. I should have stopped him from doing so, but I was afraid of being battered by him, especially in front of other people. It upset my mother-in-law to see us return home with no money. "Why do you allow this to happen? Why do you allow him to waste money?" She usually blamed me rather than her son.

My Husband's Addiction to Gambling

Despite the difficulty of the mining work, there were no recreation facilities for the miners. Male miners would go to bicycle race or boat race to gamble, or drink together at liquor shops. The Takeo Bicycle Racetrack was in the vicinity of our house and you could hear the bell to announce the final lap from our home. On racing days my husband's mind would be fully occupied by the race and he could not concentrate on his work. While I was working hard carrying the pannier, he would run away from the mine with his colleagues. Once at the racetrack he was very reluctant to return. Other couples working in the mine went home together after work, but I went home alone. Some women went to the racetrack to fetch their husbands, but I did not because I knew he would not follow me. He only thought of gambling.

He usually lost, but when he won he would sometimes buy food for our children. He would drink when he lost and he would drink when he won. I could hardly bear it. One morning he said that he was going to the racetrack with the money I had set aside to buy rice. I asked him to leave half of the amount, but he took it all. I waited for a while and then went to the track to look for him. When I found him, he returned all the money and said, "See, I win when you just let me go without complaining."

He also indulged in gambling on card games. When he lost, people would come to our house to take valuable items in payment for his debts. Our chests and beds were taken away. Finally, even our mosquito net was removed. With a small baby I felt very miserable. Our neighbors felt sorry for me and gave me their old clothes saying, "It is very hard for you. Please use this kimono. Though it is old, you can use the cloth and cotton inside." I used the old kimono, and made a jacket for my baby and a bed sheet.

Our neighbors were kind. When my child cried, they came to me with food and said, "Your baby must be hungry. Please take this." Though they were also poor, they were willing to help us. I was very grateful to them.

<to be continued>

Winning piece of 1997 Buraku Liberation Literature Prize,Literacy Division.

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