When a Japanese town loses its job. In land used to full employment, it brings shock and tears
Taka shima, Japan — ALMOST every day, the ferryboat for Nagasaki leaves this island to the strains of ``Auld Lang Syne.'' Well-wishers crowd the pier to wave goodbye to the one or two families on the upper deck, their eyes wet with tears. Taka shima's only industry, the Mitsubishi coal mine, has closed down, and more than 1,600 miners - regular employees and subcontract workers - must seek jobs off the island.
Overall, unemployment in Japan is still under 3 percent of the working population. But statistics do not tell the whole story, and Japan is now experiencing its highest jobless level in 36 years. The high yen is taking its toll on Japanese heavy industry and manufacturing, including coal mining, shipbuilding, steel, and a host of manufacturing companies of all sizes.
``We're an island that lives on coal,'' says Mayor Seiichi Hoshino. ``When the mine closed, the whole town lost its job.''
The Shimada family - Nobuhiko, his wife, Hiroko, eight-year-old daughter, Miyuki, and five-year-old son, Kenchan - left Taka shima for the mainland not long ago.
``Bye bye,'' Kenchan shouted, while his father struggled to keep impassive and his mother and sister wept. ``I've lived here ever since I was one,'' Mr. Shimada said while packing his last belongings the morning of his departure. ``My parents were miners, too, evacuated at the end of World War II from Dalian, China. They settled down in Taka shima and brought me up here.''
Mrs. Shimada said she also had lived in Taka shima since childhood. Her parents had been transferred to Taka shima when the mine in which her father had been working was closed down. Shimada, tall, wiry, was on the mine's volleyball team, while his wife played badminton. He had worked for the mine for more than 20 years, he said, and was receiving 8 million yen (about $53,000) in severance pay.
Mitsubishi had found him a job as electrical maintenance worker at a company-affiliated golf club near Fukuoka. He had bought a four-room house with his severance pay, but his wages would be one-third of what he had been making in the mine.
``We all knew coal was on its way out,'' he said, ``but we hoped that we could stay on a few years longer. But the high yen did us in.''
Taka shima mined some of Japan's best coking coal. Founded by the Englishman Thomas Glover in the 1870s, the mine was sold to Mitsubishi in 1881 and became the cornerstone of the company's prosperity. But Japanese coal was buffeted, first by cheap oil, then by Australian coal, which is dug from huge open pits requiring little human labor. The government had a policy to preserve the domestic coal industry at a level of 24,000 miners producing 20 million tons a year - a far cry from peak production in the 1950s when 230,000 mines produced 53 million tons from more than 600 mines.
But the sudden sharp rise of the yen since September l984 has made domestic coal cost three times the price of imported coal, despite heavy government subsidies. After running up a deficit of 30 billion yen ($200 million) in November last year, the mine management decided to call it quits.
Japan's 11 remaining mines are to be gradually phased out over the next five years, and well before the end of this century coal mining in this country will have ceased to exist.
The immediate question is what to do with 10,000 miners who are losing their jobs. Here, the average age of the miners is 47, and few have specific skills like Shimada (who was an electrician underground).
``I've spent 33 years working underground,'' said 50-year-old Haruo Onimaru. ``I have no idea what life above ground is like.''
Mr. Onimaru has signed up for a one-year government-run retraining course but doesn't have much of an idea what he wants to do.
``I'm too old to learn to handle computer software, which is what some people recommend,'' he said.
Onimaru's story is typical of the changes that have taken place in Japanese society during the past years of high economic growth. The second son of a farmer, he went into the mines because they had the highest-paying job he could find. He intended to stay just long enough to build up a nest egg, but found that life underground agreed with him. So he stayed on.
``There's a special camaraderie about life underground,'' he said. ``We're all in the same boat - there's no room for pretense or for preening as you would if girls were around.''
He made good money, and his children attend a Tokyo university. ``They're never going to come back to the island, so my wife and I are thinking of relocating in the Tokyo area. But it won't be easy finding a job that pays as well as this one did.''
Onimaru is coy about his wages, but his severance pay came to more than $100,000, and he must have been earning at least $3,000 a month. Others are less fortunate. About half the 1,600 miners now out of work are not regular employees of Mitsubishi but work for subcontractors. They do some of the dirtiest, most dangerous, and most unpleasant tasks in the mine and usually get paid much less than do regular employees.
``Mitsubishi people get millions of yen in severance pay,'' said Yoshitaka Yagi, who worked for a subcontractor in the mine. ``We just got envelopes from our bosses with perhaps half a month's wages inside.''
Mr. Yagi, who came to Taka shima 23 years ago, is not optimistic about his job prospects.
``I'm already 57,'' he said in the stairwell of the government employment office. ``I put my name down here just after the New Year holidays, but there just aren't any job offers. If only I were a bit younger.''