The Multinational Monitor



Mitsui Mine Disaster

Accident or Crime?

by John Roberts

TOKYO-On January 18, 83 coal miners died in a fire in the Ariake coal mine, part of the huge Miike mining complex on the southern Japanese island of Kyushu. The entire mining complex is owned by the Mitsui Coal Mining Company, a subsidiary of the Mitsui conglomerate. Mitsui had described the Ariake mine as the safest in Japan.

The incident came as a shock to the Japanese Ministry of International Trade and Industry, which has been trying to increase coal production in order to lower Japan's dependence on imported energy sources. One quarter of Japan's annual domestic coal output of 18 million tons comes from the Miike complex, and until the fire, the Ariake mine produced 1.4 million tons each year. Coming three years after another fatal disaster at a large mine in the northern island of Hokkaido, the fire has forced Japanese energy policy makers to reevaluate the country's coal policy.

Police investigators have charged the company with negligence in the blaze, which began when pieces of coal caught in a conveyor belt were ignited by friction. But the failure of the mine's computercontrolled safety system, and the similarities to a 1963 disaster at the Misawa mine in the same Mitsui complex, have raised disturbing questions about the company's commitment to safety and the shortcomings of Japanese company unions.

The 1963 accident at Miike occurred at a time when the Japanese government-at the urging of U.S. oil companies-was beginning to switch Japan's energy sources from coal to oil. Coal companies like Mitsui were attempting to consolidate their operations, phase out the least profitable mines, and lay off thousands of miners.

In 1960, however, the Mitsui miners were represented by Tanro, one of the most militant unions in Japan, well known for its victorious 113-day strike against Mitsui in 1953. Choosing the Miike site for a confrontation, Mitsui provoked a strike by locking the union out and ordering the firing of union activists. For over a year, the Miike mines became the focal point of the still powerful Japanese labor movement, with tens of thousands of unionists rallying in support of the Mitsui workers. But gradually the struggle was isolated, and as support from other unions faded, the resistance at Miike crumbled. By 1962, the Tanro union had been defeated, and-as in other Japanese private industries-replaced with a pro-company, managementdominated union.

Working conditions soon went downhill. Mitsui organized three eight hour shifts a day with no time allotted for inspection. Maintenance personnel were reduced by 50 percent and safety personnel by more than 60 percent, while the total number-of miners in the Misawa shaft doubled. Safety equipment fell into disuse, disaster drills were suspended, and the accident rate rose steeply. There were many complaints by workers, but no action, since the labor-management safety committee had become a rubber stamp. The mine was a ticking time bomb.

The underground explosion, caused by coal dust, occurred on November 9, 1963, at 3:15 p.m. It was felt throughout the area but was not reported to the police until an hour later. At 5:30 the first advance party entered the tunnels, but it was not until 6:30-too late-that rescue operations were begun. The death toll of the accident was 458, the worst mine disaster in postwar Japan, while many more were seriously hurt. Most of the casualties, however, were from suffocation or carbon monoxide poisoning due to inadequate ventilation and the delay in rescue operations. The explosion itself was attributed to the failure of a neglected protective spray system.

It was a very similar story in 1984 at the adjacent Ariake mine, which runs out under the ocean for nearly three kilometers. Once again, Mitsui was struggling to regain profitability-the company suffered a net loss of $2 million in 1983-by cutting labor costs. Miners quoted in local newspapers suspect that the conveyor belt that caused the fire might have burned because of the increased production ordered by the company.

Perhaps because of the sophisticated safety equipment, fire drills had been discontinued, and evacuation drills were perfunctory. The equipment was basically good, but poorly maintained. Water sprinklers had been shut off to protect the quality of the coal. Investigators discovered that smoke detecting devices failed to operate, and that devices designed to locate toxic fumes were slow to activate.

Most atrocious was the delay in taking action after the fire was discovered. One miner says he detected the fire at 1:50 p.m. and alerted the control center, which took no action. No fire extinguishers were available to fight the fire. Evacuation orders were delayed and contradictory. It was not until 6:00 p.m. that the local police were notified. Of the 707 miners in the pit, 614 managed to escape but 93 were trapped in smoke-filled shafts, and 83 died of suffocation or carbon monoxide poisoning, indicating serious deficiencies in the ventilating system.

Of the 83 dead, only 37 were union members, and most of the others were unorganized employees of outside contractors, perhaps less experienced than regular employees.

The technical failures in the mine have led to speculation in the Japanese press that Mitsui Mining Company had "excessive trust in modern technology," as one commentator put it. "Such accidents and disasters tend to occur as if to betray the most up-to-date safety equipment," the Yomiuri, a major daily, editorialized. "The reason is that basic, day-to-day safety precautions.. .tend to be neglected as installation of the equipment makes those in charge overconfident."

Although the police suspect criminal negligence, the possibility of prosecution of Mitsui officials is remote. As in the past, management is scrambling desperately to cover up its negligence, confident of government sympathy. In the 1963 disaster, even before an investigation began, the cabinet announced that Mitsui Mining would receive a governmental loan of one billion yen ($2.8 million) to compensate the victims, and threats of prosecution came to nothing.

Labor, as expected, is grumbling quietly. Muranaka Tohiyuki, president of the Mitsui company union, said after the tragedy that he had "asked" the management to open the sprinkler valves, whose proper functioning would have prevented or extinguished the fire. But unfortunately for the miners, the union had done nothing to enforce its request.

If there is any lesson to be learned from the two tragedies, it may be that Japanesestyle company unions are good for increasing production and corporate profits-but bad for working conditions.

John Roberts is Multinational Monitor's Japan correspondent. He is the author of Mitsui: Three Centuries of Japanese Business.

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