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Date of Issue:15/March/2002

Closure of Japan's Last Large-Scale Coal Mine

Yoshito Yoshimura
Coal Division
Agency of Natural Resources and Energy

Spurred by an upturn in the US economy, the Japanese economy too is moving past its darkest days. However, the financial sector remains unstable, and with the pay-off ban shortly to be lifted, there could be a rapid surge in account transactions.

Japan's two last large-scale coal mines-the Ikeshima Coal Mine in Nagasaki Prefecture, and the Taiheiyo Coal Mine in Hokkaido's Kushiro City-were troubled in recent years by fire damage, deteriorating mining conditions, and other problems which have severely curtailed their future viability. As a result, they were closed in November 2001 and January 2002 respectively. Although a few relatively small-scale mines are still running, the closure of the Ikeshima and Taiheiyo Coal Mines effectively closes the door on the mines which once played such a large role in Japan's energy supply. In Kushiro, however, the local community has decided to keep the mine alive by establishing the Kushiro Coal Mine Company, Ltd., which will begin small-scale mining in April this year.

Japan's coal mining history stretches back to the beginning of the 16th century, but it was in the Meiji era that coal mining really came into its own, increasing production every year as a leader of industrial development. In 1940, immediately before WWII, the industry achieved the record production level of 56.31 million tons (see Figure). After the war, the mining industry was positioned as a priority industry, with the priority production system introduced to ensure a rapid boost in production. Coal, along with steel and fertilizer, became the locomotive force behind economic reconstruction. Cheap oil imports subsequently brought about a shift from solid to liquid fuel, and where coal had accounted for more than 40 percent of Japan's energy supply in the 1950s, oil took over as of the 1960s. The yen also appreciated, pulling foreign coal prices below domestic prices in the 1970s, while in recent years, domestic coal has regularly out-priced foreign coal by more than three times. With the added burden of deteriorating mining conditions, mines began to close, bringing an end to their role in Japan's energy supply.

However, coal as a whole, foreign coal included, still comprises around 18 percent of Japan's total primary energy supply, positioning coal second only to oil as an energy source. The long-term energy supply and demand outlook created last July also estimated that coal would comprise approximately 19 percent of total energy in FY2010, suggesting that coal, an economic energy source available in stable supply, will remain a key source of energy in the future (see Table).

As of FY2002, METI has been preparing to implement a 5-year project for the transfer of coal mining technology (see Chart). The plan is to actively transfer the world-leading mining technology which Japan has developed over the years to China, Indonesia and other Asian countries which are expected to become increasingly important in terms of world coal supply and demand, boosting their technology levels and production capacity. As part of the plan, more than 200 mining engineers will be invited to Japan every year to study mining and safety technology at the Kushiro Coal Mine and Ikeshima area, while Japanese engineers will also be dispatched to Asia.

In addition, because of the heavy environmental burden imposed by coal−its high level of carbon dioxide emissions compared to other fossil fuels, for example-the development and dissemination of clean coal technology such as integrated gasification combined cycle is a critical issue. METI is promoting the development of this kind of highly-efficient coal technology, and is also working to transfer clean technology to the Asian countries as part of the Green Aid Plan.

As seen above, coal will therefore remain a key energy source not only in Japan but throughout the world, and while Japan's large-scale mines may have closed, it will be important to continue to ensure a stable coal supply and move ahead steadily with the development and dissemination of clean coal technology.


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