Yama – The mining art of Sakubei Yamamoto

Ceri Thompson

At the age of seven years old, Sakubei Yamamoto (1892–1984) moved with his family to the coal mines of the Chikuho region in Kyushu. He was apprenticed to a colliery blacksmith at the age of twelve, and later worked as a mine blacksmith and coalminer until the age of sixty-three in 1955. He then became a colliery security guard when he started painting his memories of the mining industry.

He had little formal education but, from the age of 21 in 1913, began keeping notebooks and diaries in which he recorded events. These influenced his later painting.

"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."

In 2011, Sakubei Yamamoto’s coal mining paintings and drawings were registered in UNESCO’s Memory of the World programme.

This exhibition focuses on a small selection of the 2000 drawings and paintings by the artist. They are very Japanese in style but any Welsh mineworker can recognise the type of work and the characters depicted.

Comments (4)

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Ceri Thompson Amgueddfa Cymru – Museum Wales Staff
28 October 2020, 12:13
Dear Dr Gray

Thanks for the comment - I've sent you an Email.

Best wishes

Ceri Thompson, Curator, Big Pit
Douglas Gray
8 October 2020, 13:24
Dear Ceri

Many thanks for an introduction to the paintings of Yama. I found them by chance when searching the collection for work by Ibbetson - watercolours of Parys Mine - in relation to aspects of mining being prepared for a lecture. However there is a tenuous connection to coal mining images by Japanese artists. During the early 80's I selected and curated an exhibition for the then National Coal Board and the Arts Council 'COAL' British mining in art 1680-1980. During the research for the exhibition I discovered in the in the library at Hobart House (NCB HQ) a series of scrolls of Japanese mining scenes depicting women miners working underground, with calligraphic flourishes possibly describing the work being done. This was noted at the time. However in the following years the turmoil in the industry and then the disposal of the assets of the NCB collection they seemed to have been spirited away, and goodness knows where they are at this late. I doubt if they found their way to the collection at the National Museum.

Yours sincerely
Dr Douglas Gray.
Peter Norris
30 August 2020, 14:32
What amazing notes and artwork.
Thank you what a wonderful collection!
Juan F. Schwarze
19 May 2020, 16:30
Thank you for sharing!