Kazuo  Nimura
An Historical Analysis of Working Conditions at the Ashio Copper Mine

The Wage Levels of Unskilled Workers

Decline from relatively high wages to the national average

The final section of this chapter will briefly discuss the wage levels of unskilled workers at Ashio. To recapitulate the points already made in this connection:
     (1) In the 1880s unskilled workers at Ashio were being paid from 22% to nearly 50% more than the national average for day laborers.
     (2) Details are unclear for the 1890s due to the lack of relevant data, but it is known that at the time of the construction projects in connection with the 1897 Pollution Prevention Order, unskilled workers were receiving 'high wages'.
     (3) In the 1900s the upward trend in unskilled workers' wages ceased, and the gap between their wages and those of skilled workers became somewhat less marked.
     More than any other factor, the 'high' wages of the 1880s were due to a greatly increased demand for labor over a short period. Relying on a large pool of available labor in the form of the second and third sons of farming families, it was much easier for management (via the hanba bosses) to recruit unskilled workers than skilled workers such as miners and refinerymen. In absolute terms, however, the demand for labor at Ashio in those years was very great. The mining industry's image was bad: it was one of dangerous work in the deep darkness of the pits, perhaps toiling alongside convicts. The only way to attract labor in such a situation was to offer relatively 'high' wages.

In the 1900s the rate of increase of unskilled workers' wages at Ashio was greater than that of wages for skilled workers, but the phenomenon of rising wages for unskilled workers was by no means restricted to Ashio. From the late 1890s, wages nationwide, for both skilled and unskilled workers, rose sharply. Unskilled workers' wages at Ashio, for example, were outpaced by the national average wage for day laborers. In the 1900s the gap which had existed in the 1880s when laborers at Ashio were earning from 20% to nearly 50% more than the national average, had virtually disappeared (see table 39).

What lay behind this change? The first factor to be considered is the decline in demand for unskilled labor at Ashio. In the early years of Furukawa management at Ashio, there was virtually no mechanization; everything depended on manual labor. Hauling ore and debris, dressing and roasting, operating bellows, transporting necessary supplies such as charcoal, firewood, food and other daily necessities required a prodigious labor force. Various types of machinery were gradually introduced to cope with this problem. The move from manually-powered bellows to water wheel and steam engine power removed the need for bellows operators. The number of ore roasters was reduced by changing from reverberatory to rotating and Stall furnaces, while Bessemer converters made roasting altogether redundant. The building of a hydro-electric power station, the move from firewood to coke, and the introduction of self-smelting did away with the need for many fuel hauliers. The numbers of other transport personnel were reduced by the building of roads and bridges, cableways, tracks for horse and ox-drawn carts and finally electric carts. Similar labor-saving measures were adopted in other areas of the mine.

Table 39 Average daily wages of Ashio laborers compared to those of day laborers nationally
YearNominal wages (sen) Ashio laborers/Nationally laborers

nation wide
Ashio dressersAshio dressers(D)B/AC/AD/A
188319.028.3  45.5148.9 239.5
188418.322.5  42.5123.0 232.2
190037.030.0  36.481.1 98.4
190139.0 40.617.040.3 104.1103.3
190340.0 37.01742.0 92.5105.0
190541.0 39.717.145.9 96.8112.0
      1) laborers' wages nationally (middle range averages): "Annual Statistical Bulletin of the Japanese Empire".
      2) For Ashio wages, see Table 16

However, the deeper tunneling went, the greater was the need for more underground hauliers, carters, and other transport-related labor. Transport efficiency underground gradually improved, especially in major tunnels where horse-drawn or electric carts were used, but in the 1890s, Class 2 ore, which had been left underground in the 1880s, was brought to the surface for dressing, a development which was bound to lead to a sharp rise in the number of transport laborers. Also. when ore roasters' jobs disappeared, a number of other new jobs were created, such as ore hardening compounding. The overall number and proportion of unskilled workers at Ashio may have decreased, but such labor continued to account for over half the total workforce (see table 40).

Table 40   Unskilled workers at Ashio 1877-1906
YearUnskilled workers totaltotal work-force% of Uuskilled work-forceconvict laborore dressers (male)ore dressers (female)roastershaulierscartersotherstotal unskilled labor incl. convicts(%)
187774215 50 51     
1883 887 151  6    
18841,9082,76669.0187100124300 1,3842,095(71.0)
1885 3,331 110754112828530  
1895 7,318  4972561581,126237  
18966,56810,92560.1 5884271391,4785833,353 
1900 6,571  435362872,104   
1901 9,247  496352911,359   
19025,40710,07553.7 2452721001,2902863,214 
1905 10,247  113302 0   
1906 12,788  30127501,816 965 

Why then, despite these trends, did the relatively favorable wage situation for unskilled workers at Ashio turn down in the 1900s? A possible explanation lies in the fact that in the 1900s, Ashio was drawing labor from different areas than it had in the 1880s. By the 1900s, a labor supply base had materialized which could amply satisfy the needs of an operation the size of Ashio. In and around Ashio lived many people who were accustomed to working in the mine to supplement their income from farming, and in the four Hokuriku prefectures of Toyama, Niigata, Fukui, and Ishikawa, a recruiting network had been established to draw some of the 'surplus population' of these areas to Ashio as migrant labor1). This may well be the reason why, at least in regard to unskilled labor, Ashio wage levels came to resemble those of day laborers nationwide. The question has only been broached here; more research will be needed to provide a fuller explanation.


1) See chapter 2 appendix 1.

Translated by Terry Boardman

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Edited by Andrew Gordoon, translated by Terry Boardman and A. Gordon

The Ashio Riot of 1907:A Social History of Mining in Japan
Duke University Press, Dec. 1997