Niihama: Part 1

Niihama City, home to the Besshi Copper Mines

Besshi Copper Mine Memorial Museum
Besshi Copper Mine Memorial Museum

Sumitomo sought the Tokugawa shogunate’s permission to exploit the immense deposit found in the Akaishi Mountain Range in Iyo (Matsuyama). Granted permission in August 1691, Sumitomo opened the Besshi Copper Mines.

1691 stands out as a watershed year in the broad sweep of Sumitomo’s history of more than 400 years. During the almost 300 years from the mines’ inauguration to their closure in 1973, despite the fluctuating fortune of the Besshi Copper Mines, they always remained one of the foremost sources of copper in Japan. In Niihama City, there are two museums devoted to the history of the Besshi Copper Mines and Sumitomo: The Besshi Copper Mine Memorial Museum houses a wealth of historical records illuminating the industrial heritage, whereas the Hirose Memorial Museum presents the accomplishments of Saihei Hirose, the manager of the Besshi Copper Mines who subsequently served as director-general of the House of Sumitomo.

The museums are on a hillside overlooking Niihama City. Built in 1975 by Sumitomo Group, the Besshi Copper Mine Memorial Museum is in the grounds of Oyamazumi Shrine, which is en route to the Besshi Copper Mines and where the tutelary spirit of the mines is enshrined. The building’s exterior, partially buried in the hillside, is evocative of the entrance to a mineshaft. With its roof planted with Satsuki azaleas, the Besshi Copper Mine Memorial Museum has a tranquil, restrained atmosphere.
Exhibits include a rato, or shell lamp. This handy lamp comprises a Turbo sazae shell, which is filled with whale oil, topped with a lid together with a wick. Such lamps, used at the Besshi Copper Mines until around 1895, remind one of the proximity of the mines to the sea. The lamp displayed is blackened with soot and grime from the hands of the miners.

The Hirose Memorial Museum, just a few minutes’ drive from the Besshi Copper Mine Memorial Museum, offers a panoramic view of the coastal industrial zone, or you can look inland to admire the Akaishi Mountain Range. A member of the Hirose Memorial Museum staff observes, “From this vantage point, the view encompasses a landscape that witnessed the drama of Japan’s industrialization in the early modern period and retains its vestiges. Niihama City was a crucible of capitalism during those memorable years.”
On entering the first gallery of the museum, your gaze is arrested by a large framed photograph overflowing with dynamism. It depicts a steam locomotive, with smoke belching from its stack, traveling along a track cut into a precipitous mountainside. This is rolling stock of the Besshi Mine Railway, which was constructed in 1893. On the right and left walls of the hall are windows. Through these windows, one sees reflected images captured by a periscope-like structure on the roof of the museum. There is a panoramic view of Niihama City through one window and, through the other window, a fine view of the Akaishi Mountain Range. A periscope in the tower atop the roof reflects images to the two windows in the gallery.

Hirose Memorial Museum
Hirose Memorial Museum

The Besshi Copper Mines have left their mark on this landscape, the legacy of ambitious industrial endeavors undertaken in the course of nearly 300 years. It was here that Sumitomo pioneered antipollution and other environmental measures. Numerous works and factories are still concentrated in the Niihama City coastal belt, in sectors ranging from construction equipment, machinery, and nonferrous metals to chemicals, and oil refining. Several industries of contemporary Japan have lineages traceable to this crucible of industrialization adjacent to the Besshi Copper Mines, the catalyst of economic development.

Saihei Hirose, hero of the Besshi Copper Mines

A series of rich, long, copper-rich veins runs diagonally deep into the mountainside from an altitude of 1,300 meters. Such a concentration of accessible mineral wealth is rarely found in the world. It gave rise to the Besshi Copper Mines.

In his autobiography, Saihei Hirose, the first director-general of the House of Sumitomo, stated, “57 years passed in the blinking of an eye,” commenting on his career that began at Besshi Copper Mines when he was a little lad.
The Besshi Copper Mines produced approximately 650,000 tons of copper from its inauguration in 1691 to its closure in 1973.

The total length of the shafts and adits excavated is about 700 kilometers, roughly the distance from Tokyo to Okayama. At its greatest depth, the mine is about 1,000 meters below sea level. Because geothermal heat eventually became intolerable, reaching 52 degrees centigrade, and shafts and adits were increasingly prone to collapse, mining ceased in 1973 and the Besshi Copper Mines were closed.

Everything was done manually in the early days as miners wielded hammers and chisels, working in shifts. During the Meiji era, seizanbo, bits made of forged steel for drilling holes in rock in which gunpowder was charged, were introduced. The history of mining can be traced through tools that the miners used over the years.

We hiked up to the mines. Those who perished in the mountains over the centuries found their last resting place here. We came to a pagoda erected in memory of these victims of fire and flood. Our guide Mr. Yuki Ogasawara explained, “We burn incense sticks at the pagoda whenever we come here, and we request those accompanying us to observe a brief respectful silence.” He offered the lighted incense sticks at the pagoda and we joined him in silent prayer for the souls of the departed. If one could travel back through the years, one would see gangs of miners excavating an adit along the stratum heading in a northerly direction, as well as men and women carrying the ore. Although verdant trees all but cover their traces, look carefully and you will see the remains of several shafts.

Proceeding up a steep track, we paused several times to catch our breath, eventually reaching the remains of a large shaft, the Kanki Shaft, excavated in 1691. The Kanki Shaft, along with the Kanto Shaft next to it, is preserved since mining was concentrated here throughout the Edo period.
There used to be a mining community up the slope from the Kanki Shaft. And lower down the slope from the shaft are the remains of Koashidani, which was a bustling community in the early Meiji era, including miso, soy sauce and sake breweries as well as such facilities as an elementary school.

A mine operated continuously by a single enterprise for 300 years is unusual in the world. The Besshi Copper Mines bear eloquent testimony to Japan’s industrialization and economic development.
Discussion of the Besshi Copper Mines inevitably leads to Saihei Hirose, who as the manager of the mines boldly rose to challenges in hard times and went on to achieve distinction as the first director-general of the House of Sumitomo.

Crisis of the Besshi Copper Mines

Saihei Hirose
Saihei Hirose
Photo courtesy of Sumitomo Historical Archives

When in 1868 it was proposed that the Besshi Copper Mines should be sold, Saihei Hirose, then manager of the mines (and subsequently director-general of the House of Sumitomo), adamantly opposed the plan, stated how unreasonable such a course of action would be, and rallied Sumitomo’s executives against the shocking plan.

With the Tokugawa shogunate collapsing and the Meiji Restoration underway, the House of Sumitomo was plunged into crisis. Sumitomo had extended loans to various daimyo but was unable to secure repayment as han bills issued by feudal domains became worthless. This crisis undermined the viability of the House of Sumitomo.
The House of Sumitomo borrowed 1,000 ryo from Zeniya Sahee, a moneylender, providing heirlooms, furniture, etc. as security to tide it over the crisis. Since the Besshi Copper Mines had such a big appetite for capital, the idea of selling them was mooted as a last resort.

There were also external pressures. In February 1868, the Tosa Domain (present-day Kochi Prefecture) was poised to take over the Besshi Copper Mines, which were in the territory of the Tokugawa Shogunate, and place them under the control of the new government. Meanwhile the Satsuma Domain seized the Osaka Head Office’s copper storehouse. Arguing cogently and persuasively against these plans, Hirose prevented the sale of the mines.

As related in Hirose’s autobiography, when Hirose met Kawada Genemon, an officer of the Tosa Domain (subsequently president of the Bank of Japan as Koichiro Kawada), to discuss control of the Besshi Copper Mines, Hirose stated: “Although the Besshi Copper Mines were in the territory of the Tokugawa shogunate, the House of Sumitomo discovered the copper deposit and is managing the mines unaided. If the new government were to commandeer the Besshi Copper Mines and put inexperienced people in charge, the national interest would suffer.” Hirose persuaded Kawada and secured the government’s permission for Sumitomo’s continued ownership and management of the Besshi Copper Mines and regained the Osaka Head Office’s copper storehouse. Hirose was eminently suited to exercise leadership in this period of dramatic change. But Kawada, who commented favorably on Hirose’s powers of persuasion, had foresight.

However, Hirose still faced the monumental task of turning around the Besshi Copper Mines. He acted decisively, first modernizing management. In 1871, he opened the Kobe branch to promote direct sales of copper to foreign firms. He also relocated the copper refinery from Osaka to Tatsukawayama Village in the Besshi mountains to streamline processes.

Photo courtesy of Sumitomo Historical Archives

The primary goal of reform was to increase the output of the Besshi Copper Mines. To this end, it was necessary to apply the best methods from the West to the mining and smelting operations. In 1874, Hirose hired French mining engineer Louis Larroque and instructed him to formulate a masterplan for modernization of the mines. Once the masterplan was completed, since Hirose was determined to promote development of the Besshi Copper Mines without relying on foreign engineers, he did not accede to Larroque’s request to continue his employment so as to supervise modernization of the mines. Hirose dispatched two Japanese employees to France to study mining engineering. This was based on his conviction that enhancing the skills of Japanese mining engineers would contribute to stable operation of the Besshi Copper Mines.

Hirose’s modernization of the Besshi Copper Mines received a boost when a new transportation route was established connecting the mines with the Niihama City waterfront. Although initially a pathway for ox-drawn wagons, it was eventually transformed into a mine railway with steam locomotives.

Proceed to Niihama: Part 2