It may seem surprising, but for centuries Japan was one of the world's largest producers of copper. Its largest and best known mine was the notorious Ashio copper mine in Tochigi Prefecture. Operated by the Furukawa consortium, the pollutants from its smelter in the late 19th century caused untold suffering to farmers and other residents living along the Watarase River. The mine was closed in 1973.
But Japan had other copper mines, some of them said to have dated back nearly a millennia. One, located in Fukui Prefecture close to its border with Gifu, was called the Omodani mine.
Writing in an extra edition of Shukan Jitsuwa dated Dec 23, Takaaki Yagisawa reports on how the eponymous village of Omodani, a boom town thanks to high demand for copper in World War I, was nearly wiped out by the influenza pandemic that arrived in Japan in the autumn of 1918. The pandemic ended, but the village never recovered, and today only a few stone markers remain as evidence of its existence.
Nestled in a valley between hills from which the copper was mined, Omodani, at its peak in 1914, had 3,000 residents. It boasted a post office, library, kimono shop, clock repair shop and a small community theater.
Due in part to censorship by the military, news of the outbreak of the Spanish flu was initially restricted, and the pandemic rapidly spread from soldiers to civilians, and from the belligerent nations to neutral countries. It eventually reached Japan and by October 1918, cases were first reported even in the relatively isolated mining village of Omodani.
The village population had already declined by about 1,000 from its 1914 peak, but was still economically viable as the end of 1918 approached.
According to archival materials, the residents were summoned to the community hall, where the village doctor cautioned them about the spread of a "virulent type of influenza." His warnings proved futile: Some 900 were to contract the flu, of whom at least 90 died. So rapidly did people expire that at one point the village crematory, with maximum capacity of 10 corpses per day, could not keep up, and bodies had to be stored temporarily in a shed.
By 1919 the Japanese economy was hit hard by recession and demand for copper ore plummeted. The combined one-two punch of disease and economic decline led to the village's abandonment.
Today little is left what was formerly Omodani village: at the end of an unpaved road can be seen a flat area with knee-high weeds. The moss-covered stone steps and a stone marker indicate where a Shinto shrine once stood, and stone markers for the crematory and cemetery also remain.
"An attempt was made to re-open the mine, and it appears a few people made their way back to the village," Yagisawa writes. "But it was never to recover its former prosperity and became a haison (abandoned village).
In the half-sunken remains of what was probably the foundation of a house, Yagisawa found a beer bottle.
"It read 'Kirin' in katakana, from right to left, the way it was written in prewar times," he writes. "In my mind's eye I could imagine how a mine worker here would relax after a hard day in the mines.
"In a way the bottle gave me a sense of relief, reminding me this was once a place where people lived their lives."
Some color photos of what remains of Omodani village can be viewed at this site: http://orange.zero.jp/zbc54213.wing/omodani-.html© Japan Today