When Coal Was King – Harsh Realities in 1941 for a Nation that Needed Expansion

Since the beginning of the industrialized era of mankind, one of the key elements that has both enhanced and limited progress is the humble material called coal. Coal played an important part in the growth of America and all of the industrialized nations. Coal also played a part in the eventual destruction of the Imperial Japanese Empire.

By January 1941, the Japanese war planners had come to terms with the fact that they would not be able to sustain their plans for very long with the existing stock of coal and the mines that were producing it. In most studies of World War 2, oil is the most examined resource that Japan was limited in. The very best estimates stated that their war fighting efforts would only be able to roam freely for around two years.

Rapid growth of production, 1931 – 40. The depression years of the early 1930s saw a definite slump in the production of coal in Japan proper. Total output dropped from 34,258,000 tons in 1929 to a low of 27,987, 000 tons in 1931 . Thereafter the pendulum swung back, and by 1936 domestic production had risen by 50 per cent to 41,803,000 tons . The outbreak of the China Incident in 1937 ushered in a period of rapid expansion for the coal mining industry. Domestic production was stepped up sharply and by 1940 had reached an all-time high of 57,309,000 tons, a level more than twice that of 1931. The greatest gain took place in Hokkaido where production jumped from 6,134,000 tons in 1931 to 15,378,000 tons in 1940, when it contributed 26.8 per cent of the total output.

The existence of vast reserves of good, easily mined coal in the occupied areas of the continent thus naturally figured prominently in the long range plans of the Japanese. While goals for domestic production were always too high to be reached under existing conditions, and diversion of technicians and material to the continental mines did not decisively aggravate the shortage which plagued the Japanese mines, there is little doubt but that the optimistic war planners counted on imports from Japanese – controlled mines in Karafuto, Manchukuo and China to provide an increasing share of the supply needed for the realization of their expansion plans. There is also little doubt that this attitude contributed to their failure to develop and execute a thorough, realistic program for maximum long – range exploitation of resources in the home islands .

Development of coal production in Karafuto, Korea, Manchukuo and North China . Coal resources in Karafuto, Korea, Manchukuo and North China were enormous, and the prewar production of each region was capable of substantial expansion. Had they been given freedom from hostile interference and sabotage, labor, the necessary equipment and materials, and sufficient transportation from mine to port and thence to consumers in Japan proper, the Japanese would have had an almost unlimited supply of coal for the taking. It is small wonder that they succumbed to that lure as an attractive alternative to the harsh and unpopular measures which would have been required to squeeze the maximum of production from their domestic resources, particularly in view of their inescapable dependence on imported coking coal.

In 1938, the year following the Japanese seizure of North China, the total coal output in Karafuto, Korea, Manchukuo and North China – Inner Mongolia came to 31,801,000 tons . The strenuous efforts exerted by the Japanese to increase production in those areas met with considerable success during the years immediately following, and by 1940 the amount produced had risen by more than 60 per cent above the 1938 level to 51,659,000 tons.

From 1933 to 1940 coal consumption in Japan proper , excluding the quantity used at the coal mines , more than doubled , rising steadily each year from 31,466,000 tons in 1933 to the peak year of 1940 when the total used amounted to 63,622,000 tons . Substantial increases in consumption during the period took place in the iron and steel, metal mining and refining, gas and coke, electric power, chemical, ceramics and railway industries.

Not listed was the unmistakable need and consumption of the Japanese civilian population which required the coal for heating their houses and cooking.

This dependence on coal was yet another reason that the Japanese drive for expansion and control of the Pacific and surrounding seas was critical to their dream of expansion.

The American’s were aware of the dangers in Europe by January of 1941. France and most of continental Europe had already fallen to the Germans and Italians. Battle of Britain was captured on American radios as correspondents spoke daily about the power of the German Air armada that had been unleashed on the tiny island nation.

In his January address to the nation, Roosevelt urged the increase in spending on ships and planes. Submarines were the type of craft that saw an increase in production after the fall of France. The Gato class submarine was the most practicable to build under the circumstances and these boat would play a key role in the coming years to strangle all of the raw materials needed to keep Japan in the coming war.

One note that reflects the peacetime thinking that still existed in the Roosevelt administration. Despite the urgency and need for ships of all type, Roosevelt limited the number of new submarines to the number of building slips available. This policy would remain until May of 1942. By that time, the scruffy little American submarines had already begun the battle that would take us into Tokyo harbor.

Coal Was King in America Too

As a kid, and even now, I hear the coal trains up and down the Mon Valley. Even with modern technology and new materials, coal is still a predominant part of life in America. I can only wonder who would want to drive that commodity into a state of disrepair. By the way, China has a bit of a coal problem right now.

From the FT Times

“In China, where domestic production has not been able to match supply, that has led to soaring prices, a supply crunch and a search for imported coal. However, that has been complicated by an unofficial ban on Australia coal due to a diplomatic spat. As a result, Chinese buyers have turned to producers in Indonesia, Russia, and even South Africa, which they have not imported from since 2016 due to impurities in the coal. Traders reckon about 1m tonnes of South Africa coal is currently on its way to China, with possibly more to follow. “Thermal coal prices have risen extremely fast over the past few weeks, primarily driven by the developments in China,” said analysts at CRU in a report. “Very high domestic prices and their large premium compared to import prices will incentivise more buying in the seaborne market.”

Once upon a time an Asian country that was trying to expand its influence needed coal… a lot of it. I wonder if history will repeat itself. Oh yeah. Global Warming will curb their appetite, right?

Mister Mac


Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s