In contrast to Japan’s high demand for metals and minerals, domestic industrial production is nearly negligible and has collapsed over the past two decades.
The Metal Mining Agency of the country reported that the number of operating mines dropped from 246 to 14 between 1970 and 2001, and the number of people employed in the mining sector dropped from 34,000 to 405 over this period.
In particular, lead and zinc production has declined with overall mineral production declining between 2011 and 2015 from 215,044 tons to 194,391 tons and 66,325 tons to 59,224 tons respectively.
Declining jobs and declining productivity have led to a significant decline in the country’s mining sector’s economic output, with government figures pointing out that mining’s GDP contribution dropped from $2.7 billion in 2009 to $1.9 billion in 2016.
Over the past few years, iron and steel production has also remained strong, with USGS reporting that pig iron production has only slightly wavered, dropping from 81.03 million tons in 2011 to 81.01 million tons in 2015, while “Ordinary” and “Special” steel production has increased over the same period.
While China dominates international steel production, accounting for about half of global output, in 2015, Japan was the world’s second-largest metal producer, accounting for 6.5 percent of global output.
The production of Japanese ferroalloys, iron alloys with high mineral concentrations such as manganese or aluminum, has increased dramatically over the period; the USGS reports that the production of alloys including chromium, molybdenum, silicon, tungsten, and vanadium has more than tripled from 20,913 tons in 2011 to 73,651 tons in 2015.
Regulatory uncertainty Despite these positive developments, there is uncertainty about the future of the mining industry in Japan. In 2012, the government amended the mining legislation for the first time since 1950, effectively tightening limits on the power of the Ministry of Agriculture, Trade and Industry to issue mining permits.
The earlier laws allowed the METI to grant permits on a first-come-first-served basis, but the new law makes a distinction between “Listed minerals”, those considered vital to the national economy, and other minerals; these listed minerals include resources such as oil and natural gas and are given priority over non-specified minerals when the METI awards mining permits.
While the mining industry is not fundamentally at odds with either program, the fact that the government focuses on restoration and protection of the environment and not on new developments in mining suggests that the mining sector of the country may continue to struggle.