Japan: Mining, Minerals and Fuel Resources

Japan is a chain of islands located in Eastern Asia between the Sea of Japan and the North Pacific Ocean. The total area of the country is 377,915 km2 with a population of 127,368,088 as of July 2011. Its climatic conditions vary from cool temperate in the north to tropical in the south.

The national flag of Japan.
Image Credit: CIA Factbook

After World War II, for three decades, Japan had been a formidable economic power until the catastrophic 2011 earthquake and subsequent tsunami, which impeded its economy and energy system. The GDP of Japan for 2011 was $4.497 trillion, which hints at the country’s determination and ability to recover from the devastation and resultant debt.

The industrial sector in Japan is highly dependent on imported raw materials and fuels to meet the domestic industrial demand. The mining sector does not play a significant role in the country’s economy but works towards supplying industrial raw materials to the construction and manufacturing industries. The mineral processing industry is quite big and is involved in the processing of fabricated metal products, nonferrous metals, industrial mineral products, chemicals, iron and steel, and petroleum products.

Small-scale, high-quality mineral and metal processing and manufacturing operations, and low-tonnage mining activities are the main features of Japan’s mineral industry.

Overview of Resources

Despite the lack of abundant natural resources, Japan has built an economy mostly based on its imports. The three most important mineral commodities imported by it are:

  • Copper concentrates
  • Iron ore
  • Rare-earth elements (REE)

The country also imports ores and concentrates to aid lead, nickel, copper, and zinc production. Nonferrous metals are produced and consumed in large quantities by importing intermediate raw materials. Other imported mineral commodities include coke and bauxite. Imported energy consists of liquefied natural gas (LNG), petroleum, and coal.

A space shuttle photograph of a portion of Southern Honshu Island and Shikoku Island of Japan. Image Credit: CIA Factbook

Japan prides itself as being the world’s second-largest producer of steel after China. Production of nonferrous metals, such as aluminum, antimony, molybdenum, tungsten, tin, cadmium, and cobalt, continues to increase. Compared to 2009, ferroalloys, crude steel, and pig iron production increased by 24%, 25%, and 23%, respectively, in 2010.

Industrial Minerals and Gemstones

In 2010, Japan’s leading refractories producer, Shinagawa Refractories Co. Ltd. merged with JFE Refractories Corp. The major buyers of the refractories are as follows:

  • Nippon Steel
  • Sumitomo Metals
  • JFE Steel, Kobe Steel

The country also faced a major drop in the domestic demand for cement in the same year causing Taiheiyo Cement Corp. to close down three of its plants.

Metals

In 2010, gold production in Japan amounted to about 136,000 kg resulting from 66% imported ore, 11% scrap, 6% domestic ore, and 17% other sources.

Silver production amounted to about 1,898,000 kg resulting from 59% imported ore, 1.4% scrap, 0.6% domestic ore, and 26% other sources.

JFE Steel Corp. had plans to expand its production capacity of pig iron at Fukuyama No. 3 blast furnace by 1 Mt/yr in 2011 at a cost of $317 million. Sumikin Stainless Steel Corp and Nippon Steel together have manufactured the first tin-added, low-chrome, low-interstitial ferritic stainless steel in the world.

The country’s total lead and zinc production amounted to 267,200 and 610,600 t, respectively, in 2010.

Mt. Fuji on the island of Honshu as seen from a space shuttle. Image Credit: CIA Factbook

Japan’s metal imports for 2010 included 92,000 kg of gallium, 420,000 kg of indium, and 8,000 kg of germanium.

Japan is one of the largest exporters of rare earth. Experts claim that Japan has a cost-effective technology for recycling and recovering rare earth from scrap.

Fossil Fuels

Oil consumption in Japan has been on the decrease in recent years as the country is turning to advanced energy-efficient technologies along with the use of cleaner environment-friendly natural gas.

By March 2014, the Japanese government expects Japanese refiners to fulfill its new mandates for upgrading capacity from 10% of the distillation capacity to 13%.

Despite huge monetary benefits, there has been a decrease in uranium mining in many parts of the world due to the radiation leakage at Japan's Fukushima nuclear plant during the 2011 earthquake and tsunami.

Investment

Japan has recently become a member of the US-led Trans-Pacific Partnership trade talks in order to promote exports, and also vigorously pursues free-trade agreements with the EU.

Japan’s mineral policy focuses on securing a continuous and long-term supply of raw materials for its mining industries. To ensure this, the country’s government via Japan Oil, Gas, and Metals National Corporation (JOGMEC) looks out for opportunities for direct investment in joint exploration operations and development of minerals mainly nonferrous metals, natural gas, and petroleum in both developed and developing countries.

Production of stainless steel and crude steel is set to increase in the future as a result of strong domestic demand and capacity expansions of plants. A steady increase in the country’s mineral production especially minor metals and rare earth is also anticipated due to the market demand for technologically advanced applications.

A research team from Tokyo University has claimed to have discovered an REE deposit of 6.8 million t near Minamitorishima Island. The main REE they have discovered is dysprosium, reserves of which are expected to last for almost 400 years. The feasibility of extracting this natural resource is questioned by experts, as the extraction of minerals from the sea bed is a big logistic and economic challenge.

Some of the key challenges facing Japan’s economy are deflation, dependence on imports as a means to enhance economic growth, and an aging and dwindling population. Despite these challenges, Japan will continue to play a major role in the international mining scene, as its mining and trading companies make huge investments to procure ores and concentrate from across the world.

Disclaimer: The author of this article does not imply any investment recommendation and some content is speculative in nature. The Author is not affiliated in any way with any companies mentioned and all statistical information is publically available.

Sources and Further Reading

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