Two decades after global competition drove the mines in this corner of Japan to extinction, Kosaka is again abuzz with talk of new riches.
The treasures are not copper or coal. They are rare-earth elements and other minerals that are crucial to many Japanese technologies and have so far come almost exclusively from China, the global leader in rare earth mining.
Recent problems with Chinese supplies of rare earths have sent Japanese traders and companies in search of alternative sources, creating opportunities for Kosaka.
This town’s hopes for a mining comeback lie not underground, but in what Japan refers to as urban mining — recycling the valuable metals and minerals from the country’s huge stockpiles of used electronics like cellphones and computers.
“We’ve literally discovered gold in cellphones,” said Tetsuzo Fuyushiba, a former land minister and now opposition party member, who visited here recently to survey Kosaka’s recycling plant.
Kosaka’s pursuits have become especially important for Japan in recent weeks. Two weeks ago, amid a diplomatic spat with Tokyo, China started to block exports of all rare earths to Japan.
The shipping ban was still in effect on Monday evening in Japan, an industry official said, though a trickle of shipments seemed to be seeping out as a result of uneven enforcement of the ban by customs officers at various ports. China has allowed exports of Chinese-made rare earth magnets and other rare earth products to Japan, but not semi-processed rare earth ores that would enable Japanese companies to make products.
The cutoff has caused hand-wringing at Japanese manufacturers, from giants like Toyota to tiny electronics makers, because the raw materials are crucial to products as diverse as hybrid electric cars,wind turbines and computer display screens.
Late last week, Japan’s trade minister, Akihiro Ohata, said he would ask the government to include a “rare earth strategy” in its supplementary budget for this year.
In Kosaka, Dowa Holdings, the company that mined here for over a century, has built a recycling plant whose 200-foot-tall furnace renders old electronics parts into a molten stew from which valuable metals and other minerals can be extracted. The salvaged parts come from around Japan and overseas, including the United States.
Besides gold, Dowa’s subsidiary, Kosaka Smelting and Refining, has so far successfully reclaimed rare metals like indium, used in liquid-crystal display screens, and antimony, used in silicon wafers for semiconductors.
The company is trying to develop ways to reclaim the harder-to-mine minerals included among the rare earths — like neodymium, a vital element in industrial batteries used in electric motors, and dysprosium, used in laser materials.
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