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Toxic archipelago

a history of industrial disease in Japan

By Brett Walker; Foreword by William Cronon

Publication Year: 2010

This fascinating environmental history of Japan examines how traditions and practices in several industries -- from raising silkworms to mining lead and coal to refining petroleum -- have affected the health of workers and those who have lived in these toxic landscapes.

Published by: University of Washington Press


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pp. vii-viii

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Foreword: the pain of a poisoned world

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pp. ix-xii

Among the historical phenomena leading to the rise of modern environmentalism in the second half of the twentieth century, one of the most striking was also one of the least visible: the proliferating presence of toxic compounds in the webs of ecological relationships that sustain life on the planet. What seemed like a new age of toxicity exploded ...

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pp. xiii-xvi

For the past decade I have taught an environmental history of Japan seminar, first at Yale University and then at Montana State University. The seminar focuses on themes ranging from disease and the generation of scientific knowledge to perceptions of nonhuman animals and modern industrial pollution. Each year, I carefully attempt to sharpen ...

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pp. xvii-xviii

On 7 February 2005, in the Nemuro Straits, off the Shiretoko Peninsula of eastern Hokkaido, near the small town of Rausu, a pod of twelve orcas became hemmed in between a fast-moving, wind-blown ice floe and the jagged coast. In the morning, Rausu residents could hear the orcas crying out from the ice as they tried to escape, the sound ...

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Introduction: Knowing Nature

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pp. 3-21

One of the most celebrated stories in Japanese history is that of the Akō Incident. Like most samurai stories, it portrays pride, revenge, and, quite noticeably, a lot of agonizing pain. It also portrays sacrifice. In the story, pain, in the form of seppuku, or ritual disembowelment, ...

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1. The Agency of Insects

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pp. 22-44

This chapter, though not without a handful of human actors, stars four insects: a tachinid fly and the Japanese beetle it eats, silkworms, and mosquitoes. Their actions, or the actions on them by humans, demonstrate how cultural values become ecological reality in engineered landscapes. Insect behavior also exposes how Japan’s nineteenth-century ...

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2. The Agency of Chemicals

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pp. 45-70

If Buddhist beliefs regarding the transmigration of the soul shaped outbreaks of Japanese B encephalitis, they also determined how Japanese countered the threat posed by insect-borne crop damage and famine. Insects not only harbor deadly disease but also eat many of the same crops that people do. But because insect bodies harbored the souls of historical ...

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3. Copper Mining and Ecological Collapse

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pp. 71-107

This chapter focuses on the Ashio copper mine, the site of Japan’s first major pollution disaster. I begin by situating the mine within the broader assertions made in this book: that this technological complex, and the engineered environments it birthed, seamlessly connected to the naturally occurring Watarase River basin. The river fed downstream ...

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4. Engineering Pain in the Jinzū River Basin

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pp. 108-136

With the beginning of the Meiji wars (namely, in 1895 and 1905), miners started extracting lead and zinc at a frenzied pace from the Kamioka shafts of the mountainous regions of Toyama and Gifu prefectures. This technological complex, and the engineered environments it birthed, seamlessly connected to the Jinzū River basin, which also ...

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5. Mercury’s Offspring

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pp. 137-175

To this juncture, we have examined how the modern industrial endeavors of insecticide production and application and of copper, zinc, and lead mining introduced poisons to human bodies and caused pain. Both the organophosphate parathion and such heavy metals as cadmium in mining waste entered rice plants through engineered ...

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6. Hell at the Hojo Colliery

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pp. 176-210

In Fukuoka Prefecture, the area around the Onga River, which flows south to north as it carves its way through the ancient provinces of Chikuzen and Buzen, is referred to as the Chikuhō region. In Japan, to say “Chikuhō” is essentially to say “coal,” though today one is struck equally ...

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pp. 211-224

I used to wear it as fairy dust when I was a little girl,” she said staring into her beer, as if she were talking to it now and not to me. “It’s weightless like dried leaves, you know,” she explained. “It was everywhere when I was growing up, near the schools and playgrounds; on the baseball diamonds, tracks, and in gardens.” It was the spring of 2007 and I was in a gritty bar in Libby, Montana, ...


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pp. 225-250

Works Cited

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pp. 251-270


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pp. 271-284

E-ISBN-13: 9780295803012
Print-ISBN-13: 9780295989549

Publication Year: 2010