restricted access Chapter 6. Toroku: Mountain Dreams, Chemical Nightmares
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115 6 Toroku Mountain Dreams, Chemical Nightmares Timothy S. George When Americans imagine harm caused by environmental pollution, they may think of spotted owls or melting glaciers. The images that come to mind for Japanese are likely to be the ravaged bodies of human beings, particularly the victims of congenital mercury poisoning in Minamata.1 Poisons human beings release into the environment have also returned to destroy human bodies in many other places in Japan, including Toroku, a tiny mountain hamlet. For eight years after the Toroku arsenic mine opened in 1920, Tsuruno Masaichi and his wife, Kumi, processed the ore, crawling into a crude kiln to scrape out the white arsenic trioxide powder. In 1921, their first child was stillborn. Dreams and Border Crossings J. R. McNeill writes that “some of the most dramatic and revealing work in environmental history to date concerns frontier transformations, where one system of human ecology replaces another.”2 Donald Worster suggests that environmental history must be approached on the three levels of nature, technology, and ideology and emphasizes changing “modes of production,” his term for relationships between human society and the environment.3 Toroku’s environmental history illustrates the results of such frontier transformations and changing modes of production powerfully. The tiny hamlet of thirty-three households—there once were over fifty—is strung along a narrow, steep, remote river valley in the mountains of northern Miyazaki Prefecture on the island of Kyushu.4 It is six kilometers upriver from Ama no Iwato Shrine in Takachiho, the spot where the sun goddess Amaterasu hid in a cave and was enticed out to return light to the world. A villager described the most important event in Toroku’s history—the discovery and opening of the mine, probably in the late sixteenth century—as follows: Timothy S. George 116 The Toroku mine . . . developed rapidly after the Bungo merchant Morita San’ya opened it as a silver mine at the start of the Edo period. “Who first dug the Toroku mine? San’ya of Funai, yō, he first dug it Tokotōtō, tokotōtō A thousand blacksmiths’ furnaces roar The birds that dance in the sky, yō, they all fall down Tokotōtō, tokotōtō.” That’s the Toroku furnace song. . . . It was apparently bustling with hundreds of miners. . . . There’s a legend . . . called “Dream-Buying San’ya”. . . . : One day, as San’ya was crossing the mountains from Bungo to peddle his goods in Hyūga, he met up with a man. . . . While the two of them were sitting down talking, the man fell asleep, and when he woke up he said: “I had a strange dream. . . . Bees were digging in the earth, and they came out with gold dust in their mouths.” San’ya . . . said, “You have to sell me that dream!” He handed the man some coins, found the place the man had seen in the dream, and dug his pickaxe into the ground. That’s how he opened the Toroku silver mine. San’ya, whose silver mine made him a millionaire overnight, was resented by the lord of Funai, Hineno Yoshiaki. They say that he and all his family were killed.5 Movements of people, things, technologies, and even dreams across borders, in and out of this frontier area, mark turning points in Toroku’s history. Many involved dreams of wealth, and some turned into nightmares. In the Edo period (1600–1868), San’ya’s silver mine caused the deaths of birds and then of San’ya himself. In the twentieth century, the mine produced arsenic and brought devastation and death to the environment and people, and Toroku’s arsenic poisoning became the fourth officially designated pollution disease in postwar Japan. The best known of the first three officially recognized pollution diseases was organic mercury poisoning, which occurred in two places: in Minamata, where a factory dumped mercury into the sea, and along the Agano River in Niigata. In Toyama Prefecture, cadmium mine waste caused victims’ bones to become painfully brittle in what was known as Itai-Itai (“ouch-ouch”) disease. In Yokkaichi, air pollution from a petrochemical complex caused severe respiratory diseases. Patients in these cases filed lawsuits between 1967 and 1969 and won between 1971 and 1973. For a time in the 1970s and occasionally thereafter until 1990, Toroku’s arsenic poisoning joined these other pollution diseases on front pages. Today, however, Toroku 117 few Japanese recognize the name “Toroku,” though they know the other officially recognized pollution diseases.6 Still...