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  • Toxic Archipelago: A History of Industrial Disease in Japan
  • Miranda A. Schreurs (bio)
Toxic Archipelago: A History of Industrial Disease in Japan. By Brett L. Walker. University of Washington Press, Seattle, 2010. xviii, 284 pages. $35.00, cloth; $25.00, paper.

Japan’s history is scarred by decades of industrial pollution that brought death and suffering to thousands of innocent victims. While Japan’s successful [End Page 251] quest for rapid industrialization is well known, less attention has been paid to the pain and sacrifice endured by the Japanese population in order to achieve that modernization. In a style that mixes academic rigor and factual detail with story-like prose, Brett L. Walker confronts his reader with the dark side of the Japanese state’s drive for economic catch-up with the West. Japan’s rapid economic transition from pre-Meiji feudalism to world-class economic power can only be considered a miracle if one is willing to ignore the pain, suffering, and death that industrialization caused. Japan’s industrialization, moreover, has indelibly altered Japan’s natural environment, resulting in pesticide-resistant insects and seriously scarred landscapes. The most recent example of such a technology-induced tragedy is the reactor meltdowns in Fukushima.

Walker also insinuates a deeper critique of modernization and industrialization processes in general. He concludes his book by arguing how our efforts to industrialize have been so seriously flawed because we have tried to separate human development from the natural system of which humans are a part. According to Walker, even those who argue for a stronger coupling between environmental protection and economic activities in the form of ecological modernization have failed to capture in their thinking the natural systems that humans are a part of. Walker in the end is arguing for a nature-centered societal development that recognizes that human societies are part of the complex, intertwined natural system. How this should be achieved, however, is not addressed at any length.

This book revisits well-known case studies of environmental pollution: Minamata mercury poisoning, itai-itai disease (“it hurts, it hurts disease” caused by cadmium run-off from the Kamioka mining complex along the Jinzu River), and the crop failure caused by run-off from the Ashio copper mine. In addition, very detailed studies of horrific mining tragedies are introduced. Despite the fact that the book covers much well-known material, it also brings in many new details, perspectives, and insights.

For many in Japan, argues Walker, the rapid quest for industrialization was a symbol of progress, innovation, and modernity. For many others, it meant exploitative work conditions, pollution-induced health problems, human disfigurement through workplace accidents, long-term pain and suffering from incurable diseases, and the passing on of diseases to the innocent next generation. Life in Japan was for many a kind of hell on earth.

Walker brings a human dimension into his historical examination of industrial pollution incidents and industrial accidents. The book is not for the weak stomached. It is about pain, suffering, and death. We learn about the fate of the young Sakagami Yuki, who has been poisoned by mercury pollution (Minamata disease) and is slowly losing her mind. The reader is asked to think about what it must have been like for Sakagami who, despite her bouts of delirium, is still lucid enough to choose to have an abortion. Her [End Page 252] reasoning is that she wants to prevent her baby from experiencing the kind of agonizing pain she is herself going through.

We are asked to consider what it must have been like in the Hōjō coal mine where a fiery methane gas explosion led to the collapse of a mining shaft and trapped hundreds of miners in a burning inferno. Walker describes the agonizing screams of the victims as well as those of loved ones left behind. We are then asked to think about the Japanese-controlled Honkeiko coal mine in China where an even larger methane gas explosion killed over 1,500. One is left to wonder about the cruelty of industrializing societies. How was it possible that shortly after the explosion, the miners were sent back into the mines to extract...


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pp. 251-254
Launched on MUSE
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