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  • Toxic Archipelago: A History of Industrial Disease in Japan by Brett L. Walker
  • Paul Jobin
Brett L. Walker, Toxic Archipelago: A History of Industrial Disease in Japan
Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2010. 302 pp. $24.95
(paperback), $50.00 (cloth).

Toxic Archipelago has been well received among scholars of Japan, as well as environmental historians—it was the winner of the 2011 George Perkins Marsh Prize for the best book in environmental history. Brett Walker’s study should also be of interest for science and technology studies scholars, especially those working on environmental and public health issues related to industrial pollution. It is based on a large set of secondary sources in English and Japanese, and while three of the six chapters are devoted to famous cases that have been extensively documented in Japanese and relatively well documented in Western languages, as well as in Chinese, Walker’s interpretations are distinctive and stimulating. These cases are the ecological and medical disaster caused by the Ashio copper mine, the “it hurts, it hurts disease” (itai itai byō イタイイタイ病) caused by cadmium poisoning, and the case of mercury poisoning known as Minamata disease (Minamata-byō 水俣病).

The three other chapters treat topics brand new to readers outside of Japan: chapter 1 looks at famine and outbreaks of encephalitis caused by industrial agriculture; chapter 2 considers the effects of insecticides, from the rather innocent application of whale oil used during the Edo period to the horrific introduction of lead and arsenic during the Meiji and the massive use of the chemical parathion in the twentieth century; and the final chapter examines the coal mine explosion that happened in 1914 at Hōjō colliery on Kyushu. The book proceeds in an elegant and lively style, partly due to the author’s obvious talent for narration. His acquaintance with American and Japanese academic works is evident, and his own fieldwork brings these case studies to life.

The book’s main argument was articulated some years ago by Linda Nash (2006: 8): “As humans have industrialized the land, the land has, in turn, industrialized them.” Walker’s term “industrialized human bodies” (46) and his book’s title echo Nancy Langston’s Toxic Bodies: Hormone Disruptors and the Legacy of DES, also published [End Page 499] in 2010. To assemble the web of cause and effect involving toxic agents, engineered landscapes, human beings, and nonhuman beings, the author develops his own analytical model, which he names “hybrid causation.” In so doing, he knocks down the illusionary boundaries between nature and artifact. In a note referring to Bruno Latour, Walker mentions that his model of hybrid causation “is reminiscent of actor-network theory, where ‘nature’ is viewed as an actor in hybrid environments and social networks”; as he sees it, the difference “is that ‘nature’ such as insects or even chemicals in heavy metals, is not dependent on networks for real agency. Rather, networks shape how humans, the constructors of these elaborate networks of meaning and power, understand how natural agency functions” (228).

Walker convokes a multiplicity of apparently unconnected actors and elements, emphasizing gender, the incestuous relationships between capitalist entrepreneurs and government ministers, and the mutually beneficial cooperation between industrial development and the armed forces in times of war (from the First Sino-Japanese War of 1894–95 to the Cold War). This is not totally new: Ui Jun 宇井純 and Miyamoto Ken’ichi 宮本憲一, who belong to a generation traumatized by the Pacific War, were among the first to make these connections to industrial pollution (e.g., Ui 1971). Walker also pays particular attention to the sacrifice of what are sometimes called “internal colonies”—zones within Japan that have been so badly hit by industrial pollution that the central state has effectively abandoned them. Here, too, others have already discussed this (see, e.g., George 2001), but Walker succeeds in bringing these various dimensions into a theoretically coherent framework.

Above all, Walker excels at analyzing the complex interactions between chemical and biological factors, humans and nonhumans. He uses a scalpel to decorticate the black box of “environment” and understand the complex pathways of toxins. For example, the sudden increase in the number of pig farms near big...