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  • Bad Water: Nature, Pollution, and Politics in Japan, 1870–1950 by Robert Stolz
  • Timothy S. George (bio)
Bad Water: Nature, Pollution, and Politics in Japan, 1870–1950. By Robert Stolz. Duke University Press, Durham, N.C., 2014. xii, 269 pages. $89.95, cloth; $24.95, paper.

This provocative book is as much about capitalism as it is about the three things listed in its subtitle: nature, pollution, and politics. Robert Stolz demonstrates [End Page 435] that each of these four can be understood only in the context of the others. In doing so, he builds on recent work in the field of Japanese environmental history by Julia Thomas, Brett Walker, and others, with a good dose of Karl Marx as well. A quarter century ago, a graduate student considering specializing in Japanese environmental history had virtually no models or potential mentors, and there was no real ongoing scholarly conversation to join. Bad Water shows how far we have come. The field has matured, and environmental issues now ought to be necessary considerations for almost any type of history of Japan.

The structure of the book is chronological, beginning in the late nineteenth century with the pollution from the Ashio copper mine and the thought and actions of Tanaka Shōzō (1841–1913), the man known as the grandfather of modern antipollution activism in Japan. After a thoughtful reconsideration of Tanaka and the changes in his thinking in the last decade of his life, Stolz focuses on two thinkers directly influenced by Tanaka who are far less well known. The first is the anarchist Ishikawa Sanshirō (1876–1956), and the second is Kurosawa Torizō (1885–1982), who founded Snow Brand Dairy, which Stolz calls “the original green company.” The interpretive focus is on “the subsumption of nature in industrial capitalist production” (p. 16) as the cause of the continuing environmental crisis of modernity.

The introduction begins with Obata Tokujirō’s short 1868 pamphlet Tenpen chii. For Stolz, this marks the first stage of Japan’s modern, rational views of nature and of political economy, heralding both “the epistemological and physical separation of humans from nature” and “the construction of the individual, autonomous, modern Japanese subject” (p. 3). Both were central to the era of “civilization and enlightenment” through the 1880s, if never fully achieved in practice. But the environmental crisis, symbolized by the Ashio pollution, gave the lie to this human-nature separation, and it also “biologically and politically contaminated the autonomous liberal subject on which Meiji political philosophy was built” (p. 6; italics in original). The rest of the book follows this continuing crisis and its theoretical challenges to liberal capitalist philosophies of nature and politics (which in some ways remain unchanged from the Meiji era) through to the postwar and the present.

Stolz does this, first, by devoting three chapters to Ashio and particularly to Tanaka Shōzō. Kenneth Strong’s 1977 biography of Tanaka, Ox against the Storm, remains very useful, but we have long needed more work in English on Tanaka. Stolz uses the familiar key moments and turning points—Tanaka’s activism in the Diet in the 1890s, his failed attempt to petition the Meiji emperor in 1901, his exploration of rivers, and his move to the village of Yanaka in his last years to support and learn from the villagers’ struggle as the government attempted to remove them and destroy [End Page 436] the village to create a flood-control basin—but with his own theoretical approach.

In the 1890s the problem was perceived by the authorities as one simply of “leaks” that could be solved, without threatening capital and property relations, with the Pollution Prevention Order of 1897. This required Ashio’s owner Furukawa Ichibei to clean up the mine operations and prevent further discharge of poisons into the Watarase River. This failed, and one of Stolz’s contributions is to illustrate this through the reports of the activist journalist Matsumoto Eiko, collected in her book Kōdokuchi no sanjō (Sufferings of a mine-poisoned land, 1902), which chronicled damage to soil and society that could not be repaired by technocratic attempts to stop “leaks.”

Tanaka’s dramatic, failed attempt to present...


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