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  • Bad Water: Nature, Pollution, and Politics in Japan, 1870–1950by Robert Stolz
  • Philip C. Brown
Bad Water: Nature, Pollution, and Politics in Japan, 1870–1950, by Robert Stolz. Asia-Pacific: Culture, Politics, and Society. Durham, Duke University Press, 2014. xi, 288 pp. $24.95 US (paper).

Robert Stolz argues that a sense of environmental crisis overturned an existing paradigm of scientific mastery of nature, beginning with the poisoning of Kanto waterways by industrial waste from the Ashio copper mine. He further contends that efforts to confront this sense of crisis began within Meiji liberalism as manifested in the career of politician cumenvironmental protester Tanaka Shōzō (1841–1913), a “liberal” politician who, ultimately disillusioned with political action, turned to developing a new [End Page 638]understanding of nature itself as powerful. Stolz argues that while Tanaka is often treated as an idealized, isolated figure, his awareness of environmental issues continued in the careers of anarchist Ishikawa Sanshirō (1876–1956) and Kurosawa Torizō (1885–1982), the founder of the early “green” corporation Snow Brand Dairy. Throughout, the author seeks to “combine environmental history with political philosophies of the subject to explore the extremely rich and still urgent search for a form of political subjectivity and social organization adequate to the environmental crisis of capitalist modernity” (p. 10). Drawing in part on perspectives of Actor-Network Theory ( ant) and Science, Technology and Society ( sts) studies, Stolz seeks to explore interactions among objects and the “agency of the non-human” (p. 11) but explicitly adopts a Marxist framework to add an historical dimension to these approaches.

Stolz effectively strips away the idealized images of Tanaka that permeate many contemporary assessments of him as part of an effort to take early environmentalism beyond discussion of its role in Meiji liberalism. His analysis is well documented and convincing. An emphasis on “participatory democracy” (p. 36) in local elections conveys an impression of broad participation, yet suffrage in these realms, like later national parliamentary elections, had property qualifications that restricted suffrage in local governments (institutions that had limited financial resources other than those from the central government) — all of which suggests that Tanaka was even less representative of broad popular sentiment than Stolz indicates. All that said, the degree to which this perspective changes our broader understanding of modern Japanese history is not clear, for all the key people Stolz analyzes were clearly exceptional individuals, especially anarchist Ishikawa.

Underlying Bad Water’s historical trajectory is a clear demarcation between modern economic activities and those of pre-modern eras, which oversimplifies the divide. The sharp focus on industrial pollution facilitates this bifurcation, and leads Stolz to be rather dismissive of flood control issues as less critical than pollution (p. 88), even though a greater proportion of Japan was subject to the former risk than industrial pollution. This focus also means that the environmental impacts of other forms of natural resource exploitation, most linked to profit-maximization, are downplayed. Further, this approach leads to creation of a sharp break in the shift to a “scientific mastery” perspective when older perspectives continued to exert influence and carry legitimacy in intellectual and policy debates.

Bad Water’s agenda is both broad and diverse, raising significant challenges of translation across the frameworks addressed. Marxism, Japanese history, ant, and stsall involve specialized vocabularies, and readers familiar with one or two of them will not necessarily be familiar with all. To introduce specialists to the other fields requires clear explication of key [End Page 639]concepts. Stolz does this inconsistently and even when he does define key terms, the explanation frequently comes well after the first use of the term. A particularly frustrating example is the use of Marx’s concept of “subsumption,” a key concept in the author’s analysis and effort to link sources of nineteenth-century environmental awareness to later, present-day concerns. The concept is first introduced on page eleven, almost as an aside and buried in the middle of a paragraph with no definition provided — despite the fact that as indexed, this is the first page of several that supposedly treat Marx’s use of the term (p. 267, “subsumption” sub-entry). Glimpses...


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