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  • Environment and Society in the Japanese Islands: From Prehistory to the Present ed. by Bruce L. Batten and Philip C. Brown
  • Patricia Sippel
Environment and Society in the Japanese Islands: From Prehistory to the Present. Edited by Bruce L. Batten and Philip C. Brown. Oregon State University Press, 2015. 312 pages. Softcover $29.95.

Environmental history has produced a small boom in English-language research on Japan. A conference entitled “Japan’s Natural Legacies,” held at Montana State University in October 2008, resulted in the 2013 publication of Japan at Nature’s Edge, an edited volume of fifteen chapters that focused on the environmental history of Japan in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.1 Seeking to cover a longer time span and to draw upon the skills and perspectives of “technically disposed disciplinary specialists,” two of the Montana conference participants, Bruce L. Batten and Philip C. Brown, were inspired to develop a separate project (p. xi). The conference that they organized in Honolulu in March 2011 was guided by two principles: diversity and coherence. Participants at different levels of professional experience offered papers that covered a “range of topics, eras, methodologies, and perspectives” (p. xii). In preparing their papers for publication, they were, however, encouraged to draw on a common body of theoretical literature, with special reference to the concept of resilience. Environment and Society in the Japanese Islands: From Prehistory to the Present is the published result.

The book’s introduction clarifies the theoretical and organizational perspectives that guided the volume. Defined as “the history of the relationship, broadly defined, between human society and the natural environment,” environmental history may, the editors note, address such issues as the roots of contemporary environmental problems, the impact of natural conditions on the development of human society, and “the resilience (or lack thereof) of the natural environment in the face of human disruption” (p. 1). Batten and Brown suggest that Japan is of particular interest to environmental historians on at least three accounts: it exemplifies most of the world’s most vexing environmental issues; it has a long and well-studied record of human habitation; and it has sometimes, with respect to its early modern phase, been presented as a rare example of a sustainable society. In this volume, the editors aim to [End Page 285] “proffer an original ‘take’ on Japanese environmental history—indeed, on environmental history in general”—by focusing on “the processes of historical, socionatural change.” For this, they look especially to notions of resilience and adaptation. Derived originally from ecology, but recently applied in urban development and a wide range of social sciences, resilience theory views humans and the natural environment as coexisting in a matrix of dynamic and adaptive systems. Change produced through socionatural interaction occurs not in linear fashion, but in unpredictable, even chaotic, ways. The editors define resilience as “the capacity of a system to withstand or adapt to shocks without experiencing a fundamental regime shift” (p. 13). In other words, at some times the system may absorb disturbances while remaining relatively stable; at others, even a minor disturbance may trigger an irreversible change. Batten and Brown’s goal is to produce a complex picture of Japanese environmental history informed by the view of a dynamic socionatural system reshaped by the interaction of its numerous components. In many respects, Environment and Society in the Japanese Islands meets that goal. It is a stimulating, well-researched, and well-edited volume that makes a significant contribution to the growing literature on Japanese environmental history.

The book consists of twelve main chapters organized in four parts, arranged thematically rather than chronologically to reflect the emphasis on socionatural components. Part 1, “Lay of the Land: Geology and Topography,” includes studies of Japan’s tectonic setting (Gina L. Barnes), settlement patterns in eighth-century Heijō-kyō, or Nara (Tatsunori Kawasumi), and the social meanings of earthquake literature in the early modern era (Gregory Smits). Of particular note is Kawasumi’s use of geographic information system (GIS) data to illuminate the selection and social organization of Heijō-kyō as a political capital. The result is a fresh perspective on the creation of an ancient urban environment through the interaction...


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pp. 285-288
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