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Reviewed by:
  • Transnational Japan in the Global Environmental Movement by Simon Avenell
  • Peter Wynn Kirby (bio)
Transnational Japan in the Global Environmental Movement. By Simon Avenell. University of Hawai'i Press, Honolulu, 2017. xii, 318 pages. $65.00.

The following vignettes animate Simon Avenell's Transnational Japan in the Global Environmental Movement: [End Page 480]

  1. 1. A young Japanese physician examines the contorted bodies of victims of Minamata Disease (methylmercury poisoning) for the first time and, appalled by the discrimination and poverty they suffer, dedicates the rest of his life to antipollution activism—also resolving wherever possible to visit victims in their homes to understand the wider context of their condition and their suffering (pp. 48–51).

  2. 2. After a United Nations environmental conference held in Stockholm during the Vietnam War, a Japanese activist and journalist asks herself during a speech whether whales were more important than "yellow people" to Americans (p. 87).

  3. 3. Agitating in Japan in 1980, a Tinianese antinuclear campaigner threatens to bulldoze colonial Japanese cemetery war remains into the sea in his small island nation if Japan proceeded with plans to dump steel canisters of nuclear waste in waters near his Micronesian homeland (p. 167). Soon after, Japan's Science and Technology Agency director proclaimed the canisters were "completely safe" and that he wouldn't mind hugging them or "sleeping with them" in his bed (p. 157).

This impressive and original history of the transnational dimensions and influences of Japanese environmental activism bristles with nuggets of historical detail, bringing important chapters of Japan's twentieth-century environmental awakening to life for readers.

Avenell burrows into troves of Japanese-language primary sources to unearth telling vignettes and key debates between Japanese activists and their adversaries and also nuanced deliberations within Japanese environmental movements during a fertile and eventful period when the foundations for global environmental activism and domestic activism were being laid. Indeed, this book shows that Japan's early devastating experiences with extreme industrial pollution forged a powerful sense of concern over the local human fallout of such contamination, creating a sense that Japan served as a sort of augury or early warning system for the rest of the industrialized and industrializing world. This fostered a strong sense of obligation and public service on the part of some dedicated activists, featured in the volume, as well as a sense of victimhood that came under challenge when Japanese corporations exported pollutant operations to other nations. The book grapples with dense, important questions regarding activists' revisionist theorizations of capitalism (and its culpability in extreme industrial pollution debacles), as well as their early reactions toward globalization and environmentalism, highlighting a pocket of underscrutinized non-"Western" critique.

The scale of Avenell's achievement is difficult to communicate. Not only has he brought to light an important element of Japanese activism and environmental development that has been relatively underemphasized in other studies of the subject, but also his dogged perusal and keen understanding of obscure documentary sources—as well as, significantly, the [End Page 481] connections between them—is difficult to accomplish. Avenell evidently dedicated a sizable amount of research time to a demanding set of research questions and produced a study that will be a reference point for these issues for some time to come.

In the introduction, Avenell identifies and sketches out an "environmental injustice paradigm" (p. 4) that has served as an ongoing motivating force for Japanese activists and others. The following passage gives a sense of the rationale for the volume:

The agonizing experience of industrial pollution victims in local communities throughout the archipelago inspired some Japanese activists to look abroad, and it profoundly shaped the messages they sent to the world—even when interest shifted from localized pollution to the global environment in the late 1980s. For many Japanese activists who became involved transnationally, industrial pollution victims represented living proof of an unbreakable chain linking political and economic power, environmental degradation, and the violation of basic human rights.

(p. 4)

Victims of extreme pollution in Japan therefore became living exhibits of a sort, flying to international environmental conferences to "put a face" (or a body) to the outrageous toxic depredation of environments and humans that served...


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