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71 3 Co p p e r M i n i n g a n d E co l o g i c a l Co l l a p s e T his chapter focuses on the Ashio copper mine, the site of Japan’s first major pollution disaster. I begin by situating the mine within the broader assertions made in this book: that this technological complex , and the engineered environments it birthed, seamlessly connected to the naturally occurring Watarase River basin. The river fed downstream paddies that, in their own way, were engineered environments as well. As technology advanced, smelting and ore flotation devices that allowed miners and processors to extract ever-higher percentages of their desired metals and discard higher percentages of the undesirable ones caused pollution problems in nearby agricultural lands. But these pollution problems, particularly their consequences for human health, represent the product of hybrid causations, where naturally occurring photochemical processes in the atmosphere and oxidization processes in riparian ecosystems created the toxins that caused human pain. Poisonous silt from the mine rendered once-rich agricultural lands a moonscape, the result of devastating flooding . The disaster at Ashio is the first indication that Japan’s unbridled push to be a rich country with a strong military in the Meiji years would not be without costs: in this case, intense human pain caused by environmental pollution, both water-borne toxins and relentless acidic deposition (forms of acid rain). 72 Copper Mining and Ecological Collapse H e a v y M e ta l The Ashio copper mine sits near Nikkō, once the hub of an elaborate network of Tōshōgū shrines that deified the shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu (1542– 1616) and thereby legitimized his family’s authority to rule over the entire realm.1 It also sits near the headwaters of the Watarase River, the beginning of an elaborate watershed that fed the Tone and Edo rivers and that provided fertile topsoil and irrigation water for the Kantō, still considered Japan’s richest agricultural lands (though it is heavily urbanized). Today, Japanese know Nikkō more as a national park overrun by deer than as an elaborate political ruse designed to project feudal authority vertically and cast it as divine, but the site is also important for its nearby copper mine.2 Copper extracted from Ashio has always been tied to state power, whether to that of the Tokugawa shoguns or the Meiji emperor. Copper extracted from Ashio adorned Edo Castle and the Nikkō mausoleum and, later, was used for currency (imprinted with “Ashi” for Ashio) and utilized for export purposes. In the nineteenth century, copper served as the conductor for transmission of electricity from one location to another; but it also brought badly needed foreign wealth to Japan. It and its alloys are also in the guts of most technological gadgetries, both military and civilian. Throughout the Meiji years (1868–1912) most copper mined was actually exported: silver and copper financed both Japan’s early-seventeenth-century unification under the Tokugawa family and its nineteenth-century unification under the Meiji oligarchy. In the historical timelines such as the ones strung in this book, copper can be a connector and conductor. If copper extracted from Ashio legitimized Tokugawa political authority vertically by projecting it toward the heavens and linking it to notions of divine rule, extracting copper required creating engineered subterranean environments that facilitated ore extraction and accommodated labor. These underground environments need to be seen as examples of hybrid realms. Within these realms and the surrounding terrestrial ones, raw ore, subsurface aquifers, machines, humans, donkeys, mulberries, silkworms, and other natural and unnatural actors constituted one holistic system. Mines—no matter how deep, carefully engineered, or painstakingly controlled —remain tied to their surface environments through an industrial metabolism fed by subsurface and surface technologies, usually ones with sublime vertical symmetry. That is, they are designed to bore deep into Earth’s surface, transport ores upward to terrestrial processing facilities, Copper Mining and Ecological Collapse 73 and then discharge, through smokestacks, toxins into the atmosphere.3 All this vertical symmetry, engineers thought, could limit horizontal surface pollution. But surface environments, somewhat predictably, proved more difficult to manage than their subsurface, vertical counterparts, even though mining engineers often applied the same simplified logic to their management. Engineers controlled the shafts well enough (unless, of course, miners rioted or rocks tumbled and crushed people), but once toxins left the Ashio site and, moving horizontally, washed downstream, events got out of...


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