Book Review: Japan at Nature’s Edge

by tigermanifesto


Environmental history has the potential to be a major player in the transformation of history as a discipline. Current ecological crises, though not necessarily death knells for capitalism as such, certainly cast a shadow of foreboding over our political and social situation. Though the lynchpin of historical materialism should always be class, our history is baseless and useless without addressing the connection between humanity and the rest of nature. We need to reject the merest suggestion that human beings can produce their lives from nothing. Without soil, without water, without air, without the immense base of resources we transform into valuable goods (use values in Marxist talk), we would amount to nothing. All societies, including future socialist ones, are obligated to live as a part of nature, and environmental history is a tradition that responds to that obligation in a limited but necessary way.

So I was glad to read Japan at Nature’s Edge, a book of essays on what the book’s subtitle calls “The Environmental Context of a Global Power.” From the title, one can tell that the book is not just about the birds, bees, flowers, trees, oceans, and seas in Japan but their relationship with the development of modern Japan as a major political power. It’s about human appropriations of nature, the pull of the oceans on Japanese imperialism, the long, slow death of communities wounded by chemical poisoning. It’s about scientists, mountaineers, and fishery workers leaving their traces on our history––and our global environment.

As is the case in most social and culture-savvy histories these days, the contributors approach Japanese environmental history from two angles. One is the factual stuff of history, the gritty reality that defined the lives of people in the past. This mostly concerns people making something physical out of nature, whether it be fish for the table and whales for oil or chemicals for industrial uses. The second angle is to look at nature’s relationship with the human imagination, and concerns the intellectual and ideological products that people created in response to nature. At their best, the essays do the real work of historical materialism in the historical field: narrating not only “what really happened” and the material structures underlying history, but also what people thought of themselves and their own situation and why there might be a distance between those ideas and the reality.

For example, the essay “Fisheries Build Up the Nation” by Micah Muscolino discusses the relationship between Japan and China in the realm of fisheries. Both states, responding to universal pressures to “catch up” with the West in terms of capitalist development, began to expand and refashion not only their fishing equipment but also the way that people related to each other within those industries. It also explores the tension between the two dominant state ideologies that grew up and around these fisheries. In Japan, the dominant ideological factor was imperialist, an expansionist tendency that sought new markets for its fish and opened ever-expanding swathes of ocean to exploitation. For China, meanwhile, the dominant conception of fisheries was that they represented national independence and sovereignty. And while the article tends to have a too-simple vision of nationalism as always and everywhere destructive, ignoring its potentially progressive uses (particularly during the early decades of the People’s Republic), it points out that both were caught up in the capitalist hustle for growth and domination of the environment. It also indicates, but does not explicitly name, the truth that capitalism’s unevenness, which allowed Japan to leap ahead of China in terms of technology and thus serve as a model for nationalists in the latter country, arises from imperialist exploitation.

Another great essay in the compilation is Takehiro Watanabe’s “Talking Sulfur Dioxide,” which fits firmly in the group of articles about intellectual and ideological history, though it’s well-grounded in an account of sulphur pollution and its effects on Japanese communities. The crux of his work, however, is the political (and class) struggle over the definition of pollution and of certain chemicals. Afflicted villagers advanced one definition while companies advanced another while the state acted as the mediator between the two. It shows the kind of callousness of capitalist legal settlements and systems: even when the victims received philanthropic compensation for the company’s negligence, their pain and suffering remained ultimately unquantifiable. Translating the price of human suffering and human life into a payment account on a corporate ledger, the article notes, is similar to the general drive for scientific and rational administration and control that the Meiji embodied. From an early age, the modern Japanese state scooped certain branches of science into its sphere of influence, which has had a profound impact on the way that the Japanese state and, to a different extent, the Japanese people, have related to nature and technology’s role within it. On the other hand, the tenant farmers who lobbied this case were eventually further politicized and unionized, partly as a result of their collective struggle over sulphur pollution compensation. Articles like these show how history can in this way explore social reality more fully through an engagement with nature and its relationship to collective human lives.

Given the date of publication of the book, within the last few years, it’s unsurprising to find an entire section dedicated to that most unstable basis for Japanese society: the Earth itself. The 3/11 “triple disaster” of earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear meltdown takes up the last part of the book, discussing the event as an “envirotechnical disaster.” I enjoyed this part of the book greatly because environmental history often appears as a discipline of long and deep histories that stretch back through geological time. When that kind of lengthy perspective and care for non-human natural detail is applied to current events, the results can be impressive. I would recommend this final part of the book most of all, especially for people who are interested in the limited capacity of capitalist societies, even ones as rational and bureaucratic as modern Japan, to deal with sudden outbreaks of chaos and disaster. These interventions from “outside” the usual realm of human authority––earthquakes, volcanoes, tsunamis––expose the contradictions and divisions inherent in our human social structures. The fact that the Japanese state was bumbling and alienated from the people it was ostensibly helping, and the fact that it continues to press for nuclear power regardless of popular anger, can be incorporated into a case for radical change in this very powerful East Asian country.


Surely the fires in Fort McMurray also represent a sign of our exploitative and unsound society here in Canada.

Though not anticapitalist by tendency and certainly an academic rather than activist book, Japan at Nature’s Edge is a jewel of insight and, usually, clarity on some of the most pressing issues in contemporary Japan. Integrating social, cultural, intellectual, and economic history in an environmental context, it parades of a group of talented scholars before us and leaves us with the question of how to resolve these issues not just in Japan but in our own communities as well. It’s certain, after all, that if a grassroots human response does not materialize, capitalism will adapt to its own advantage, and I’m not sure how much more of that the human race can take.