Encouraging the audience to ask questions and even make interruptions, Walker opened with a brief description of his specialization -- an "ecological," "revisionist" take on history -- and an anecdote about the so-called "Unleavened Bread Conundrum." At an academic dinner held following an attempt to teach a high school class on the similarities between the U.S. occupation of Iraq and Japanese imperialism, one of Walker's dinner mates remarked, "It's that damned unleavened bread!" (1) He went on to note the documented correlation between zinc deficiency and violence in children, as well as the prevalence of unleavened wheat breads in the diets of poor populations in West Asia; the solubility of zinc is much lower in unleavened breads than leavened breads, causing people reliant on unleavened flatbreads in their diets to develop zinc deficiencies. The resulting chain of cause and effect can be seen thus:
Flatbread = mineral-binding phytates = zinc deficiency = [tendency toward] violence
Why would this be relevant to Walker's studies of Japan's environmental history? The "formula" above, while clear and reasonable, obviously cannot stand as the sole reason for violence in West Asia; likewise, it is impossible to truly understand the pollution, disease, and pain wrought by Japan's early modern industrialization and "modernization" by seeking out isolated causes. Walker instead focuses on the concept of "hybrid causations" -- the idea that massive environmental problems are "the aggregate, macro-effect of many independent causal drivers." (2)
Encompassing the lecture was the theme of how deeply "modernization" has been equated with the removal of humans from dependency on nature. Walker first noted Fukuzawa Yukichi's (1835 - 1901) "Laws of Historical Development," which split the evolution of civilization in to three massive periods: the Primitive, the Semi-civilized (under which Fukuzawa grouped the Japan of 1880), and the Civilized. Fukuzawa considered the last of these periods to be the pinnacle of human achievement, the point at which "men subsume the things of the universe within a general structure" and are no longer dependent on the "accidental blessings of nature" for survival. Modernization was thus linked to the "liberation" of humanity from nature, a concept which would be furthered by Maruyama Masao (1914 - 1996), who emphasized industrialization and study of the natural sciences as means of harnessing the environment to human needs. Under this prevailing mindset, such environmentally-dangerous sites as the Osaka of the early twentieth century (1912 - 1925) -- colloquially named the "City of Smoke," producing more ambient pollution than Pittsburgh -- were hailed as "Icons of Modernity." Prior to its meltdowns and equipment failures following the 2011 tsunami and earthquake, the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant was likewise considered to be a reminder of how mankind had come to harness even the atom. (Ironically, a stone monument was erected on a mountain near Fukushima during the Tokugawa period, warning against building at any point beneath it. The warning was either forgotten or ignored as Japan pressed through with its industrialization.)
To this, Walker presented a striking challenge: "Modernity is a hoax; we can never be liberated from nature." Rather than liberate humans from dependence on the "accidental blessings of nature," industrial sites remind us of our deep connection to nature: the byproducts of industrialization enter the "porous" bodies of humans and other organisms, tying them biologically to the physical process of modernization. In studying the historical and cultural backgrounds of Japanese industrialization, Walker notes that pain has become a "physical manifestation of participation in the nation." The bodies of the victims are "relics of [the] national and industrial past:" with the possibility of dating to the year corpses of the Industrial Age by the amount and composition of pollutants in their bodies, Walker rejects the notion that nations are imaginary constructs with no physical bases.
Walker presented Japanese B Encephalitis and cadmium poisoning (also known as itai itai disease) as case studies in both hybrid causation and the connection between physical pain and nationhood. The former of these is a mosquito-borne virus, which became common in the early 1900s, greatly increased immediately prior to 1950, and has persisted to the present day.
The spread of the virus, however, cannot be attributed to mosquitoes alone, but to religious, cultural, and political causes stretching from the Tokugawa shogunate (1600 - 1868) to the immediate postwar period. The prevailing Buddhist view of insects held them to be vessels of the transmigrated souls of the dead, soon to pass on to new bodies in the cycle of reincarnation. As an example, the disastrous Kyoho famine of 1732 was attributed to rice hoppers possessed by the vengeful soul of Saito Sanemori (1111 - 1183), who had died in battle on the fields of Koga; this interpretation was so widespread, even Tokugawa officials initially recommended that farmers protect their fields by erecting scarecrows to frighten off Sanemori's spirit.
In the Meiji period (1868 - 1912), Buddhist practices came to similarly influence government handling of Japanese B encephalitis, then to outright prevent officials from destroying potential mosquito breeding sites: the cisterns of stagnant water kept in Buddhist cemeteries. These cisterns were used to "quench the thirst of souls on their way to the next world;" pouring kerosene on them and setting them on fire to kill mosquitoes would be a deep sacrilege. Meiji officials were forced to leave the cisterns untouched, and encephalitis-bearing mosquitoes continued to use them as breeding grounds.
The mosquitoes were not the only organisms involved in the transmission of encephalitis to humans. From 1926 to 1938, Japan saw a 100% increase in its pig population: pigs served as an excellent form of waste disposal for the country's swelling population, and as such industrial piggeries came to be established close to metropolitan centers. The pigs also served as excellent vectors for Japanese B encephalitis, with the disease undergoing "amplification" every time it passed through a new host. Typically, the virus would become amplified enough to infect a human through the following process: a mosquito bearing the disease would bite and infect a pig, another mosquito would draw blood from the same pig and transfer the disease to a different pig, yet another mosquito would draw blood from the second pig, and then would bite and infect a human. In 1924, Tokyo alone saw over 6,000 cases of encephalitis, with 3,800 deaths from the disease; under the U.S. Occupation from 1945 to 1952, encephalitis infection and death rates saw a sharp spike as pork-loving American officials brought more pigs into the country.
The hybrid causations of Japanese B Encephalitis thus are:
Cadmium poisoning, or itai itai (literally "It hurts, it hurts") disease likewise has many different roots in governmental policy, cultural norms, and the correlation between human biology and its surrounding environment. The disease, which causes kidney damage and severe weakening of the bones, is infamous for the amount of terrible pain it afflicts on its victims: Walker described videos of victims' suffering as "horrifying" to watch.
- The Encephalitis virus and its vectors, mosquitoes;
- The Buddhist attitude toward insects;
- Buddhist cemeteries, drainage ditches, and insect habitats;
- Industrial piggeries;
- Pain as an organic symbol of the crossings between Japanese culture, history, and government.
Walker's description of the hybrid causations behind the pain, however, began with Tokugawa economic policy. Japanese mines -- especially the mines and ore processing plants at Kamioka, near the Jinzu river basin -- produced silver and copper for both government currency and the burgeoning silver trade with China. The Meiji government, however, adopted the gold standard in 1897 due to worldwide fluctuations in the price of silver and a desire to bolster the Japanese economy in the face of greater modernization and industrialization. The worth of silver was sharply reduced.
As the floor suddenly dropped out from underneath the silver market, the Kamioka mine nearly closed down. However, increasing demand for "warfare" metals -- particularly lead and zinc -- caused Kamioka to once again thrive, accounting for nearly 80% of Japan's total lead production in 1909. The ore processing plants used the Potter method of pulverization, through which mined ore was ground up into fine particles (as large as 0.7 mm in 1950, but as small as 0.3 mm in 1909) and mixed in vats of chemicals; the resulting foam, pure lead, was skimmed off the vats, while the remaining toxic materials were left to sink to the bottom of the vats and ultimately be dumped into the surrounding Jinzu river basin. From 1930 to 1945, over 300 tons of cadmium were dumped annually into the river basin; from 1955 to 1973, some 800 tons of cadmium were discarded. The massive amount of cadmium discarded during the years of the Asia-Pacific War can be attributed to the increasing usage of Korean prisoners (roughly 46% of the Kamioka workforce in 1943) and Allied POWs (919 as of 1943) for labor: unskilled slave labor came to replace skilled Japanese workers, resulting in sharp spikes in the amount of zinc and cadmium discarded into the surrounding area.
Oxidation of the finely-ground particles in the Jinzu river basin caused the discarded cadmium to become "bio0-available" to humans: when combined with oxygen, the cadmium could enter human bodies. Ultimately, 90% of cadmium-poisoning victims were women, and 96% of these had lived in the Jinzu river basin for "40 years or more;" 83% worked in agriculture. Yet as Walker noted, it was not only these women's exposure to oxidized cadmium that caused them and their children to develop itai-itai disease, but certain cultural norms. The majority of the victims lived under the government-sponsored ideal of the "Good wife, wise mother," and as such attempted to have as many children as possible to follow state practice and receive rewards -- despite the fact that the Jinzu river basin had historically averaged only one to two childbirths per woman prior to the Meiji period. With 56% of the victims having had six or more pregnancies, the women of the Jinzu river basin were particularly susceptible to the effects of itai-itai disease.
More unexpected was the effect long-standing concepts of beauty had on female cadmium-poisoning victims. White skin, which became even more prevalent during Japan's imperial conquests and the Asia-Pacific War, was considered the height of beauty, and even farm women in the Jinzu river basin kept themselves covered from the sun to preserve their skin. This resulted in vitamin D deprivation, preventing the women from metabolizing calcium and worsening the bone-weakening effects of cadmium poisoning.
Here, then, was a remarkably painful and disturbing example of, in Walker's words, "bodies nationalized and industrialized:" the adoption of a gold standard forced former silver mines to take up the mining of lead and zinc for industrialization and military purposes; the mining and processing of lead for the national war effort led to increasing amounts of cadmium discarded into the Jinzu river, especially as POWs were forced into the mines; agricultural workers (especially women) were exposed to massive amounts of oxidized, bio-available cadmium particles; cultural norms of beauty and motherhood caused women in particular to fall victim to cadmium poisoning. The disease was caused not merely by biological means, but by the very processes of the Japanese government and culture themselves.
Following the lecture, Walker held a question-and-answer session with the audience. Some highlights follow:
- How has the Japanese government and "society" reacted to the victims of industrial diseases?
If such a city as Osaka of the early twentieth century could be considered a symbol of progress, the people who shouted against its negative effects on the environment and human bodies -- typically victims of pollutant-caused illnesses, sometimes independent advocates -- were frequently told to "sacrifice for the nation." After all, the process of modernization was seen as essential to Japan's survival, and modernization was (and still is) understood to be the liberation of human beings from nature through industry. Some victims were discriminated against due to the nature of their illnesses, while still others (e.g., fishermen afflicted with Minamata disease, the result of mercury poisoning) were attacked by thugs connected to accused companies.
- Can the deaths caused by Japan's industrialization be considered "violent?"
Yes. However, the Japanese state orchestrated violent deaths all the time in different contexts (most notably during the Asia-Pacific War), changing them into "noble" deaths for the sake of furthering the nation's goals, protecting the people, and so on. Victims of industrial diseases, however, cannot be thus transformed.
- Has industrialization been reconciled with its negative impact in Japan? Considering that Japan has outsourced parts of its mining and manufacturing industries, how are other countries being affected by the Japanese insistence on maintaining an industrialized, modern lifestyle?
Industrialization is still somewhat removed from its harmful effects, as the mindset that humans can "conquer" or bend nature to their purposes without negative consequences is still prevalent in Japan and abroad (especially within commercial and political spheres). While small and gradual improvements have been made to official Japanese environmental policy, the country has not cut down on such harmful substances as nitro-based fuels, nylon, and plastics; other heavy industries, moved off of the archipelago to such countries as Taiwan and Brazil, have continued to damage their surrounding environments.
- How should we -- journalists, scholars, members of the public -- manage the conversation about environmental problems?
All too often, students of environmental studies (and members of the public in general) fall prey to the feeling that "nothing can be done," that continued modernization, industrialization, and the pollution they entail are inevitable. This is not true -- something can be done! As an example, biotechnology and environmental policy can and must be pursued in terms of how they can benefit nature, rather than merely humans.
- Are the themes of Toxic Archipelago unique to Japan, or are they actually part of a universal study?
Walker stated that he did not want to exceptionalize Japan, but rather use it as an "extreme case study" for the issues surrounding industrialization and human relations with nature throughout the developed and developing world. In its relatively late and rapid drive to modernize, Japan "skipped some steps" during its industrialization process, resulting in more exaggerated environmental disasters.
(1) The class met with only moderate success, as the high school students had difficulty finding Japan on a map.
(2) Walker, Brett. Toxic Archipelago: A History of Industrial Disease in Japan, p. 16.