The Nature of the Nation

Today brought us back into the seminar room in the Asian Studies building to further explore ideas about nature, environment, and environmental issues in Japan. I’ve found over the past three days that our little prep discussions are a unique space — we aren’t taking class; rather, we’re playing with themes across various disciplines including biology, ecology, anthropology, sociology, and history and applying these to our own specific interests. I think that this is why our discussions have been so engaging and dynamic.

Today we confronted an important question: “Is there a Japanese Sense of Nature?” D.P. Martinez, a Marine Anthropologist, poses this question as the title to a chapter which was our guiding reading for discussion. The biggest issue with asking this question is assuming that there is an answer. I’ll try to put that in a less snarky way. It’s nearly impossible to look at each historical era, each region, even each person in Japan and say that there are totally unifying beliefs about nature that are unique to Japan. Another issue is that the question presupposes what nature is and that nature itself is clearly defined. Varying ideas of nature within aspects of Japanese culture including Shintoism and Buddhism show that is not quite clearly defined across the board.

To wrap our heads around this question of nature, we thought about kami in Shintoism. Kami, or Gods, could manifest on the earth in materials of the environment such as a rock. The kami in a Shinto shrine, however, is not just a rock. It is wrapped in cloth and tied or has some similar accoutrements. Okay, so the rock — categorized as natural since it comes from the environment — is nature just with some slight modifications. But put yourself in the shoes of the person who assembled this kami. They handled the rock. They wrapped the cloth around the rock. A conclusion that can be drawn here is that the this aspect of nature does not have meaning to people until after it has been handled and given meaning in human social structures. I realize that I have somewhat departed from the question of a Japanese sense of nature but it’s also useful to dig into the materiality of objects and how their interaction with human hands classifies as natural or not.

A geographic center-periphery struggle also appears in Martinez’s work. Fishermen lamented neglectful practices of urbanite beachgoers who left the seashore dirty and did not respect the environment to the standards of the fishermen. But if there is a Japanese sense of nature, wouldn’t the urbanites share the same values of the environment as the fishermen? Clearly this is not the case and so views of nature must differ between different segments of the population of Japan. Although we challenged the notion that this is a geographic divide. It is probable that geography is not the best measure as rural and coastal areas continually urbanize throughout Japan.

In our time today we also looked at the history of Tohoku leading up to 3/11 in an article by Oguma Eiji — a renowned historical sociologist whom we will have the honor of meeting in Tokyo. Although we didn’t mention the term, I felt that Oguma points out an issue of environmental justice, in which the government puts an unequal environmental burden on a specific population. Although there were no immediate environmental threats to Tohoku during the 20th century (that I know of), I think that this is an issue of environmental justice because of the economic disadvantage put on Tohoku which did not allow them to recover in the wake of a natural disaster. More directly, the unnatural disaster of the nuclear meltdown unfairly harmed Tohoku more than anywhere else in Japan even though Tokyo primarily benefited from the energy from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.

As we continue to read and share our thoughts, I am getting excited to experiment and test these ideas in Tokyo. I hope that the experience of directly interacting with places relevant to our projects will inspire clarity or, perhaps more beneficially, allow us to more finely hone our research questions.