Not-So-Natural Disasters

And I’m back at Bowdoin! Unfortunately it was the last day of preparation, but that means in about two days we will be on route to 日本!

There was no group reading for today, but I did get to present on my favorite reading so far! It is called Fukushima in Light of Minamata by Timothy S. George.

The consequences of disasters may be the start of something new. This article compared two seemingly different disasters in Japan: Fukushima Daiichi and Minamata. One can label the former as a “natural” disaster and the latter a “manmade” disaster, though if you agree with this author the distinctions between these two labels are not drastic as you may think. First, we look at Minamata and then see what this infers about Fukushima. For background, the Minamata disaster began in 1932, when the chemical company Chisso started dumping methylmercury–

  • Chemistry is one of my passions, so I have to add this tidbit in: the most dangerous form of mercury is methylmercury, or MeHg, because it is easily taken into the body. This is because it mimics an essential amino acid, so basically your body thinks it needs it when in fact it is a poison. In both Inorganic Chemistry and in chemistry lab TA training, you learn about this story of a Dartmouth professor who worked with MeHg. She spilled a couple drops of it on her gloves, and because they were the improper gloves and she did not remove the gloves immediately, the MeHg absorbed into her body. A few months later, she started experiencing symptoms of mercury poisoning. She later died in the hospital, not even a full year after her accident. (From hair testing they found that her mercury levels started increasing at 17 days and did not stop increasing until nearly 40 days after.)

–into Minamata Bay. After all the cases of mercury poisoning, there were four “solutions” afterward:

  1. Minamata disease was officially recognized in 1956
  2. Settlement in Japanese court 1973
  3. One-time payments in 1995/6
  4. Supreme Court decision in 2004

Long story short, these actions did not seem to resolve much (hence the quotations on “solutions”). And what does this infer about Fukushima? Well, a few things, like: officials are untrustworthy, a company matters more over people, effects will be downplayed, and that the disaster response may last a long time. We actually see this general response happen in Fukushima, so Minamata and Fukushima may not be as different as we thought. At the end of the article, George suggests that natural disasters are only disasters because of humans (will edit to explain). And that perhaps we should not be paying attention to when the disaster will “end” but rather what it starts. In the case of Minamata, it was the creation of groups like Environmental Protection, etc.

It appears as though Japanese people have an extreme resistance to protest, so they have to work harder or more creatively to impact the government. Michael presented on Mobilizing Mothers by Nicole Freiner, an article that focuses on environmental activism and how women help facilitate social movements. Although the Japanese government has a low repression, there is a societal pressure to conform, which makes social movements harder to engage with. Citizen activism can get creative, like making a documentary, which was the case for Oguma Eiji (mentioned in a previous post). Because this article focuses on mothers, we wonder: How do identities operate with these social movements?

After these discussions, we watched some videos on post-war Tokyo. In particular, we saw a part of Harajuku’s history. How interesting that it used to be an American military base! What had to be erased/remade for Harajuku to be made how it looks like today?

We also watched a bit of the NHK documentary on the biodiversity in the forrest surrounding Meiji Shrine. This was a time that I was really かなしい that my Japanese language skills are still at the very amateur-level (i.e. there were no English subtitles). But thank you to Selinger-sensei for major translations (and Valeria for whispering meanings of certain words to me)! How fascinating that Meiji was built 100 years ago, with careful planning, on a wasteland. The whole point of it was for humans to start the forrest but then for it to be untouched by humans afterward. The documentary really emphasized how the species observed in the forrest have never been described in Tokyo before. This tied in with the concept of purity we talked on about the first prep day, so we have reached a full circle!

Author: Karen Chan '18

Hello! I just completed my junior year at Bowdoin College as a chemistry major and recently-declared Japanese Language minor. I am from Honolulu, HI so Japanese culture has always been part of my life, but this trip is the opportunity to go beyond my classroom language experience and Japanese-food-eating experience. My interest in this project stems from my science background and my hope to eventually be a pharmacist in a hospital setting. I plan to focus on public awareness of "environmentally-caused" diseases, like Kawasaki Disease.