Shinkansen, Yokkaichi, and Bureacracy

When I first learned that we would ride the 新幹線 (Shinkansen, or bullet train) during this trip, I became immediately excited. I’ve grown a fondness for traveling long distances by train and to me, the Shinkansen is the apex of travel. As the sleek, white train began to accelerate away from the station, the familiar site of downtown Tokyo megastructures passed by, still at the pace of a normal Shinkansen. Once south of Shinagawa and Shin-Yokohama stations, the high-rises began to sink and sweeping views of the ocean and coastal towns and rice paddies dominated the landscape outside of the train windows.

Our journey on the Shinkansen ended at Nagoya where we transferred to a train to Yokkaichi city. From Yokkaichi, we took a local train to our destination: The International Center for Environmental Technology Transfer (ICETT). Before I go into the proceedings of our day with ICETT, I want to mention the revered 田舎 (inaka). The inaka is a term that evokes a romantic view of the Japanese countryside. It is represented as the ideal setting for life in important cultural drivers such as Miyazaki’s My Neighbor Totoro. On either side of the train tracks between Yokkaichi and The ICETT campus was the inaka. The implications of the importance put on the countryside indicates that farming, especially rice cultivation, is an essential part of Japanese interactions with nature. But I think there is a danger in ascribing too much importance on the inaka since Japan is every increasingly urbanizing, and interactions with the environment become based on creating and sustaining urban life.

At ICETT, we were quietly guided to a seminar room where a staff manager, Mashita-san, gave a presentation about the work done at ICETT and its goals. His assistant, Kanda-san, offered lengthly answers to questions in addition to Mashita-san. The presentation and following Q and A session also provided a general observation of the intersections of business, government, and environmental work in Japan. Mashita-san and Kanda-san were joined by a company representative for whom Mashita-san carefully structured his presentation and responses. So our visit not only demonstrated an example of environmental work in Japan, but also the close ties to industries. Furthermore, leaders from municipal and prefectural government sat on the board for ICETT. I was inspired to learn more about the relationship between various branches of society in this setting almost more than wanting to know about the actual work done at ICETT.

Notes from the library

Tokyo has certainly been keeping me very busy, between visiting sites around Tokyo with our group and spending hours on end researching in the National Diet Library with my advisor for my history project. For the most part over the past few days, I’ve gone to the National Diet Library in the mornings and then met with our group in the evenings for dinner.

I’m finding that research in the Diet Library is at times very rewarding and at other times frustrating. Perhaps the most difficult aspect of the research is working through so much Japanese language material. My goal is to photocopy as much material as I can that might be useful for me, which means that I’m not actually going through and reading everything word for word. Still, it’s very difficult after taking only 3 semesters of Japanese to get a basic sense of the contents of a Japanese book!
Thanks to the tireless assistance and translation of my advisor, I’m getting a good sense of the range of materials available for me to use in my project. My project is one of urban history, so I have photocopied articles and chapters from architecture journals and books. But I’m also finding ways to incorporate more direct interactions with the environment through the sources that I’ve browsed. I’ve found histories of public parks in Sapporo as well as description of engineering on the Toyohira river, which passes through the city — these are spaces where the natural environment is incorporated into the urban system.
I’ve been spared the magnitude of walking that my peers have done, but I’ve missed some of the short trips and lectures attended by my peers. I’m grateful that they are able to convey their main takeaways from these experiences and that they’ve recorded their thoughts in this blog.

Tokyo tour day

Although slowed by fatigue and jet lag, our first day in Tokyo went well. In the morning, we met with Ozaki-san, a friend of Aridome-sensei who gives tours of Tokyo. I gave my first jikoshōkai, or self-introduction, to Ozaki-san. I was pretty nervous beforehand, but once I got into it and finished, I felt relieved and more at ease with the new setting. Jikoshōkai will likely be important for me throughout the summer to introduce myself to my teachers at the language immersion program which I will attend.

We spent the whole morning in and around Tsukiji fish market, but we did not go to the early morning auction. Seeing the space and the vendors at work helped put together a picture to go with the chapter on the market which I discussed in my previous post. The production and consumption of food is part of process with various stages and I think we got a good sense of how the more industrial aspects of seafood production meet the commercial and individual consumption aspects of the food cycle.

Please forgive the brevity of this post, as I’m getting over jet lag and need to rest my mind a bit. Tomorrow I will be working in the National Diet Library by gathering research materials for my project and making photocopies. My advisor and I will break away from the rest of the group, who will start discussions with professionals of fields relevant to each student’s project. I’m looking forward to getting some hard copies of research material that will be invaluable to my project.

Dreaming of seafood on United Airlines flight 881

A 12-hour flight is certainly a unique space. To my left are young school children flopped over and deep in sleep. All around me, in darkness, passengers sleep or absorb themselves in a movie appearing on a tiny screen on the back of the seat in front of them. Pan to me, reading an anthropological piece about the interconnectedness of physical market processes and national culinary trends. Okay, I’m not just reading it for fun. This chapter, “Wholesale Sushi: Culture and Commodity in Tokyo’s Tsukiji Market” by Theodore C. Bestor, was our designated reading to do during the flight. But it was a fun read.

Returning to the anthropological and sociological sides of historical and contemporary events is always enjoyable as I think it is a useful way for me to collect broad, sometimes abstract thoughts about history and bring them to a human scale. By that, I don’t mean that ideas and concepts in history can’t exist on a human scale, just that viewing events and processes through anthropological eyes shows how these things impact people individually, and people as groups.

I’ll get into some specifics now. Bestor’s main ideas depend on analyzing Japanese culinary concepts on two levels: one at the Tsukiji fish market, where wholesalers flock to bid for the best fish they can get, brought in from around the globe; and one in which people’s ideas of what seafood is – where it comes from, how it looks, how it’s produced, etc. – drive market patterns. I particularly liked one example, perhaps because it hits close to home. He mentions sea urchin roe, an important part of Japanese seafood cuisine. Hokkaido and Maine fisheries supply Tsukiji with sea urchin roe, although one can’t always be sure of a particular batch of roe’s origin. This is because sea urchin roe that arrives from Maine in Hokkaido is repackaged, labeled as though it originated from Hokkaido, then sent down to Tokyo for market sale. Bestor attributes this activity to the larger trend that recognizes domestic seafood as having higher quality and thus higher value.

I don’t know if there is an actual difference in the quality between Hokkaido and Maine sea urchin roe, but there is a cultural standard that puts more stock in domestic seafood, thus the incentive to alter the point of origin on the packaging. Seafood acts as a medium of communication and connection between Japan and the rest of the world, but it also serves as a defining (or defined) factor of cultural production. Tomorrow, I will venture to Tsukiji with the rest of the cohort to observe the fish market and hopefully we will put together some concrete impressions to ground the more conceptual ideas from the reading.

Environmental activists and forests


We’ve completed our trip preparation discussions and the day after tomorrow we’ll be on a plane to Tokyo. Although I’m elated to spend nine days in Tokyo and then live in Hokkaido for 2 and a half months following that, I will gladly be soaking in these last hours of time in the US. After spending time abroad this past semester, I’ve grown an appreciation for the settledness that familiar settings bring. At the very least, I’ve definitely benefited from some time at home to reflect and recharge.

My classmates Karen and Michael presented today on a couple of articles related to the government’s and public’s reactions to pollution and disasters that put human health at risk. One article focused on the aftermath of the 3/11 disaster in light of the history of Minamata disease. Minamata disease is methylmercury poisoning. The Chisso Corporation began dumping methylmercury waste in 1932 and the substance bioaccumulated until it reached people, bringing devastating effects. Year after year the corporation denied responsibility and the government did not proactively adhere to victims’ needs. With the history of Minamata disease in mind, it could be a long time until the political and social impacts of the 3/11 disaster are settled.

The other article looked at the special power of mothers in protests following the 3/11 disaster. The disruption of their lives and the danger presented to their children gave them a strong voice to sway the government to act on behalf of the victims in Tohoku. These articles and my peers’ presentations shifted our discussion to the political activity of citizens in environmental issues. I’m glad that we got to hear about these articles because the legal process of enacting change in environmental pollution or some kind of injustice presents an important intersection of how the Japanese political system works, how the state views the environment, and how it views its citizens.


Since we will be visiting the Meiji Shrine, we took some time to watch a video produced by NHK on the “primordial” forest surrounding the shrine. This is actually quite a phenomenal space since the forest is only about 100 years old, although it’s meant to appear ages old. Scientists who specialized in forestry carefully planned the construction of the forest so that the ecological succession would follow a particular course — one in which deciduous trees would eventually take over coniferous ones. Recently, researchers were permitted to do a full study of the ecosystems present in the forest and found that the forest has a very unique environment for the Tokyo area. In some ways, this natural space is engineered. There was careful planning of tree placement, but after that the forest was not tampered with and nature could take its own course. Is this a human space since it was created and planned by humans? Do the unique animals, insects, and fungi just serve the purpose of entertaining us? Probably not, but these are the kinds of questions that come to mind regarding this built forest.