The illness that you carry with you

When you feel unwell, what do you think is happening inside your body? Do you think something is happening to your body? To what extent do you attribute your environmental conditions to your illness? These are the kinds of questions raised when considering 漢方 (kanpō), traditional Japanese medicine with Chinese origins. Today we looked at illness and medical treatment in Japan. There are distinct medical practices and interactions pertaining to illness that distinguish Japan from other societies. For one, a common ailment is 持病 (jibyō) which could translate to something like “the illness I hold” and is a chronic illness that affects Japanese people throughout their lives. So then how does one cure themselves of jibyō? That’s a bit of a trick question. A main discussion point that we tossed around today dealt with the idea of “curing” versus “healing.” In fact, it can be said that in kanpō, a physician does not intend to cure a patient of their illness, say their jibyō; rather, a physician intends to correct in imbalance in the body. This is where kanpō departs from Western medicine. Western medicine doesn’t really see imbalances in the body; instead, it looks for a pathogen, a biochemical substance that is foreign to the body, and decides the best way to eliminate that pathogen. Western medicine attempts to “cure” a patient by eliminating the pathogen and kanpō attempts to heal them by correcting an imbalance.


I’m going to start writing some parts of these posts in Japanese. This bit is about etiquette when entering a Japanese home. One must be extremely polite and humble, using set phrases to express gratitude to the host. A guest always brings a gift, usually food, as a display of appreciation to the host. It is essential that a guest properly enters the home from the 玄関 (genkan), or entryway where the shoes are taken off. Although I’m anxious about getting something wrong in these settings, I feel motivated to try it out with the tools that I have learned today.

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.

Fishing for answers, reeling in questions

Continuing discussion today in a similar fashion as yesterday, the group welcomed guests Professor Amy Johnson and Olaf Ellers to introduce the topic of fisheries, an important topic for discussing limits to resources and the problems brought to ecosystems by extraction by humans. Before I delve into our discussion on fisheries, I won’t neglect to mention our first keigo lesson which we had today. Keigo is a way of speaking in Japanese during formal introductions and settings. Certain parts of speech may be altered and one must use a different vocabulary. Today’s topic was jikoshōkai or self-introduction. I will be using these often in Tokyo as we meet people who will give us tours, lectures, and invite us into their homes — stay tuned to hear about how these introductions proceed and my takeaways from using keigo! 

Back to fisheries. Fisheries are incredibly relevant to Japan, where fish contributes to people’s diet and is also a distinguishing factor in Japanese culture. To inform our discussion, we read two articles by Satsuki Takahashi: “Endless Modernization: Fisheries Policy and Development in Postwar Japan” looks at the history of Japanese fisheries since the end of World War Two and “Fourfold Disaster: Renovation and Restoration in Post-Tsunami Coastal Japan” places the residents and fishermen of affected areas of the 3/11 disaster at the center of this study and highlights their fears and hopes for the fishery. In order to unpack Takahashi’s arguments and provide context to her work, Professor Johnson provided a presentation on fisheries models and trends in regulation. We explored the Maximum Sustainable Yield (MSY) model, which is the predominant model used to set quotas in fisheries across the globe. Another important concept is Garrett Harding’s “Tragedy of the Commons,” which is the idea that if all of the users of a common pool resource act in self-interest, the resource will eventually be exhausted. Professor Johnson was able to give great detail on how these ideas apply close to home in the Maine fishery. However, no one in our discussion had enough information about the Japan fishery to really figure out how fisheries models apply to the Japanese fishery. Despite this, after today’s discussion we now have the intellectual tools to observe Tsukiji Fish Market with a critical eye and probe Professor Takahashi in person with questions about the Japanese fishery.

Reconciling the humanities and the sciences

Today marks the start of a major step in my Bowdoin education: this summer I will live and study in Japan. I am excited and grateful to start my studies in Japan with my classmates in the Japanese program as we explore our research projects on Japan and the environment.

In discussion today, we looked at two foundational articles in environmental history with the goal of getting everyone on equal footing with environmental history terminology and methodology as well as allowing each of us to see how the academic discipline of our individual projects is informed by environmental history, or vice versa. My research topic — the development of Sapporo as a urban space in colonial Hokkaido — is deeply rooted in the discipline of history so it was useful for me to step outside my history bubble, so to speak, and hear what my peers had to say about how reading an historian’s point of view can inform research in the natural sciences. In “History and Biology in the Anthropocene: Problems of Scale, Problems of Value,” historian Julia Adeney Thomas encourages scientists to value the work of historians in order to give social, cultural, and political context and relevance to the findings of scientists. I think that this idea will be a critical point of discussion for us as we not only pursue our individual projects, but also as we attempt to use each other’s work to inform our own projects, whether they are rooted in the sciences or humanities.

Today’s reading also lead us to discussing how humans categorize and interact with nature. Richard White’s “The Problem with Purity” puts nature on a spectrum and somewhere along that spectrum lies purity, where humans fence of nature and conceive it as orderly. Somewhere else on this spectrum is hybridity, where human and natural factors are inextricably mixed to the point that one cannot distinguish between the human and the natural. This idea sets the ground for me to look towards my own project and explore how this spectrum acts in an urban, colonial setting — was Hokkaido a hybrid landscape before the colonial incursion of the young Meiji state? Did Sapporo as an urban space push out nature? I look forward to further discussions this week as we delve into reading about the various environmental issues in Japan, while keeping today’s foundational discussion in mind.