Natural Places, Hidden Faces, Built Spaces, and Acidic Hazes

I think it really speaks to the interdisciplinary nature (contested word choice intentional) that echoes of our previous discussions return in subsequent ones. Case in point: today’s discussion–on topics ranging from a Japanese sense of nature, to the history and path-dependence behind Touhoku, to Tokyo’s “built environment,” to acid rain–returned us to ideas of nature, Buddhism, and fisheries from the past two days. And if you’ll allow me, dear reader, a moment of mid-afternoon meta thinking on this project before I launch into today’s discussion, I think that any relevant environmentally-related question or concern or solution is going to be and must be interdisciplinary by (and here’s that word again) nature. To delve into such complex issues with anything less than an interdisciplinary, open-minded approach is to risk oversimplification.

I’ll have to ask you to also excuse my rather wordy, rambling style of writing these past few days and especially today. I tend to be wordy as a default, but I’ve been battling a sore throat these last several days and last night I didn’t sleep too well. I tend to get more rambling when I’m exhausted…


Our very own Professors Selinger and Christmas of this trip led the discussions today on “Is there a Japanese Sense of Nature?” by D. P. Martinez (apparently an anthropologist turned film scholar) and “The Hidden Face of Disaster” by Eiji Oguma. Our discussion on the Japanese sense of nature led us on a wonderfully wide-ranging exploration of topics such as Buddhism and Shinto, and how they’ve played into this stereotype of a Japanese reverence or “sense” of nature. That is, that there is a certain “privileged” and “unique” Japanese relationship or understanding of nature derived from these two religions. Here, we saw echoes of Gerlin’s presentation on Buddhism, especially as Buddhist ideology would suggest transcending the natural, transcending dualities, and that there is no privileged relationship with nature. Shinto, meanwhile, is also a major source of these “Japanese sense of nature” stereotypes, owing to the kami that inhabit manufactured and natural objects (a tree, for instance, around which someone has tied a braided paper cord). And yes, it certainly caught my attention when Miyazaki was mentioned; nature seems to abound in his films, filled with magical creatures and a certain awe or nostalgia for the rural and natural. It brought me back to my first year seminar on Japanese Animation (speaking of nostalgia…).

I think “The Hidden Face of Disaster” was much more a historical account than I was expecting. I found out today that Eiji Oguma is or describes himself as a “historical sociologist,” so I suppose that makes sense. It was definitely informative, learning the seemingly path-dependent history of Touhoku as it transitioned from “pristine, untouched wilderness” to rice fields or rice basin to industrial modernization to nuclear proliferation–the latter three evidently at the hands of the Tokyo urban center. It made me wonder to what extent a parallel can be drawn between Touhoku/Tokyo and the American colonies/Great Britain. Put simply, Touhoku and its people were subject to the whims of people in Tokyo (who may or may not know or care what went on in Touhoku). Even as the nuclear disaster unfolded, Touhoku was deadlocked. Yet again, echoes of the (very recent) past returned to our discussion; we asked among ourselves, “Was the Touhoku earthquake and nuclear reactor meltdown a natural disaster according to Oguma?”, much as we did with Satsuki Takahashi’s “Four-fold Disaster” reading. Oguma arrived at a similar conclusion: that the earthquake and tsunami were by all accounts “natural,” while the nuclear reactor meltdown, radiation fears, and Touhoku’s path-dependent history leading up to it were “manmade.”


We closed the day with presentations by Ethan and Nan on Tokyo’s “built-environments” (i.e. places and things made by people; infrastructure, roads, etc.) and acid rain in Japan, respectively, followed by packing and safety tips courtesy of Aridome-sensei and his wife, Anna-san. This is starting to get real long (it was quite a long day), so I’ll try to wrap up shortly. Overall, I thought today’s discussions were really quite fascinating in the way the intermixed and meshed with each other and previous discussions. As a (marine) biologist at heart, anthropological and historical discussions on “the Japanese sense of nature” and the history behind Touhoku were relatively new ground to me. I also thought that it was especially interesting that Shinjuku is one of the “built-environments” of Tokyo, noted in “Tokyo’s Third Rebuilding” as a built environment that takes you out of the city. We’ll be staying in Shinjuku, near Waseda University, so this was particularly relevant for us, geographically; it’ll be interesting to see firsthand what that author was describing.

I’ll close out, I suppose, with a question posed to you, the reader, to consider as you follow our journey: What kinds of built-environments do you find yourself in and on what temporal and spatial scales? What meanings do they and how you interact with them hold for you?

Dive Right In


Hajimemashite. Julian Garrison to moushimasu. Connecticut no Westport to iu


machi kara mairimashita. Nihon no anime wo mite,nihongo ga kirei de omoshiroi kotoba dato omoita


koto ga kikkakede, nihongo no benkyou wo hajimemashita.


Welcome to 自己紹介(Jikoshoukai), or self-introduction. Japanese has a variety of different structures and forms for different social situations, and this is one we’ll be using a lot. Here, I used “Keigo,” which encompasses both honorific and humble forms, and specifically I used the humble forms in introducing myself, where I’m from, and why I’m interested in Japanese. We learned Keigo this past year in second year Japanese at Bowdoin; meanwhile, Ethan (who was abroad) and Karen (who’s in first-year Japanese) are basically getting a crash course in Keigo today and these next few days. がんばる!Good luck!


Our readings for today, “Four-fold Disaster” and “Endless Modernization: Fisheries Policy and Development in Postwar Japan,” were both authored by Satsuki Takahashi, who we’ll actually be meeting while we’re in Japan. As for lecture, Professors Amy Johnson and Olaf Ellers (in my mind, the dynamic duo of marine biology) talked to us about fisheries and population growth models, using the readings as a springboard and Maine’s cod fishery as a key example. Put simply, fisheries around the world, regardless of species, have followed the same pattern: a period of high harvest rates, followed by decline as regulators and scientists alike try to figure out sustainable quotas, then a crash and collapse of the entire fishery. Rinse and repeat. You’d think we’d learn by now? Today’s discussion also had echoes of our discussion yesterday about how historians engage with the sciences; in this case, how do fisheries regulators and fishermen engage with scientists in determining acceptable catch limits. Turns out, scientists are often distrusted when it comes to things like fisheries; it doesn’t help that some models, such as the Maximum Sustainable Yield model, usually don’t work (since they fail to account for environmental variability). People simply, and understandably, don’t like being told where, when, what, and how to fish, especially when historically these fisheries may have operated just fine without regulator or scientist intervention. But technology advances and with it our ability to catch vast quantities of fish.

I didn’t quite get the chance to bring it up today, but community-based fisheries management, mentioned in “Endless Modernization”  and a concept that came up a lot in several of my classes last semester, is also another possible strategy. It gets the fishermen on the ground involved with the research or monitoring and regulation of their own fisheries, alongside rather than at odds with scientists and regulators. If I recall correctly, Maine’s lobster fishery practices community-based management to quite a degree of success. I think it’s also interesting how this distrust of science could play into or inform my own project on aquariums and how they serve the dual purpose of engaging in conservation efforts as well as educating the public of the value of marine life and the oceans.

Edit (5/24/17): Almost forgot to include the questions for Satsuki Takahashi I came up with while reading the two readings, and also some that we came up with as a group:

  • How do consumers and fishermen alike balance the cultural/social/economic value of fish with the sigma or fear of radiation-contaminated fish?
  • What substitutes are available, or is it a matter of simply shifting to a different region for purchase/import?
  • How does contamination (or fear of it) indirectly affect consumers (public and commercial) of fish? Economically? Mentally? Socially?
  • Are there any regional specialties (of seafood) in radiation-contaminated regions and, if so, what are perceptions (consumer, fisher, commercial) of those? Are they valued enough as regional specialties to warrant the (perceived) risk?
  • How do biology and ecology fit into this radiation-contamination story? That is, what biological and ecological forces are also at work?
  • To what extent is there (fishermen) fear or wariness of regulation in Japan?
  • What fisheries models are being used in Japan and how does radiation alter these models?
  • If applicable, how do scientists or policymakers in Japan incentivize adoption of these models by fishermen? Is it enough to overcome any distrust?


As an aside, and before I forget, I was also interviewed by Tom Porter from Communications about my project. Apparently, Communications wants to do a piece on our trip before and during/after we leave for Japan. Pretty exciting! Hopefully I spoke loud enough…

Prepared with only the purest that nature can offer?

A plastic Godzilla glares at us from across the table, arms raised in defiance, painted teeth bared. Professor Matt Klingle, a History and Environmental Studies “double major” at Bowdoin College, sits behind the scale toy replica of the famous monster, arms crossed, teeth equally bared in a expectant, knowing grin.

“Is Godzilla natural?” Professor Klingle asks again. We all consider the question and the deeper implications of the question. What is natural? What is nature? Is nature pure?


After a brief crash course in environmental history, these were the core questions that drove our kickoff discussion, alongside two articles: “History and Biology in the Anthropocene: Problems of Scale, Problems of Value” by Julia Adeney Thomas and “The Problem with Purity” by Richard White. Nature is a part of all human societies, but the ways in which we perceive nature vary greatly. Nature has long been thought of as this “pure” entity, something separate from humans, something to be kept pristine and categorically different with discrete boundaries. Now, though, those lines are less clear. As White argues, “purity” is difficult, especially when it comes to culture versus nature, because they are “mingled, confused, and increasingly impossible to separate.” Thomas echoes these sentiments, pointing to the different scales at which biologists operate and how those complicate the supposed “purity” of nature; that is, if humans are composed of an incredibly diverse microbiome (i.e. microbiologists’ scale) that is constantly perfused and penetrated by various chemicals, benign and toxic (i.e. biochemists’ scale), how can we call humans and nature separate at all?

Are we getting hung up on all these abstract definitions of “nature” and “purity” and “scale” and “value”? I don’t think so. These questions inform other questions about environmental issues, how we define the Anthropocene (i.e. humans becoming a major driving planetary force on numerous scales, a position formerly reserved only for geologic processes), and even issues of race and gender.  Here, purity plays a big role; reducing race and gender to biology as a justification is no more than confusing the categories of “culture” and “nature.” And, all of these definitions and culturally-loaded interpretations of these terms we discussed in English. Now try translating that to Japanese or any other language.


I’m excited for all the other discussions we’ll be having on a variety of environmental topics and Japan. I’m especially interested in seeing how everyone’s individual projects fit into the larger picture and also the details of what we each discover in this journey. Today’s discussion definitely set a strong framework to work with and have in our minds, moving forward. So to you, dear readers, I pose the same question Professor Klingle and Richard White and Julia Adeney Thomas posed to us:

What is nature?