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!

Illness From a Japanese Perspective

Most of my day was spent helping my sister pack to move out of her apartment, so again I hope that my thoughts are somewhat coherent. Anyway, onto to the good stuff! Or, I guess, not-so good stuff, as this post is about illness and medicine.

The readings I will focus on are the following:

  1. Illness and Culture, Ch. 3: My very own illness: Illness in a dualistic world view by Emiko Ohnuki Tierney
  2. Illness and Culture Ch. 5 Kanpō: Traditional Japanese medicine of Chinese origin by Emiko Ohnuki Tierney

There are multiple distinctions in Japanese about different states of health or “constitutions” of one’s body. Something that I first noticed about this reading was the use of the phrase “cultural germs.” What a fascinating concept! And it makes a lot of sense. What makes something a germ is not definitive, and even the word itself implies that germs are inherently bad, which may not be the case in some cultures. For example, this author recounted an incident in which a Japanese male with high social standing was not afraid to reveal he was sick. Sickness, the author argued, was something more to be proud of than to hide in Japan. I wonder how this ties back to the concept of purity we talked about in the beginning of this week. Is there a Japanese state of being pure? What’s the distinction between physical and mental purity? How does sickness fit in? Is illness more of a way to getting to “purity” (since it is viewed as having sensitivity to your surroundings)? The author does point out the difference between an acute illness and a more chronic, life-threatening illness. The former is called jibyō, and an example is like dizziness or cramps. But there are also “constitutions” that the author defines (though the author does not define what a “constitution” is, which is why I use quotations. My guess would be the state of the body, but I am not too sure). These range from from healthy to ordinary to weak, and some symptoms of being weak include being a light sleeper or sensitive to the cold. What is the significance of these distinctions?

Kanpō reminds me of palliative care. I’m not an expert in either subject, but

Japanese Nature Then and Now

I’m pretty exhausted after spending 6 hours listening to commencement speeches and hearing names belonging to mostly strangers being called, but hopefully my thoughts on today’s readings are coherent. Thanks to Gerlin for sending over some notes from the discussion today!

These were the articles we focused on:

  1. Is There a Japanese Sense of Nature?  by D.P. Martinez
  2. The Hidden Face of Disaster: 3.11, the Historical Structure and Future of Japan’s Northeast by Oguma Eiji

Japan is viewed as nature-revering. But how do the Japanese view nature? I doubt that this question can ever really be answered, but Martinez attempts to by noting how nature instills cultural nationalism, which is powerful because it brings people together. What I found interesting was at the end of the first article, the author brings up a hypocrisy of Japanese actions. For example, Martinez mentions the huge recycling effort in Japan happening simultaneously with Japanese companies supporting deforestation in Indonesia. Martinez resolves that by saying Japanese people still have a special relationship with nature even when it’s not in its “purest” form. Generalizing Japan/how Japanese people view something makes me feel uneasy, but I think it’s important especially in preparation for this trip to think about the Japanese sense of nature.

Nuclear power generation is concentrated in grain-producing regions, like Tohoku. The second reading gave a more historical account of Tohoku. He pointed out a dichotomy between the rural and urban sense of nature, with the former being more relevant to Tohoku. -Another super cool thing is that we have been invited into this author’s home!!! Here are some questions to consider: What does it mean to the people of this area to be part of the “rice basket”? How do they move forward from disasters?

It’s been very interesting to read these types of texts. I haven’t taken a humanities class in a while, and I’m definitely more comfortable with reading scientific literature. So I’m glad that we’re given the opportunity to discuss and think critically about this material. Doing these readings helps me realize that while science is important, it needs more to make a difference. What I mean is that science doesn’t exist without social, cultural, and political contexts, and I’m super glad that I have the opportunity to engage more in these contexts.

Fisheries and the Distrust of Science

Our second day of preparation for our trip began with an hour of Japanese. 私は一年生ので、むずかしかったです。We went over honorific structure and introductions… hopefully we will be able to practice it more!

Afterward, biology professors Amy Johnson and Olaf Ellers came to lead the discussion on the following readings:

  1. Endless Modernization by Satsuki Takahashi
  2. Four-fold Disaster by Satsuki Takahashi

Biology is almost entirely absent in discussion on fisheries. To begin, Professor Selinger asked what disciplines we thought these papers belonged to. I would have never thought to ask a question like that, but it is such a relevant question considering the focus of our trip is to view subjects through an interdisciplinary lens. We decided that the first article seemed like it was written by a (social) historian while the second article seemed to be written by an anthropologist. Biology was never mentioned because whenever fisheries were talked about, there were only nonspecific descriptions–there was no mention of what species, where they came from, etc. I actually didn’t notice this upon reading (shame on me), but I’m glad it was pointed out. I would just assume that scientists would be involved in fishery management, but this is actually not the case! However, we did have two biology professors in the room, so we dove right into population growth curves and what the maximum sustainable yield model is. One of the problems with this model is that it does not account for environmental variation. Basically, it works until it doesn’t.

Professor Johnson showed us a graph depicting the fishery boom, which happened shortly after World War II. What was really surprising (but actually not that surprising when you think about it) was that this pattern–basically, stability then boom then collapse then stability then collapse–happened in pretty much every country. It is not unique to Japan (yay we’re all greedy and ignorant). Another interesting tidbit: when we fish, we tend to take the biggest ones available. This adds a selective pressure, allowing the smallest and/or slowest-growing fish to survive and reproduce. Eventually the fish become all small, which is not desirable for humans. How do we prevent this? The easiest solution would be to either stop fishing or select for small fish, but I doubt anyone would ever do that…. This is probably why we farm fish and genetically modify them to grow bigger and at a faster rate. There is also the Roughgarden model, which basically allows for an optimal population size despite the unknown variables (such as how many fish there are in the population and what their reproduction rate is). Sounds perfect! Except that no one cares for some reason (maybe it’s not as profitable?). Again, there is a problem in the fishery industry in that scientists are only begrudgingly involved, if there’s any involvement.

Hope is a thing with scales. (With all the talk about hope, I couldn’t help myself.) From the second reading, we learn that fishermen described the disaster on March 11, 2011 as four-fold: there was the earthquake (natural), tsunami (natural), radiation contamination (manmade), and deadly rumor (manmade). The words in the parenthesis reference what kind of disasters they were. Something interesting from the reading is that Professor Takahashi makes a distinction between the social repercussions of each type of disaster. Natural disasters bring people together whereas manmade disasters don’t since people don’t want to rebuild in contaminated areas. But there’s hope to be had! Some interesting questions that came up from this reading include: what is hope vs delusion? Is hope having alternative fisheries to sustain you? What about a fishery available for many generations? Or is hope just doing something to pay our bills? (Like fishing out whatever you can to sell then fishing for the next.) And what happens when we use tourism to help out fisheries (like opening a seafood restaurant or farmer’s market)? It seems likely that the fishery will cease to exist.

Questions to ask Professor Takahashi:

  • Does she make a distinction between maximum sustainable yield model and the maximum economical yield model?
  • What extent have these models been modified?
  • How do disasters affect the models?
  • What fisheries models are commonly used?
  • Is there awareness of the Roughgarden model?
  • How much of an impact is the Tragedy of the Commons?
  • How much are scientists involved in policies regrading fisheries?
  • Is there a fear of regulation among Japanese fishermen? (Since there is such a fear among Maine fishermen.)
  • How do fishermen manage to keep the fish so fresh? How local is the fish? How do they access the fish/choose which fish to catch?
  • How much trust is there in the fishermen regarding radiation? (Should we trust where they say the fish come from?

It was another intellectually-engaging day in the Asian Studies conference room! The significant takeaway from this session is that we were able to discuss these readings from a biological perspective. We also were able to prepare some questions for when we meet Professor Takahashi in Japan. Big thank you to Professor Johnson and Professor Ellers for meeting with us, and of course thank you to our senseis for organizing everything.

P.S. Unfortunately, I will be missing the next two meetings (currently writing this post in a hotel room in Baltimore) because I have to watch my sister graduate. But fear not, I will still be doing the readings and updating the blog while I’m away.

P.P.S. The past two discussions had a common theme of distrusting science. It’s interesting to note that Japan has a general trust of science whereas the US does not. So, I want to put in a shameless plug for an outreach project in science communication that Bowdoin students (including myself) have put together: click here.


“Nature” We kicked off discussion today by examining a plastic Godzilla toy. We were asked, are we looking at nature? Some of us argued that it is nature because the creature arose from nature. Matter is neither created nor destroyed, so it has to be from nature regardless of whether we are talking about the toy or Godzilla itself. Conversely, others in the group argued that it was not nature because humans interfered. Humans are the ones synthesizing plastics from oil and splitting atoms, and is that part of nature?

After this fascinating introduction, Professor Matthew Klingle in the environmental studies department led our group discussion on the following readings:

  1. The Problem with Purity by Richard White
  2. History and Biology in the Anthropocene: Problems of Scale, Problems of Value by Julia Adeney Thomas

Objective categories are pretty much impossible. White argued that adhesion to purity is a problem. But why? When we start to define what is “pure” and what is not, we forget the social context that these definitions carry. For example, we talked about the problematic view that gender is biologically determined. The societal norm is that the XX chromosome combination will result in a male and XY chromosome combination will result in a female, and those who do not fall into either of those categories are “unnatural.” But if it is genetically possible, i.e. through nature, for people not to fall into those categories, is that really against nature? This reminded me of Caster Semenya, the South African runner who was put under scrutiny over her gender. And also Dutee Chand (click here for more information–the person who wrote that gave a talk in a class I took two years ago), the teenage Indian runner who was banned from competition for having too much testosterone. It is not like she was taking steroids; that is what her body produces. There was just some policy put in place to define what it means to be a woman (under the notion that having more testosterone means better athletic performance, which is actually not that well-correlated.*) The people who make these policies use biology to sound objective but really it is laced with social implications.

Think about scale and value. Using Thomas’s paper, we focused on agency, structure, and power.

  • Agency: acting on our own behalf
  • Structure: ideology, norms, etc that are in place
  • Power: the extent an individual can exercise agency or put structure in place (prevent or do something)

Does nature have agency? Is it historically significant?

It was especially interesting to see the connection between biology and history. Science always exists in political and cultural contexts, though scientists sometimes fail to see that. Actually, it probably would not be too much of an assumption to say that all disciplines fall into the trap of ignoring the influences they do not focus on.

All in all, this was a great first day! These readings tie in nicely to each of our projects, and they made me think critically about definitions and categories while also highlighting the importance of interdisciplinary work.

*Karkazis K, Jordan-Young R, Davis G and Camporesi S (2012) Out of Bounds? A Critique of the New Policies on Hyperandrogenism in Elite Female Athletes. The American Journal of Bioethics 12(7):3-16