A Sense of Nature…?Nah.

The prevalent Japanese stereotype is that of an individual who reveres nature and generally has a greater appreciation of nature. Discussions from D.P. Martinez’s article “Is there a Japanese sense of Nature” led to the conclusion of there is not an innate-but rather an appreciation of nature perfected by human touch (Japanese artwork in which nature is manipulated to represent spirits or other aspects of nature).

Man-made vs Natural disaster:

Oguma Eiji poses an interesting and thought-provoking history of Tohoku and its relationship with Tokyo. Throughout the article there seems to be a theme of disregard of people in Tohoku by the policy-makers and maybe even the population as a whole of Tokyo.  The disaster at Fukushima and the whole of Tohoku was set up by the path in which it was placed my policymakers and directors in Tokyo since Japan’s rapid modernization in the late 20th century. This is not to say that a tsunami would not have happened, but rather the conditions in which Tohoku found itself at the time of the tsunami was that of a rather poor depopulated region. As modernization/industrialization was prioritized the continuous disregard of Tohoku as the periphery and the careless decisions concerning the population continued. Why was Tohoku the designated rice production? Knowing the devastating consequences of removing factories from this villages would  have, why did they do it? Many have asked the question of: Why were the Nuclear plants established in a earthquake proned area? Maybe because of the “open space” and its proximity to Tokyo and the fact that its not Tokyo but Tokyo’s “backyard?”

“Nuclear power and democracy are not compatible” How and why?

Oguma Eiji puts the disaster of March 11 under the light of justice and as an activist he demands answers and envisions a better future. Although mentioned in his article, I’d like to know more about what he thinks the odds are for the reconstruction and restoration of the Tohoku region.


Nan’s brief history and statistics on acid rain an Yokkaichi were examples of how serious pollution problems were during Japan’s rapid industrialization and modernization in the late 20th century. She mentions the power balances between the organizations who have economic power vs. health/wellness/environmental agencies, the economic view point is prioritized.

Particularly interesting from the Ethan’s presentation on the concept of Built Environments was Tokyo’s constant demolition and reconstruction as a new space with retention of the old. Ethan mentioned specific Tokyo neighborhoods that illustrate the idea of Built Spaces, particularly Shinjuku, which were our Airbnb is located. I can’t wait to actually see and experience Tokyo as an international city in which one can feel as if abroad (not in Japan).

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.

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.

5/24 Japanese Sense of Nature

Today we discussed two readings: “Is There a Japanese Sense of Nature” by D. P. Martinez and “The Hidden Face of Disaster” by Oguma Eiji. The first article is a stereotype-breaking journey, while the second is about a region’s struggle in finding its place in Japan’s rapid modernization.

Martinez starts with an assumption that there exists a Japanese sense of nature because the understanding of nature in Japan is tightly connected with Shinto and Buddhism. However, just as other cultures, nature is both worshipped and manipulated/used by human. She discusses an example: kami (the Japanese term for deity), or the forces of nature, is often represented in manmade object and we know a rock is kami “because it has been wrapped in folded white paper hung on twisted straw rope”. This example seemed to me the establishment of human power over nature at first, because it implies the containment of kami. However, in Shinto, it is not human that get to decide what is kami and what is not, but rather that everything is kami, so whenever we encounter the sacred object (maybe chosen by a priest), we know kami stands in there. In Martinez’s argument, it is exactly the lack of explicit knowledge of conquering nature that deludes people that there is a Japanese sense of nature; however, this kami example shows that nature is always expressed as surrounded by human touch, which in other name, may be called manipulation. The sense of nature is so delicately embedded and encapsulated in Shinto and Buddhism that even the Japanese believe the infiltrated stereotype that they have a Japanese sense of nature.

Moreover, not only is the sense of nature not unique in Japan, it is used as a tool by the lower class, in the example of fishery. As considered lower by the urban people, fishermen uses the idea of nature to find meaning of themselves and make up for feeling inferior to people of the higher class. Fishermen disdain urban people as they are not able to take care of the environment and unwilling to venture. Partly characterized by the disdain toward each other, the modern divide of class could be one that is not characterized by income but living environment–“an urban middle and working class and a shrinking rural-based population”. As much as modernization benefit people in rural places, it intensifies the divide between rural and urban.

This reading has been very interesting while complicated, as it is a new way to approach the nature to me–I have never thought about how to understand “the sense of nature”, not to mention a Japanese sense of nature. It has been very inspiring to think about nature in the perspective of religion, sociology and politics.

And then Tohoku is where no respect for nature is shown, as modernization abuses the area and made it extra-vulnerable to disasters, 3/11 as an example. The struggle of Tohoku as “the Tibet of Japan” is the result of modernization, and the Oguma suggested at the end that it requires change in the socio-economic structure of the country in order to deal with the problems Tohoku is facing. The country has enjoyed sweet fruits of modernization; maybe it’s time for Japan and all of us to think about how to deal with the consequences and side effects of modernization.

Beyond Research

While academic research about the environment is the center of the trip, I would like to take an opportunity today to reflect on the more “average” culture differences and preparations regarding the trip. I really appreciate Aridome-sensei and Anna-san for their instruction about Japanese societal expectations and very practical issues. It is very easy and convenient to forget the small things while prepping for a greater project, but we have to constantly take a step back from this big issues to address the more frequently encountered daily life problems.

Back to more philosophical musings…

After taking a class about Orientalism the past semester, I became more aware of inherent bias in any reading I do. Going from that, I find it more difficult to judge the positionality of the author without understanding the specific cultural, social, and geopolitical context they are writing in and from. Additionally, the class taught me to look at power structures through a center-peripheral structure. Many of the problems about urban vs rural or Tokyo (Japan) vs Tohoku seem to stem from the disconnect of the marginalized communities and the decision makers. I do not know how the dialogues can progress to encourage those with power to actually meet the needs and to listen to those affected, but big problems do require creative solutions.

While we can apparently see the connection between governmental policy and environmental conservation, the political forces can even extend to the definitions of nature and how to interact with it. For example, Shinto’s ideas are appropriated to install a specific cultural nationalism for the Japanese as imagined by the government. The reverence of nature is not as simple as the “supernatural” existence of its existing state, but this respect is another manufactured byproduct of humanity. This is also in reaction to Western power dynamics and how those countries interact with their vision of “nature.” The nuances are worth considering, and nature cannot be a “retreat” or “sanctuary” as long as it remains a creation of humanity.