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!

Reimagining Activism

Today marks the last day of prep work! We have certainly come a long way since Monday the 22nd at 9am. To commemorate the last day of the controlled setting, I want to focus on some broader ideas instead of the detailed retelling of the day (which you can read on my wonderful peers’ posts!).

Through today’s discussion of disaster, activism, and rebuilding, I am really curious about the common people’s responses to events that may seem distant temporally and geographically. Obviously, we research and engage with others who care about these issues and want to pursue the topics in more details, but what about the majority of the population? Do people think about the corporate lack of responsibility and persistent denial/cover-up or is Minamata disease merely marked off as a tragedy? How is/who hardship appropriated to indicate moral capacity? How do existing societal values and “rules” affect the willingness of people to respond? The recent social activism stems from very “average” citizens who aren’t used to being vocal and expressive. I am very inclined to want to compare social activists (for different topics) across cultures. Especially reflecting on my class the past semester about popular culture and mass politics in North/West India, the protests in Japan could not be any more different. What do people want from the authority? Are the expectations of the values different and why do they differ?

I also recently wrote an essay about An Artist of the Floating World by Kazuo Ishiguro. The temptation to use memory as a device to reconstruct history and nonlinearity was crucial to the unreliable narrator’s retelling of his past. Memory can be easily manipulated to incite forlorn nostalgia or redeemable mistakes. The constant suppression of painful memories eventually encouraged the readers to pity the unreconcilable world the narrator now exists in. Many of the events we look at, including American occupation, are not ancient history. How much do we remember and what do we choose to remember? Most importantly, who/what gets erased and why? I think to be able to go to Tokyo with some Japanese history background will allow us to better compare and track continuity and changes.

Minamata and Fukushima

Karen started today’s discussion with her presentation of “In light of Minamata” in which it was a sort of compare and contrasts between the “nature” of the two disasters and reactions from the government. While Minamata was clearly labeled a man-made disaster and Fukushima a “natural”-disaster: there was a rather similar response from the government and the companies associated (Chisso and TEPCO respectively)- a denial of responsibility. Furthermore, the question of the disaster being “over” was introduced. Can it really be over, if the mercury in the water as well as the radiation in the soil can only be diluted and not eradicated? It changes our perspective from thinking of a disaster being over to moving forward and learning how to live with them…

“what would it mean for the environment to be healed?

Due to the political structure of Japan and the societal pressure to conform, protest and social activism are seen as unpopular to engage with. Michael talked about the power role of women, especially mothers in activism in Japan. Women and children are seen as the most vulnerable of the population-when they suffer it becomes more tragic, and therefore social protests turn from factual and violent riots to emphatic movements.  Through the feminization of memory, the social movements appeal to societal values-which provokes the masses to voice their concerns and cause a change.

We briefly reviewed the history of some the places we will be visiting in Japan, such as Harajuku, where america transitioned from violence to desire and Meiji Shrine, the “Man-Planned” eternal forest. Throughout the viewing the Meiji Shrine Video, there were audible gasps and comments of awe due to the diversity found in the the “eternal forest.” The forest in the heart of Tokyo that surrounds Meiji Shrine is an interesting political as well as environmental experiment. After carefully planning the forest onto a wasteland, the forest has been left alone to take its own course…

明後日は日本に行きますね! 私はこの旅行に興奮しています。楽しみにしています。興奮みましょう、みんなさん!\(^o^)/

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.

Into the Forest

Today was a bit of a shorter day, but really good discussions nonetheless. It was also a little sparse, since Christmas-sensei, Aridome-sensei, and Anna-san were all  out today. We had presentations and discussions led by Karen and Michael. Karen presented first on a reading she did called “Fukushima in Light of Minamata.” This reading made the case that, although Minamata Bay (and Minamata Disease) is seen as a “man-made disaster” and Fukushuma is traditionally seen as a “natural” disaster (though, see our discussion on Satsuki Takahashi’s “Four-fold Disaster”), there are a lot of similarities between them. Karen also brought up the idea of whether “disasters” such as these can ever really be over. Instead, she suggested, disasters can be thought of as a beginning; that is, what’ll become of things in the wake of these disasters?

Following Karen’s presentation, Michael presented on the role of women in Japan’s environmental movements. I thought he did a really good job of setting up our understanding of activism in Japan in general prior to his discussion of mother’s and women’s activism. There was a lot I didn’t know or had been exposed to, so it was definitely a really interesting discussion today!


We closed the day by watching an NHK documentary on Meiji Shrine, with live “play-by-play” translations courtesy of Michael and Selinger-sensei. I’ll be honest, I was expecting a documentary on the shrine itself, but was pleasantly surprised to find myself watching a documentary on the ecology of the forest surrounding Meiji Shrine. Although supposedly this is an “Eternal Forest,” meant not to be disturbed by humans, apparently it was artificially constructed or planted about 100 years ago. What I find fascinating is that the planners of this forest were able to accurately project how succession might occur in the forest based on planting a certain composition of coniferous, evergreen, and deciduous trees. For the 100th year anniversary, the Meiji Shrine Forest was opened to researchers of various disciplines to document the astonishing biodiversity in the forest. What I’d be really interested to know is, were animal species added at the beginning with the planted trees or did they colonize there on their own?