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…

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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.”

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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?