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?

Reconciling the humanities and the sciences

Today marks the start of a major step in my Bowdoin education: this summer I will live and study in Japan. I am excited and grateful to start my studies in Japan with my classmates in the Japanese program as we explore our research projects on Japan and the environment.

In discussion today, we looked at two foundational articles in environmental history with the goal of getting everyone on equal footing with environmental history terminology and methodology as well as allowing each of us to see how the academic discipline of our individual projects is informed by environmental history, or vice versa. My research topic — the development of Sapporo as a urban space in colonial Hokkaido — is deeply rooted in the discipline of history so it was useful for me to step outside my history bubble, so to speak, and hear what my peers had to say about how reading an historian’s point of view can inform research in the natural sciences. In “History and Biology in the Anthropocene: Problems of Scale, Problems of Value,” historian Julia Adeney Thomas encourages scientists to value the work of historians in order to give social, cultural, and political context and relevance to the findings of scientists. I think that this idea will be a critical point of discussion for us as we not only pursue our individual projects, but also as we attempt to use each other’s work to inform our own projects, whether they are rooted in the sciences or humanities.

Today’s reading also lead us to discussing how humans categorize and interact with nature. Richard White’s “The Problem with Purity” puts nature on a spectrum and somewhere along that spectrum lies purity, where humans fence of nature and conceive it as orderly. Somewhere else on this spectrum is hybridity, where human and natural factors are inextricably mixed to the point that one cannot distinguish between the human and the natural. This idea sets the ground for me to look towards my own project and explore how this spectrum acts in an urban, colonial setting — was Hokkaido a hybrid landscape before the colonial incursion of the young Meiji state? Did Sapporo as an urban space push out nature? I look forward to further discussions this week as we delve into reading about the various environmental issues in Japan, while keeping today’s foundational discussion in mind.

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?

“Nature is Good to Think With”

While today’s readings:
– The Problem with Purity by Richard White
-History and Biology in the Anthropocene by Julia A. Thomas
were curled up in a tight knot of ideas the night before, this morning they unraveled as the discussion took place.
Professor Matt Klingle led the discussion by presenting us with an action figure of Godzilla, and prompted the question: “Is this Nature?”
There isn’t a right or wrong answer because it all depends on which approach you decide to take. While Godzilla’s value or representing is that of an angered force of nature-we could argue its natural. But since its an action figure, an item one would not typically find naturally in nature-we can argue its not. But since the materials from which it is made are technically supplied by the earth-its natural. Which brings us to the problem of PURITY-There is no such thing; there is always going to be an exception. Nature and culture are deeply entangled and it is almost impossible to separate. The concept of nature or the natural is usually invoked in order to try to eliminate a bias or to eliminate responsibility  by stating “it is natural, and it JUST is.” Meaning, we tend to see nature as separate from us, humans. The discussion encouraged us to think not as nature vs humans, but as a hybrid world in which we influence each other through our agency, structure, and power.

Furthermore, we discussed the richness of an interdisciplinary approach between the Humanities and Sciences. As an Asian Studies major and pre-med student, this reading and discussion were encouraging to not only my project surrounding illness in Japanese culture, but to the rest of my Bowdoin Career. Overall, Today’s discussion was extremely engaging and thought provoking–Professor Klingle asked questions that seriously got our mind-wheels spinning and the chosen readings encouraged us to be open and critical about our findings and the pathways that lead to them.