Waste, Peripheries, and Modern Japan: A Report on the Luce Environmental Study Tour

Waste, Peripheries, and Modern Japan: A Report on the Luce Environmental Study Tour

Written by Mika Endo

Our ten-day Environmental Study Tour was spent in three main geographic regions of Japan: the urban hub in and around Tokyo, the Tohoku region in the northeast (most directly affected by the 2011 tsunami and nuclear accident), and the islands of the Seto Inland Sea. The last leg of our trip to the Seto Inland Sea (Jp: Setonaikai) felt considerably different from our first leg in the sleek, sprawling metropolis of Tokyo and the sobering second leg to the still-recovering areas devastated by the tsunami. This lush, bountiful area with its tranquil waters was once one of Japan’s most important water-hubs, connecting the main island (Honshu) with the islands of Shikoku and Kyushu. Though the advent of trains and ground transportation have unseated the importance of this once crucial waterway, the Sea has long been recognized as one of the most beautiful areas in the nation, and was the first site to be designated a national park in 1934. Our visit there became an occasion for me to think more about the relationship between centers and peripheries in modern societies and the way this relationship plays out in the case of waste material.


Fig. 1 – a lush, green section of Teshima Island (in the Seto Inland Sea)


The Benesse Art Site

Our initial plans for visiting the area was to see the ways that the Bennesse Art Site had transformed this rural, depopulated region into a location for the linking together of the fine arts with local environment. Fukutake Soichiro, founder and director of the Bennesse Corporation, had proposed to world-renowned artists to turn the area into a “utopia” for art. The case of Naoshima was intriguing for us as a model for how the rapid depopulation and aging of a rural area, a topic of increasing urgency and visibility in the national conversation, was being addressed at the local and private level.


Our visit to the area was planned with the crucial help of local experts who were involved with the Bennesse Project but who also helped us learn more about the arts project within a larger context of local environmental issues. In this way, our experience was significantly different than what might be on the typical itinerary for tourists to the area coming to the islands’ art offerings. We visited the three islands of Teshima, Naoshima, and Inujima, seeing the various art installations there, taking part in tours of the Mitsubishi waste recycling center, learning about the Inujima residents’ struggle to remove hazardous industrial waste, and visiting an array of indoor and open air art installations that dot the islands. In contrast to the vast grid of ground transportation that provides a connectedness throughout Tokyo and its suburbs, I came to see the relative isolation of these areas, cut off as they were from one another except for a fairly infrequent (and fairly expensive) system of ferry routes. The dependency of the outlying islands upon the main city, Okayama, was clear as we saw workers and students “commuting” across the sea to the Honshu (main island) side.


Industrial Dumping at Teshima

The tour of the artworks of the Benesse Project was prefaced by an eye-opening tour of the industrial waste dumping site on Teshima Island. The northern western sector of the island is considered to be the site of one of the worst industrial waste dumping scandals in modern Japan, where 600,000 tons of industrial was illegally dumped on the island from 1978 to 1990. The waste, including shredded automobile parts, sludge acid, slag, waste oil, plasterboard, paint, and other industrial debris were clearly products of urban industrialized activity beyond Teshima. Yet, the poisonous waste quickly decimated aquatic life, destroying the livelihood of local fishermen and farmers. An investigation revealed dangerous levels of lead, trichloroethylene, and dioxins in the environment where dumping took place. Residents of the island arbitrated and took Kagawa Prefecture to court for allowing illegal dumping to take place on the island. It took nearly 25 years before the suit was settled in the form of the current arrangement, in which the waste is being excavated, shipped over to the neighboring Naoshima Island, and subsequently melted down, detoxified, and transformed into slag to be reused as aggregate in concrete.


Fig. 2- Clean up at the waste dumping site on Teshima Island


Our tour guide was Aki Shozo, who himself was one of the fishermen driven out of work because of the dumping. The former office headquarters of the residents group now serves as a resource center and also preserves inside its walls a cross-section of the accumulated debris. The case against Kagawa Prefecture revealed a long history of government administrators turning a blind eye to the illegal dumping for fear or retaliation by criminal elements connected with the companies. His tour drove home the miraculous nature of this small grassroots community winning against the government and corporations.


Fig. 3 – our tour guide, Aki Shozo, describes the long legal battle against Kagawa Prefecture


Fig. 4 – preserved cross-section of the accumulated industrial waste

Waste and garbage are things I think about often when I am in Japan. Most localities have rigorous regulations about waste disposal (often divided into categories of compost, paper, plastic, glass, aluminum, etc.) and the amount of waste that is accumulated throughout the course of a single day (in large part due to the copious amounts of wrapping and printed material in Japan) can often be astonishing. Yet, the kinds of industrial waste that we saw at Teshima reminded me of the invisibility of most of the waste that is produced from our modern lives of mass production, mass consumption, and mass disposal. Teshima, with its tiny population, was viewed to be a convenient place where such waste could be dumped without arousing much notice. Waste is unloaded to the peripheries and margins, areas invisible to the center.


Afterlives of Industrialization

The visits to the art works following our visit to Teshima were all the more powerful because of the introduction we had to local environmental issues. While I found numerous pieces to be deeply compelling (in particular the Teshima Art Museum, designed by Nishizawa Ryue and Naito Rei) only a few works seemed to incorporate local history and environmental issues in the artwork itself. One of these was the collaborative project by artist Yanagi Yukinori and architect Sanbuichi Hiroshi, entitled “SEIRENSHO” (lit. “refinery”), which was striking for its use of the industrial ruins of a copper refinery at Inujima Island. This signature piece took visitors through a long narrow corridor that had twists and turns but, through mirrors and auditory cues, effectively gave us the sense that the entire path was leading us toward a molten core that was the furnace.


Fig. 5 – Former-copper-refinery-turned-art-project, “SEIRENSHO,” on Inujima Island

But, as I learned later through some investigation, here, too, was another familiar story of environmental pollution and the center/periphery relation. This factory, in operation for ten years from 1909 to 1919, was itself a transplant of the Obie copper refinery that was originally at Kurashiki City in Okayama Prefecture. Its owner and industrialist Sakamoto Kinya (1865-1923) was forced to move the refinery to the more remote and less populated Inujima in response to growing public outcry over the factory’s harmful pollution to the Kurashiki area. (The issue was of increasing concern to Sakamoto given the increased national visibility of an environmental movement led by Tanaka Shozo at the Ashio copper factory in Ibaraki Prefecture.) Again, we see undesirable waste being pushed onto the regional peripheries, and Inujima was forced to bear the brunt of the harmful effects of the refinery on the environment.


Lessons for Teaching

The trip provoked new interest in the region of the Seto Inland Sea itself, inspiring new avenues to explore for teaching and research. On the next occasion that I teach the “Nature and Environment in Japanese Literature and Culture” course (planned for Fall 2016), I envision a module around the area itself as vital waterway and connective hub, exploring its deep ties to Japan’s economy from the premodern era to the industrialization of the modern era. Thinking in a more focused way about the links between local geography and historical development will provide a means to more actively think about the local history in and around Bard, especially of the Hudson River and its effect upon our immediate region.


The subject of waste and the center/periphery relation dovetails conveniently with other material in the course which draws attention to industrial waste and the ugly side of Japan’s modernization. In the course, we begin with a series of readings that are symptomatic of the often-repeated notion of Japan as a “nature-loving” country with religious and cultural traditions that innately value the natural environment. This idea is repeatedly challenged through an examination of environmental degradation in the industrial era, beginning with the long history of industrial era woes at the Ashio copper Mine, Minamata mercury poisoning, and the ongoing problem of nuclear waste at Fukushima as well as other remote communities housing nuclear power plants. What we learned about Teshima and Inujima now provide a new context for the late 20th century and examples of grassroots movements and artistic repurposing.

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