Trip to Japan: Thoughts on Human Relationship with the Natural World

Trip to Japan: Thoughts on Human Relationship with the Natural World

Written byNate Shockey


As the co-organizer and co-leader of the Summer 2015 Bard LIASE Japan trip, I had the opportunity to both introduce my colleagues and students to aspects of Japan they had never seen or thought of before, and to meditate on future directions in my own teaching and research. I have been traveling back and forth to Japan for over 15 years, but taking ‘first-timers’ always opens my eyes to fresh perspectives as I try to explain just what is going on at any given moment.

In organizing the trip, my colleague Mika Endo and I wanted to give our fellow travelers a dynamic balance of experiences, from meeting with artists and activists, to touring industrial infrastructure, to visiting places of intense natural beauty, to witnessing sites of destruction and degradation. Images of a peaceful, aesthetically evolved “Japan” loom large in the American imagination; we aimed to problematize that picture and highlight some of the contradictions that characterize contemporary Japanese society and its relationship to the environment. To that effect, we planned an itinerary that included both positive and negative aspects of humans’ relationship with the natural world in Japan, asking our colleagues and students to think about the relationship between the two.




Rural landscape on Teshima island, Inland Sea



Nowhere was this dynamic more apparent than on the islands of Naoshima, Teshima, and Inujima in the Inland Sea.  Like much of rural Japan, the Inland Sea region, once romanticized by Donald Richie as a haven for almost pre-lapsarian traditional culture, has been subject to large-scale depopulation over recent decades. Remote islands that were once home to small fishing communities have been emptied out and in some cases, made into industrial dumps due to their distance from population centers. In recent years, the building of major museums and art installations by the Benesse Foundation have turned the islands into an international art tourism destination.


Industrial waste clean-up site, Teshima



A short drive from the architecturally significant Teshima Art Museum is a giant toxic industrial waste dumping site undergoing a years-long multi-trillion yen cleanup effort. Prior to visiting the museum, we were given a tour of the cleanup site by local activists, who detailed the years of work it has taken to attempt to undo the damage wreaked by corrupt officials, corporate dumpers, and gangsters. The building of the museum, part of a larger effort to remake the Inland Sea into an art destination, has put the tiny island of Teshima on the map, but the toxic site remains invisible to most all visitors. At nearby Naoshima, where the waste from Teshima is processed, one side of the island has likewise been developed as an idyllic art site, while the other houses a Mitsubishi Materials smelting and fabrication plant that is the island’s other main industry.




Smelting schematic, Mitsubishi Manufacturing plant, Naoshima



To me, this is the crucial dialectic. Industrialization, urban migration, and depopulation have led to the neglect of rural places, which have been revitalized through their reimagination as art spaces. In essence, one type of infrastructure and its externalities – the industrial, has been replaced by another – the post-industrial. However, despite bringing an influx of tourists, publicity, and capital, the intensely attractive art installations do not necessarily make the structural realities facing rural Japan any more visible, and can even obfuscate those issues. Due to personal connections, we were able to tour the Mitsubishi plant and think about the relationship between these two parts of the island and two modes of production, and witness up close how a major industrial conglomerate aims to present itself as a green company. However, I would be surprised if the wealthy global tourists staying nearby gave much thought to Naoshima as something beyond an empty space in which to install site-specific art.




Our group touring the Teshima Art Museum



Of course, this is not to say that the art installations in the Inland Sea are anything less than successful or substantial, and everyone in our group felt lucky to have the opportunity to see them. At the same time, I felt the necessity for a narrative more complicated than that of art rescuing a space from de-industrialization. On the nearby island of Inujima, a ruined factory has been remade into a museum; the transformation of a disused industrial site into a unique cultural destination felt familiar, as we have many similar places at home by Bard in the Hudson Valley. However, this reterritorialization suggests a diachronic process in which one era (the industrial) closes, to be replaced by another (the post-industrial). In reality, however, these two modes of production are far more synchronic, and continue to exist at the same time, as on Teshima and Naoshima; the industrial has less ended than been displaced and obfuscated.




Students inside the Chichû Art Museum, Naoshima



The trip has inspired me to consider these questions in a future book project. I am currently planning a monograph on the relationship between infrastructure, literature, and the visual arts in modern Japan. The project will examine how 20th century authors and artists have attempted to represent large-scale manufacturing, transportation, and communication infrastructure that is both too big and complex to comprehend and yet a fundamental aspect of everyday life. The idea had been bouncing around in my head as a rough idea for some time, and the LIASE trip helped crystallize those thoughts into a concrete project to begin in earnest.

All of this is to say nothing of the powerful experience shared by our group of observing efforts to recover from the triple disaster of March 11th, 2011 in Northeastern Japan, which could be the subject of another post entirely, and then some. Different approaches to recovery across municipalities across the region will be incorporated into a revised course that I am offering this semester on the “Mass Culture of Postwar Japan,” as no classroom consideration of the topic could fail to address the ongoing issues. I have also invited a speaker, Dr. Ramona Bajema, who spent four years working with local communities in Tohoku, to discuss recovery efforts with my class, the Bard community, and the public in October.

I have no doubt that the trip will be similarly transformative in introducing new directions for research, teaching, and study for the colleagues and students that joined us and I am exceedingly grateful that we were given the opportunity to travel together!

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