Academic journal article Canadian Journal of History

Bad Water: Nature, Pollution, and Politics in Japan, 1870-1950

Academic journal article Canadian Journal of History

Bad Water: Nature, Pollution, and Politics in Japan, 1870-1950

Article excerpt

Bad Water: Nature, Pollution, and Politics in Japan, 1870-1950, by Robert Stolz. Asia-Pacific: Culture, Politics, and Society. Durham, Duke University Press, 2014. xi, 288 pp. $24.95 US (paper).

Robert Stolz argues that a sense of environmental crisis overturned an existing paradigm of scientific mastery of nature, beginning with the poisoning of Kanto waterways by industrial waste from the Ashio copper mine. He further contends that efforts to confront this sense of crisis began within Meiji liberalism as manifested in the career of politician cum environmental protester Tanaka Shozo (1841-1913), a "liberal" politician who, ultimately disillusioned with political action, turned to developing a new understanding of nature itself as powerful. Stolz argues that while Tanaka is often treated as an idealized, isolated figure, his awareness of environmental issues continued in the careers of anarchist Ishikawa Sanshiro (1876-1956) and Kurosawa Torizo (1885-1982), the founder of the early "green" corporation Snow Brand Dairy. Throughout, the author seeks to "combine environmental history with political philosophies of the subject to explore the extremely rich and still urgent search for a form of political subjectivity and social organization adequate to the environmental crisis of capitalist modernity" (p. 10). Drawing in part on perspectives of Actor-Network Theory (ant) and Science, Technology and Society (STS) studies, Stolz seeks to explore interactions among objects and the "agency of the non-human" (p. 11) but explicitly adopts a Marxist framework to add an historical dimension to these approaches.

Stolz effectively strips away the idealized images of Tanaka that permeate many contemporary assessments of him as part of an effort to take early environmentalism beyond discussion of its role in Meiji liberalism. His analysis is well documented and convincing. An emphasis on "participatory democracy" (p. 36) in local elections conveys an impression of broad participation, yet suffrage in these realms, like later national parliamentary elections, had property qualifications that restricted suffrage in local governments (institutions that had limited financial resources other than those from the central government)--all of which suggests that Tanaka was even less representative of broad popular sentiment than Stolz indicates. All that said, the degree to which this perspective changes our broader understanding of modem Japanese history is not clear, for all the key people Stolz analyzes were clearly exceptional individuals, especially anarchist Ishikawa.

Underlying Bad Water's historical trajectory is a clear demarcation between modem economic activities and those of pre-modern eras, which oversimplifies the divide. …

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