BOOK: Toxic Archipelago (2010)

Walker, Brett. 2010. Toxic Archipelago: A History of Industrial Disease in Japan. University of Washington Press.

This is an innovative and accessible narrative of multi-faceted relationships between a nation, pain, and industrial pollution. Walker offers fresh analyses of well-known cases in Japanese history, such as the Meiji period’s Ashio copper mine and the more recent Minamata and Itai-itai (“it hurts, it hurts”) diseases in the postwar period. His key concept, hybrid causation, undercuts the distinction between “natural” and “social” or “human” causative processes in order to complicate “the role that human politics, economics, technology, and culture played in environmental pollution and industrial disease” (p. xiv). This deliberate combination of issues that scholars otherwise tend to study in isolation makes his narrative surprisingly broad-ranging. Unprepared readers may find this bewildering at first, but Walker’s approach involving case studies yields pedagogical value in helping students learn about different angles of analysis that one may use to gain more nuanced historical understandings of industrial pollution.

Interesting is Walker’s observation of differences between American and Japanese traditions of environmental thinking, which, according to him, influenced the wording of the Basic Law for Pollution Control, passed in 1967. He notes that the Japanese law targeted “the living environment” (seikatsu kankyō) instead of “wilderness.” The former “comprises those landscapes and organisms most closely associated with human habitation,” while the latter “represents a place where we humans are not” (p. 217). Though he does not quite make explicit the connection to “hybrid causation,” he argues that the Japanese concept represents a partial learning of the lessons of the historical cases outlined in the book. Perhaps most controversial — and therefore useful for stimulating students’ discussion — is Walker’s rather grim view of future environmental problems. “I do not think that we, as a species, can remedy these problems immediately, perhaps not at all,” he writes (p. 223).

Though this book, published in 2010, obviously does not mention the 2011 triple disaster, the implications of “hybrid causation” clearly extend beyond these cases of industrial pollution to the realms of nuclear accidents and so-called “natural” disasters. Highly recommended, especially as reading material for undergraduate courses.

– Yoshiyuki Kikuchi

FILM: Ashes to Honey (2010)

Kamanaka, Hitomi. 2010. Ashes to Honey. Group Gendai.

“What is the best course of development for humankind?” director Hitomi Kamanaka asks in her 2010 film, Ashes to Honey. This documentary builds an argument for the necessity of a sustainable future by portraying a local struggle to preserve fishing and farming on the small island of Iwaishima, on the Pacific side of southwestern Japan, against a nuclear power plant proposed to be built across the bay. Filmed over the course of three years, Kamanaka and her crew gradually gained the trust of the islanders as a voice to adequately represent their concerns to a larger audience. Although completed before the Fukushima disaster, this film helps further historical understandings of ongoing debates related to nuclear power that have swept Japan and much of the world.

The trajectory of the film spans across local, global, and national arenas, and begins with one of the younger residents of Iwaishima, a man in his 30s named Takashi. Like most young residents, he had left the island for higher education. Uniquely, Takashi, who is son to the outspoken representative of the 27-year long struggle against the local power company, Chugoku Denryoku (“Chuden”), had also returned to the island to make his own life: a struggle at best since he began his endeavor with no knowledge of how to live off the land. Through Takashi and Chuden, the film presents its central problematic: both argue that development must take place but each have vastly different ideas about what a path to the future entitles.

The film expands its perspective on this issue by shifting its focus from Iwaishima to rural Sweden. Interviews with people involved in sustainability projects of small and large scales show how national administrators embraced a variety of renewable energy projects implemented by grass-roots efforts, ultimately ushering in a new era for national energy policy. This section serves as a counterpoint to Japan’s policies, which do little to discourage energy market monopolization, and offers a concrete model for the kind of change that Kamanaka advocates.

The emotionally evocative final third of Ashes to Honey depicts the actual practices of protest as the villagers’ fishing boats face off with Chuden’s ships in rain and rough seas. These sequences are especially potent for viewers familiar with Japan’s deep history of non-violent protest, such as the similar actions of the fishing collectives of Ominato against the government’s experimental, nuclear-powered ship the Mutsu. In contrast to the use of violence to resolve differences, Kamanaka’s film nods to the visual style of Tsuchimoto Noriaki’s “Minamata” films and stands as an example to students of how conflict can be politically charged yet non-violent.

Just as it effectively uses Swedish points of view to expand its perspective, educators can use Ashes to Honey to expand students’ perspectives on Fukushima and nuclear power in general. Kamanaka’s documentation of a complicated human story presents a starkly simple choice between two distinct paths of development: one sustainable and one dependent upon nuclear power, with all of the risks that it brings.

Kenneth Masaki Shima

BOOK: A Social History of Science and Technology in Contemporary Japan: Volume 4: Transformation Period, 1970-1979

Yoshioka, Hitoshi. 2006. “Future Plans for Nuclear Physics Research,” “The Rise of Nuclear Fusion Research,” “The Development and Utilization of Nuclear Reactors.” In A Social History of Science and Technology in Contemporary Japan: Volume 4: High Economic Growth Period, 1960-1969, edited by Shigeru Nakayama and Hitoshi Yoshioka, 189-273. Melbourne: Trans Pacific Press.

Volume 4 of A Social History of Science and Technology in Contemporary Japan contains three chapters of note to those interested in Japanese nuclear history, all of which were written by Hitoshi Yoshioka. Chapter 8, “Reorganization of the Administration and Regulation of Nuclear Development,” describes the establishment of the Nuclear Safety Commission (Genshiryoku Anzen Iinkai) in 1978 and the concomitant increase in the role of the Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI) in the development of nuclear technology. Chapter 9, “Nuclear Power Plant Location Disputes,” addresses the politics of determining where nuclear power plants would be built. It also details the ill-fated attempt to build a nuclear-powered commercial ship. Finally, Yoshioka describes the development of the technology and infrastructure to enrich uranium and reprocess spent fuel in Chapter 10, “The Development of Nuclear Fuel Cycle Technology.” These three chapters highlight different aspects of the social, political and technical history of the nuclear power industry in Japan. They explore how the development of reactors occurred in historically specific contexts of strenuous efforts and political struggle by a variety of local, official and commercial actors over a period of time during which outcomes were uncertain.

Chapter 8, “Reorganization of the Administration and Regulation of Nuclear Development,” describes the process by which MITI expanded its influence over the nuclear industry in the 1970s and 80s, eventually gaining control over a portion of the research and development of nuclear power that had been the sole reserve of the Science and Technology Agency (STA). Unlike the large and powerful U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), the smaller Japanese Nuclear Safety Commission (NSC) could only review the actions of MITI and the STA, and was effectively sidelined as nothing more than a bureaucratic advisory board.

Chapter 9, “Nuclear Power Plant Location Disputes,” shows how one of the main barriers to the construction of power plants was convincing local fishing collectives to abandon their fishing rights to the waters near the plant. Since the Edo period, villages have enjoyed the right of communal access to fishing grounds adjacent to their land, and laws in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries confirmed these rights. Unless the locals ceded these rights, nuclear power plants could not gain access to the water they needed to operate. This chapter details the strategies that fishing cooperatives and other citizens used to slow or prevent the building of nuclear power plants in their regions, including a page or two on the resistance efforts in Fukushima.

Also in Chapter 9, Yoshioka highlights the asymmetry of protest power by presenting the case of an experimental nuclear-powered vessel, the Mutsu. In 1974, when the government tested the boat’s reactor without the approval of the local fishing cooperatives, the locals surrounded the ship with 300 fishing boats. The Mutsu sneaked out of port under the cover of a typhoon and promptly sprang a leak in its reactor coolant. It remained adrift for 45 days while fishermen blockaded its return to port.

Chapter 10, “The Development of Nuclear Fuel Cycle Technology,” describes how nuclear waste reprocessing technology preceded the development of fuel enrichment technology in Japan. Reprocessing technology was imported from abroad while enrichment was developed locally. In addition to technical and political challenges (such as Japan’s treaty obligations to the U.S.), Yoshioka attributes the delay of a decade between the development these two lines of technology to the Japanese government’s policy of prioritizing nuclear reactors over fuel technologies. Regardless of the timing, however, the ability to both enrich uranium and reprocess spent fuel allowed Japan eventually to achieve its goal of having an independent fuel cycle, in which virtually the entire life cycle of nuclear fuel could be handled domestically.

These three chapters are of particular interest to readers looking for historical contextualization of the development of reactors such as those at Fukushima, and the industry that supports them. Although, once established, the existence of such reactors may seem solid and non-negotiable, Yoshioka demonstrates that the path of their development was by no means natural or inevitable, and did not take place in a political vacuum.

Craig Nelson

Further reading on Hitoshi Yoshioka’s histories of nuclear power in Japan:

CHAPTER: Technology versus Commercial Feasibility: Nuclear Power and Electric Utilities (1999)

Low, Morris, Shigeru Nakayama, and Hitoshi Yoshioka. 1999. “Technology versus Commercial Feasibility: Nuclear Power and Electric Utilities.” In Science, Technology and Society in Contemporary Japan, 66-81. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

This article is a chapter of a book coauthored by Morris Low, Shigeru Nakayama, and Hitoshi Yoshioka on the contemporary history of science and technology in Japan, published in the same year as Yoshioka’s book 原子力の社会史 (A Social History of Nuclear Power).   This chapter is a condensed account of the history of nuclear power in Japan, presumably authored primarily by Yoshioka.

Covering the early history of electric power before the war, the beginning of the atomic energy program in the 1950s, the introduction of reactors in the 1960s, and the fast breeder program up to the 1990s, this chapter examines the complex relations between the public good and private interests in technology and its industrial applications. While the power industry has been dominated by the private sector, and much of the responsibility for the nuclear power program has been carried by private power companies, the article argues that the distinction between private interests and the public good is blurred in Japan, and that it is not always clear which interests are served by the development of nuclear power.

As in Yoshioka’s book, this article claims that the development of nuclear reactors was motivated by a kind of “dual structure” consisting of two groups: MITI (the Ministry of International Trade and Industry) and private industry; and the STA (Science and Technology Agency) with public research corporations such as JAERI (Japan Atomic Energy Research Institute). The main task of the MITI group is the gradual expansion of the commercial nuclear enterprise, mainly by importing US reactors, whereas the STA group’s mission is the research and development of as-yet commercially unproven technologies such as fast breeder reactor designs and nuclear fusion.

The article claims, for example, that the reason Japan adhered to the fast breeder program can be explained by this dual structure — specifically the STA’s attempt to exert its influence. It was not that Japan was attempting to become an international nuclear power through its plutonium program; rather, the STA was using this program to maintain its domestic influence. The STA’s two main areas of jurisdiction were nuclear research and Japan’s space program. The uncertainty of the future of the space program rendered it an unreliable foundation upon which to justify the agency’s existence. In contrast, nuclear power was seen as a better bet; thus, the agency prioritized research on fast breeder reactor technology.

— Kenji Ito

ARTICLE: Danger in the Lowground: Historical Context for the March 11, 2011 Tōhoku Earthquake and Tsunami (2011)

Smits, Gregory. 2011. “Danger in the Lowground: Historical Context for the March 11, 2011 Tōhoku Earthquake and Tsunami.” The Asia-Pacific Journal 9 (20), May 16.

In the days and weeks following the disaster on March 11, 2011, the Japanese popular press revisited the tsunami history of the Sanriku coast, going back as far as the 869 Jōgan tsunami. As perhaps expected, the news media invoked this history in discussions of risk and blame, particularly in light of the Fukushima disaster.1

Gregory Smits, who has studied the cultural history of earthquakes for several years, tackles the issue of historical memory and risk in this article published in The Asia Pacific Journal. By considering the histories of tsunamis that occurred primarily in the Edo (1600-1868) and modern periods, Smits comes to a rather disheartening conclusion: despite some apparently successful cases of institutional memory, the perception of risk seems to fade quickly, within even a generation. For example, the “tsunami stones,” reported in the New York Times,2 may have provided a warning to some, but apparently had been a less remarkable feature of the landscape to others, before the disaster granted them new relevance.

Smits cites the work of Hirakawa Arata of Tōhoku University, who claims that the Tokugawa highway post-stations were all (re-)located beyond the reach of a devastating 1611 tsunami, and argues that the post-Meiji population had lost its sense of tsunami risk. Having investigated people’s reactions to tsunami risk after an area had been devastated, Smits argues that population turnover may be the greatest impediment to successful prevention efforts based on historical memory. In examples raised by Smits, Tohoku in the modern period and Osaka in the Edo Period, the lack of a stable population is given as the main explanation for the impermanence of useful historical memory and effective countermeasures. Long periodicity and the ease of population movement lead to concern for the possibility of a similar disaster in Tokyo and the Pacific Northwest region of the United States, although Smits expresses the hope that the Tōhoku experience might spur preparations.

Intact historical memory has also failed to provide warning in some cases, according to Smits. One such case was a tsunami that hit the Sanriku coast on August 23, 1856. Smits cites a record that blames a folk belief for the high death toll of that disaster. Apparently derived from tsunamis in 1611 and 1793, this was the belief that tsunamis only occur in winter. Likewise, in the case of a tsunami that hit Osaka on December 24, 1854, Smits thinks that the recent memory of the more geographically distant Iga-Ueno Earthquake of July 9, 1854, overrode the memory of the more temporally distant Hōei Earthquake and tsunami of 1707. As a result, hundreds of Osaka residents were led to their deaths when they fled to boats in the immediate aftermath of the shaking in order to ride out aftershocks. These cases lead to the distressing conclusion that even if historical memory were preserved through time and the turnover of generations, it might not be enough to improve safety and survivability when the next disaster strikes.

— Kristina Buhrman

1. Lyn, Tan Ee. 2011. “Japan’s tsunami history ignored: report; Previous study also downplayed; Size of past waves were not considered when Fukushima nuclear plant was built,” The Gazette (Montreal), April 14.

2. Fackler, Martin. 2011. “Tsunami Warnings for the Ages, Carved in Stone,” The New York Times, April 20.

ARTICLE: ‘The Energy of a Bright Tomorrow:’ The Rise of Nuclear Power in Japan (2011)

Nelson, Craig. 2011. “‘The Energy of a Bright Tomorrow’: The Rise of Nuclear Power in Japan.” Origins 4 (9) (June).

Ohio State University’s online journal Origins (tagline: “Current Events in Historical Perspective”) has published a highly accessible article by Craig Nelson, a historian of Japanese nuclear power. Nelson fulfills the promise of the journal’s tagline by providing a concise overview of the history of nuclear power in Japan, tracing the story of how a nation victimized by atomic bombings and viscerally opposed to nuclear weapons could become among the world’s most dependent upon nuclear power generation. This article, appropriate for readers at the high school level and up, will be useful for teachers and students who wish to learn more about the often-ignored history of “nukes” in Japan spanning the period between the three names that everyone now recognizes: Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and Fukushima.

Here is a brief excerpt:

We are haunted by the specter of our nuclear past. And given Japan’s complicated past with nuclear issues, it is especially surprising that Japan now has such a highly developed civilian nuclear power program, the third largest in the world after those of the United States and France.

The bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, fallout from the testing of Soviet nuclear weapons, and the Lucky Dragon Incident of 1954 left the Japanese in the 1950s with what some observers have called a “nuclear allergy.” Historically, Japanese anti-nuclear-weapons activists have been among the most vigorous in the world.

But the desperate need for energy to power Japan’s rapid economic growth and the complexities of post-World War II international relations together led the Japanese government to pursue nuclear power.

Choosing a nuclear policy was one thing, persuading an initially reluctant public was quite another.   The government and electric utilities promoted the nuclear power option relentlessly, starting a public relations campaign in the mid-1950s that strove to cement a positive image of nuclear power in the public eye.

In Futaba, a sign bearing the town’s motto—“nuclear power is the energy of a bright tomorrow”—now stands as an eerie reminder of that campaign for a nuclear-powered future.

But nuclear power has remained a sensitive issue and the public has long expressed ambiguous feelings and increasing concern toward it.  The government, by contrast, has remained a firm supporter, even in the face of incidents and disaster that gave rise to questions about the wisdom and safety of nuclear power, such as Chernobyl and Three Mile Island (1979).

Regardless of the outcome of the disaster at Fukushima Daiichi, nuclear issues have played a starring role in Japanese politics, society, and culture for the past seventy years—one that is unlikely to disappear in the near future.

Read the full article at Origins.

Listen to an NPR interview with author Craig Nelson about the history of nuclear power in Japan.

ARTICLE: Chernobyl’s Survivors: Paralyzed by Fatalism or Overlooked by Science? (2011) [English]

Petryna, Adriana. 2011. “Chernobyl’s survivors: Paralyzed by fatalism or overlooked by science?” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 67 (2): 30 -37. DOI: 10.1177/0096340211400177. Available at

This is an article by Adriana Petryna, an anthropologist who conducted field work in the Ukraine following the nuclear accident at Chernobyl. Like her book Life Exposed: Biological Citizens after Chernobyl, this article helps provide a point of comparison for understanding some of the issues facing citizens exposed to radiation from Fukushima, as they begin what is likely to be a long and lonely struggle for social and political legitimation as victims of the policies of the state-supported nuclear power apparatus in Japan.

In summary, Petryna argues that while inquiries into radiation-related injuries by organizations such as the United Nations concluded that stress caused by misperceptions of radioactive threat exacerbated the damage, the following points must be considered:

  1. Such a conclusion trivializes the activities and efforts of those who tried to avoid exposure to radiation.
  2. In light of Japanese studies of the effects of the atomic bombs, an even longer period of investigation will be necessary in order to come to any legitimate conclusion in this case.
  3. The collapse of the Soviet Union and the implementation of a market economy broke off years of data collection.
  4. “Safe” limits of radiation exposure are contingent upon historical and political contexts.
  5. The politicization of bodies seeking compensation for damages continues today.

For these reasons and others, Petryna stresses the continued necessity of confronting and examining the damage caused by radiation.

– Fumitaka Wakamatsu, with English translation and text by Jennifer Lillie and Tyson Vaughan

Further reading:

Petryna, Adriana. 2002. Life Exposed: Biological Citizens after Chernobyl. 1st ed. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

BOOK: A Social History of Nuclear Power: Its Development in Japan (1999)

Editors’ Note: A new edition of this book was published in 2011 by Asahi Shimbunsha after  this annotation was originally posted. 

Yoshioka, Hitoshi 吉岡斉. 1999. Genshiryoku no shakaishi: sono Nihon-teki tenkai. 原子力の社会史―その日本的展開. Asahi Shinbunsha. 朝日新聞社.

Hitoshi Yoshioka gives an overview and analysis of the development of nuclear power in Japan from wartime to the late 1990s in this social history. In what stands as the most comprehensive and reliable single-volume Japanese scholarly work on this topic, Yoshioka argues that this development can be understood mainly as what he calls a “dual structure subgovernment model.” According to this model, policy decisions concerning nuclear power have been monopolized by two insider groups: the alliance of the Ministry of International Trade and Industry and Japan’s electric power industry on the one hand, and the Science and Technology Agency on the other, which in combination constitute a “subgovernment” outside of democratic control. The development of nuclear power in Japan is basically understood as a result of these groups’ power struggles to maintain or extend their vested interests. These two camps sometimes competed and sometimes made compromises with each other, but in either case they did not necessarily aim to achieve public good. Yoshioka writes that the development of nuclear power in Japan has been based on this model, but his rich narrative also includes various other aspects of the social issues surrounding the history of nuclear power in Japan.

Although Yoshioka’s book has remained the most authoritative source on the topic of nuclear power in Japan for over a decade, it unfortunately lacks documentation such as footnotes or end notes, although it does contain bibliographical notes, and the author occasionally refers to some sources within the text. The author has also published some portions of this book in the form of several articles, some of which appear in English.

— Kenji Ito

A longer review of this book in Japanese by Kenji Ito is available here:日本語)

Suggested readings:

Low, Morris F., and Hitoshi Yoshioka. 1989. “Buying the ‘Peaceful Atom’: The Development of Nuclear Power in Japan.” Historia Scientiarum 38: 29-44.

Yoshioka, Hitoshi. 1999. “Technology versus Commercial Feasibility: Nuclear Power and Electric Utilities,” in Science, Technology and Society In Contemporary Japan, edited by Morris Low, Shigeru Nakayama, and Hitoshi Yoshioka, 66-81. Cambridge University Press.

BOOK: Earthquake Nation: The Cultural Politics of Japanese Seismicity, 1868-1930. (2006)

Clancey, Gregory. 2006. Earthquake Nation: The Cultural Politics of Japanese Seismicity, 1868-1930. University of California Press.

Earthquake Nation provides crucial historical context for understanding more recent outbreaks of “Japanese seismicity” in Kobe (1995) and the Tōhoku and Kanto regions of Japan (2011). Recipient of the 2007 Sidney Edelstein Award from the Society for the History of Technology, this book eloquently lays out the complicated interactions among seismology, architecture, engineering, culture, politics, and the living earth itself during a particularly dynamic period in Japanese history.

The Meiji Period (1868-1912) has often been characterized as a time of febrile “modernization” in Japanese history. During this period, what role did seismicity play in shaping Japanese conceptions of nature, technology, and “Western” vs. Japanese or other Asian knowledges? How did seismicity – the science, the technology, and the physical experience of it – influence the projects of state-building, “modernization” and imperial expansion? These are some of the questions that Clancey addresses in this richly detailed and accessible study.

The historical event that propels much of the book’s analysis and narrative trajectory is the estimated 8.0 magnitude Great Nōbi Earthquake, which struck near Nagoya in 1891, killing over 7,000 people, leaving 140,000 homeless, and providing a stern test for the Meiji state. Clancey traces “the cultural politics of Japanese seismicity” from before this event all the way through the 7.9 magnitude Great Kanto Earthquake and subsequent fires of 1923, which devastated Tokyo and Yokohama and killed an estimated 142,000 people.

Clancey’s argument is multifaceted and complex, but part of it goes like this: During the feverish “modernization” (née “Westernization”) of the Meiji era, Western brick- and masonry-based architecture was championed as strong, eternal and masculine – an emblem of modern civilization – whereas wooden Japanese structures were portrayed as weak, temporal and feminine – symbols of obsolete tradition. The Great Nōbi Earthquake literally shook up these notions when it wrecked the rigid masonry buildings that often did not fare as well as the more flexible wooden buildings, at least among larger, more prominent, marquee structures. Although the landscape was littered with the remains of shattered native architecture as well as Western, Japanese journalists and artists reproduced a discourse on the remarkable phenomenon of the apparent brittleness of Western structures versus the perceived, relative resilience of native buildings. This gave rise to new nativist, nationalistic discourses that became taken up by the ongoing state-building (and eventually, imperialist) project in Japan.

For teachers or students who would like to use a shorter, pared-down version of Clancey’s book, he has also published a 50-page paper that tells much of this story of the Great Nōbi Earthquake:

Clancey, Gregory. 2006. “The Meiji Earthquake: Nature, Nation, and the Ambiguities of Catastrophe.” Modern Asian Studies 40:909-951.

– Tyson Vaughan

Note: This appeared originally as a sample annotated citation for Teach 3/11. We welcome scholars and graduate students to participate in this project.

BOOK: Normal Accidents: Living with High-Risk Technologies

Perrow, Charles. 1984, 1999. Normal Accidents: Living with High-Risk Technologies. Princeton University Press.

This classic of organizational sociology doubles as the cornerstone of a genre sometimes dubbed “disaster studies” and presents crucial insights for scholars of technological accidents and disasters in both contemporary and historical contexts, regardless of their primary discipline. Perrow’s thesis about “system accidents” occuring in tightly coupled and complexly interactive systems helps facilitate an understanding of the combination of past so-called trivial and the current catastrophic accidents at the Fukushima reactors. For example, Perrow describes untoward interactions between unrelated components due simply to physical proximity (such as the location of the spent fuel pools on the upper floors of the same buildings housing the GE Mark 1 containment vessels) and the crucial role of informational opacity (the inability to know the actual state of the system or its parts due to unreliable sensors or inaccessible components). Chapters 1 and 2 offer detailed descriptions of actual reactor incidents, particularly Three Mile Island. The updated 1999 edition contains a new afterword and a new postscript by Perrow. Reading level: advanced undergraduate. –Tyson Vaughan

Note: This appeared originally as a sample annotated citation for Teach 3/11. We welcome scholars and graduate students to participate in this project.