Thesis ID: CBB992039447

Scientific Wastelands and Toxic Utopias: The New Environmentalism of 1970s Japan (2020)


By the end of the 1960s, a severe environmental crisis had gripped the Japanese public and ushered in an era of national concern over the toxic burdens of industrial growth. Poor rural communities poisoned by industrial runoff and middle-class metropolitan residents choked by air pollution found that Japan’s two decades of rapid economic growth required a toxic sacrifice that their bodies were made to bear. They were experiencing a crisis that originated in the dream of Japan’s post-World War Two economic revival. Seeking to reengage the international political order through economic competition and to create a high-wage labor force, the Japanese state, private industry, and leading academics zealously envisioned rebuilding the economy through a large-scale industrial expansion. In order to fulfill that vision, they set in motion a rapid and unregulated industrial buildout centered on the petrochemicals and steel. Japan’s toxic nightmare inspired an activist movement that aimed to reimagine the foundations of the country’s postwar economic order. A new environmentalists movement emerged from the late 1960s and early 1970s pollution crisis to challenge the vision of postwar industrial development. 1970s environmentalism in Japan was bifurcated into two interrelated types. Anti-pollution protests tended to be localized movements led by members of particular communities who fought against polluting factories and for the right to say no to unwanted industrial development in their area. At the same time, in Tokyo and other metropolitan centers, environmental writer-activists worked to support and expand environmental activism by analyzing the national and global vectors of economic developmentalism. The field of environmental writer-activists included journalists, scientists, engineers, union activists, and academics who had become disillusioned with the model of toxic economic growth. My dissertation historicizes the new environmental consciousness that developed among urban writer-activists in the first half of the 1970s by looking at the intersection of these two poles of the environmental movement. In this study I examine the magazine Technology and Humans (1972-2005), one of the central organs for environmental criticism during the heyday of Japan’s environmental movement. I argue that the new environmentalism of 1970s Japan that Technology and Humans promoted originated in a particular and highly political relationship between geography and writing. This environmentalism was premised on a direct engagement between the urban writer-activist and what writers called in Japanese the “genba,” which meant the “site” or “place,” and generally denoted communities that were key points of contestation over pollution. For these environmentalists, engaging genba became the underlying basis for their activism and environmental thought. I further argue that this genba-based environmental movement was a historical response to and explicit rejection of the meta-narratives of industrial and scientific progress of the 1950s and ‘60s. In other words, the pollution crisis created a political rupture in how one envisioned social change by destabilizing the given narrative of scientific progress lifting all boats. Environmentalism was structured around the contestation between generalist, overarching forms of knowledge—the bread and butter of Japan’s technocratic-style governance—and what activists at the time valued as concrete, localized forms of knowledge encapsulated in the idea of genba. The end goal was not simply to value local knowledge. At the heart of environmentalist thought was the belief that generalist forms of knowledge could not produce a “true” knowledge of society in its totality. In other words this political rupture opened up a space to contest what constituted a legitimate claim to truth and reality, activism and politics. I uncover two historical trajectories that defined this environmentalist turn toward the local and concrete. The first trajectory was the breakdown in the status quo of science caused by the epistemological and ethical crises that pollution presented. The second trajectory was the growth of the postwar development state around acquiring and, in the words of environmentalists, devouring land for toxic industrial expansion. My study shows how the writer-activist flavor of environmentalism in Japan primarily aimed to construct a holistic knowledge of society by deconstructing both trajectories from the perspective of genba.

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Authors & Contributors
Allitt, Patrick
Armiero, Marco
Avenell, Simon
Blok, Anders
Dunsby, Joshua William
Egan, Michael
Environment and History
Peace and Change: A Journal of Peace Research
Science, Technology, and Human Values
Social Studies of Science
Oxford University Press
Bloomsbury Academic
Harvard University Press
Island Press
MIT Press
Science and politics
Political activists and activism
Environmental pollution
Environmental degradation
Carson, Rachel Louise
Time Periods
20th century, late
20th century
21st century
18th century
19th century
United States
New York (U.S.)
Appalachian region (North America)

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