Japan’s True Love of Nature: Ecologies of Hope


Japan has been called the “toxic archipelago” and its pollution cases such as Minamata have drawn international attention. More recently, the meltdown at the Fukushima nuclear power plant added yet another chapter to the tale of environmental degradation. But Japanese history also provides an alternative story of ecologically sound ways of living. This talk considers not Japan’s famed literary and aesthetic celebrations of nature, but its legacy of environmentally sustainable economic and political practices. These alternative social patterns show that until very recently Japan was on its way to being a vibrantly productive, healthful, modern society without resorting to the industrial excesses that pollute its islands today. Scaling population to match natural resources, using building techniques that conserved wood, eating healthy diets that did not strip the soil of nutrients, solving production problems with energy-saving technologies, and marketing human excrement to create clean cities and farm fertilizer were among the techniques used in the past. With these ecologically sound and economically productive approaches, Japan was able to meet the onslaught of Western Imperialism and maintain national sovereignty in the Meiji Period (1868-1912). But it was also during the Meiji period that Japan began to change its approach, pursuing some of the least environmentally sensitive techniques in its repertoire and adopting Western ones as well. For a while, this strategy worked. While Chinese economic development sank in comparison with European growth in the nineteenth century, the Japanese economy grew. In short, China diverged, but Japan paralleled and ultimately converged with the West, but with all the dire consequences of adapting the West’s non-ecologically sound practices. Today, Japan stands at a crossroad just as in the Meiji period. It can either continue in the thrall of the economic models of infinite growth that blight our finite planet or it can embrace a new leadership role, treating its declining population, legacy of frugal habits, and renown appreciation for natural beauty as assets in defining a sustainable economy in the age of the Anthropocene. The older history, if resuscitated, can provide hope not only for Japan but for the world.

Date: 24 April 2015, 6.00pm
Venue: Hostry, Norwich Cathedral, Norwich NR1 4EH
Tel: 01603 597507
Email: sisjac@sainsbury-institute.org
Web: www.sainsbury-institute.org
Organiser: Sainsbury Institute for the Study of Japanese Arts and Cultures

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