Review of Brett L. Walker's "Toxic Archipelago: A History of Industrial Disease in Japan" (UWP, 2010) by Joy Parr, for H-Environment

Brett L. Walker. Toxic Archipelago: A History of Industrial Disease
in Japan. Seattle University of Washington Press, 2010. xviii +
284 pp. $35.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-295-98954-9.

Reviewed by Joy Parr (University of Western Ontario)
Published on H-Environment (December, 2010)
Commissioned by Dolly Jørgensen

Mutual Engineered Ecologies, Pollution, and Pain

Brett Walker explores the hybrid spaces and causations through which
human health and industrial pollution are entwined in the _longue
durée_ of Japanese industrial and environmental history. His themes
are the relationships between pain and nation, the ultimate causes of
the colossal toxic pollution saturating modern Japanese landscapes,
and the insults these legacies of industry inflict on porous human
bodies. The excising simplification of modernization, which
rationalizes and eases production, puts bodies in the way of
contamination beginning at the molecular level. He handles these
challenges deftly, reporting specifically on chemical insecticides
for agriculture, mining of copper for export and domestic electrical
infrastructure, lead and zinc mining, nitrogen fixation for
fertilizers, plastics, and coal mining. His simple overriding
assertion is that physical pain associated with industrial pollution
emerges from intertwined ecological and technological systems. Though
he treats disease well, he places emphasis, distinctively, on pain.
These hybrid spaces are the channels for contamination along routes
unforeseen by the engineers who made them, conduits through which
industrial toxins transcend the boundaries of human bodies. Much of
this is at least faintly familiar to the majority of his audience who
read, write, and research in English, who know the comparative
specialists' ground of radiation sickness through Hiroshima, of
methyl mercury through minimata, and recently have learned more about
coal mining, through the work of Walker's colleague and sometime
collaborator Tim LeCain, author of _Mass Destruction_.[1] This little
knowledge can be a dangerous thing, the "like, like, just like"
disease which truncates undergraduate seminar discussions, and offers
professors who find themselves in unfamiliar bibliographic waters the
illusion of solid footing.

Walker does not allow this comfort in false analogies to linger long.
Early on he introduces two contexts for the traffic of environmental
toxins in Japan, both of which are deeply and specifically culturally
infused: patrilocality, the key influence of Confuscian
family/household in the environmental history of Japan; and
microbiogeography, the links between human practices of land use,
both secular and sacred, and the accessibility of human flesh,
particularly the flesh of marginal groups, to molecular contaminants
carried in water, air, and soil. These "co-evolutionary processes,
between people and their bugs" (p. 38), carry the human partners
along a path with both bright and dark sides.

Over long periods in Japan, human silk workers and silk worms have
cohabited and co-evolved in circuits of influence and response. In
southwest China, silkworms thrived, made resistant to the fluoride
contaminants in mulberry leaves by the toxins from local brick
manufacturers. This genetic mutation the worms silently carried with
them, as they were migrated by purchase to the silk districts of
Japan where they in turn fared well in the households of Japanese
workers, a positive compounding of toxic effects and a mysterious
serendipity. By contrast, there was no such felicity for humans in
the spatial proximity of mosquitoes, pigs, and devout living humans.
Buddhists who honored their dead by cemetery features of standing
water, created a reproductive boost for the insects, and the microbes
which cause encephalitis. Pigs, present as a human food source, were
an amplifying host for encephalitis. Here was a mortuary rite with
grave effects on human morbidity and morality. In this case, as
Walker notes, "Buddism, its religious institutions and cultural
sensibilities generate[d] the ecological conditions for an urban
health crisis" and "modernity increase[d] exposure to risks from
nature" (pp. 35-36).

Similarly he shows how organophosphates operate in hybrid spaces to
cause human pain on a national scale, and how parathion was
instrumental in cases of both accidental and intentional human
poisonings. If pariathon played into the vulnerabilities of
depressives, cadmium worked through the aesthetics of empire, making
women through an association of paleness with beauty seek a
presentation of self through cosmetic practices which increased their
vulnerability to disease.

Walker's close studies of the co-evolutionary partnerships between
people and their bugs allow him to make a compelling case for
environmental toxicity as a condition of history (p. 127) not only as
Gregg Mitman (_Breathing Space_)_ _and Michelle Murphy (_Sick
Building Syndrome and the Problem of Uncertainty_) have shown through
life way assemblages, which forge hybrid causations, but profoundly
and viscerally at the genetic level.[2] Mutations amongst our
neighburly and unneighborly insect and microbial companions make them
genetically specific, which is "wonderful" and "awful" in the
Elizabethan usage of the those words. So short are their generations,
so swiftly do they come to viscerally embody adapations to
anthropogenic challenges that they are settled into our arising
civilizations before we know it. They mirror us before we are able to
recognize our own reflections.

Walker is a superb historian and analyst, as his body of work,
considerable for a relatively young scholar, manifests. It is in no
way to diminish his accomplishment to note as he does himself (pp.
217-218), how firmly his insights are made accessible by the
historically strong anthropocentric and anthropogenic elements in
Japanese understandings of nature. Unlike his editor, William Cronon,
Brett Walker has immersed himself in a culture whose epistemology
features no conceptual space for wilderness as a place where humans
are not. His convincing, compelling "from the genes up" portrait is
of a living environment akin to being in Tokyo rush hour, 24/7.


[1]. Tim LeCain, _Mass Destruction: The Men and Giant Mines that
Wired America and Scarred the Planet_ (New Brunswick: Rutgers
University Press, 2009).

[2]. Gregg Mitman, _Breathing Space: How Allergies Shape Our Lives
and Landscapes _(New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007_); _Michelle
Murphy, _Sick Building Syndrome and the Problem of Uncertainty:
Environmental Politics, Technoscience, and Women Workers_ (Durham:
Duke University Press, 2006).

Citation: Joy Parr. Review of Walker, Brett L., _Toxic Archipelago: A
History of Industrial Disease in Japan_. H-Environment, H-Net
Reviews. December, 2010.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons
Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States