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Discussion Paper 4 in 2011
First published in ejcjs on 31 May 2011

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Smoke in the Air, Poison in the Soil

Yoshida Misawo and Industrial Waste in Iga City, Japan


Abhik Chakraborty

Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University

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This paper explores the struggles of eighty year old Yoshida Misawo against industrial waste dumping in the Ueno district of Iga City in Mie Prefecture, and located on the upper Kizu River Basin in the Kinki region. Starting from a protest against a local garbage disposal facility, she has over the years taken the concerned industry to court, and successfully sought prefectural mediation over planned expansion of another dumping facility in the Ueno New Town area. Despite her age, she is still actively involved in movements opposing industrial waste, which continues to affect the natural environment in the Japanese countryside. Based on a literature survey and my own fieldwork, this paper describes Yoshida as a postwar environmental activist, who started her protests as part of her wifely duties to her husband, but in due course took up unconventional roles and became a strong voice for environmental preservation within her locality. The paper concludes that this movement reaffirms the vitality of local level protests in postwar Japan over issues of industrial pollution, where strong willed resident-groups have fought powerful industrial units and industry-administration collusion, and evolved as advocates of environmental preservation.


Kizu River Basin; citizens' movements; environmental governance; furusato discourse; landscape preservation; environmental preservation


Industrial pollution in is a well-known issue in Japan. The high speed growth years saw a remarkable amount of destruction of the natural environment, and distressed natural or rural landscapes were widespread (Tabb, 1995, Iyoda, 2010). Emanating from factories, industrial pollution spread into natural systems and affected the food chain via the air, water and soil (Ariyoshi, 1979). In general, this period came to an end as an outcome of the so-called 'Pollution Diet' in 1974, when laws to curb and control pollution were passed in the national parliament (Broadbent, 1998). Nature recovered steadily after the peak of industrialization passed, as public awareness of pollution grew and a series of movements arose, and as the state became committed to its reduction or elimination (George, 2001, Mason, 1999 Waley, 2005). However, incidents of industrial pollution imperiling natural landscapes, or threatening human health continued into the 21st century. Even after the successes achieved by citizen protest movements in some high profile cases (McKean, 1981), which would indicate acceptance of demands for environmental conservation, local level realities are often different, and citizen movements protesting against industrial pollution in the countryside often found the process a battle where the odds are stacked against them.

This paper is a portrayal of one such movement in the Ueno district of Iga City in Mie Prefecture. On the borders of the Kinki and Tōkai regions, an area that experienced high urban and industrial growth during the post-war reconstruction period, it lies close to the Osaka metropolitan hub and is consequently a region stressed by population pressure, mediated through the twin processes of urbanization and industrialization. Incidentally, the rivers and forests of this region have had a long history of human intervention and disruption (Ashida et al. 2008), and environmental destruction still continues through various projects like the damming of rivers (McCormack, 1996, Ono, 1997, Amano, 2001) and waste dumping (Munton, 1996). This paper describes the struggles of an octogenarian woman, Yoshida Misawo, against waste dumping in her locality of Ueno, the background to her struggles (which she sees as continuing in the present), and the challenges and achievements of her movement.

The Location of Ueno and Iga City

Ueno City was originally an independent municipality and was merged with Iga and Ayama Towns and Shimagahara and Ōyamada Villages to form Iga City under the wave of municipal mergers that took place in 2004. Iga City falls within the Kizu River Basin, part of the Yodo River Basin which, combined with its main freshwater supply from Lake Biwa in Shiga Prefecture, is the most important freshwater system in the Kinki region, and one of the most important freshwater systems in the country. The Kizu River originates in the Nunobiki Mountains in Mie Prefecture and journeys nearly 100 kilometers before merging with the Katsura and Uji rivers to form the Yodo River, which then flows into Osaka Bay. One of the three main tributaries of the Yodo River, the Kizu was historically a major transportation route, used, for instance, for carrying logs to build the famous Todaiji Pavilion at Nara in 752 AD (Ota, 2005, p. 73), and sustaining a large area with its water supply. In more recent times, the Yodo River basin area became a hub of urban development, with urban space steadily expanding throughout the Kansai region. Cities like Nabari, located on the Kintetsu Railway Route midway between Osaka and Nagoya, have swelled over the last decade, resulting in continuing urban expansion into what once was a broad tract of forests and rural land in the upper Kizu Basin.

Figure 1: The Kizu River flowing through the satoyama landscape near the Ueno district of Iga City in the rainy season (Photograph taken by the author, June 12, 2010).

Iga is probably best known as a historical training ground for the Ninjas, the apocryphal and secretive Japanese warriors of feudal times. The land is surrounded by mountains –  the Iga Basin is a natural depression bordered by the Aoyama highlands to the southeast, where the Kizu River originates. The city houses slightly over 100,000 people, in nearly 40,000 households (Iga City Homepage). The main public transportation network is the Kintetsu Railway, which operates with a smaller regional railway line, Iga Railways (Iga Tetsudō) to provide direct access to Ueno Shi Station. There are also numerous expressways and highways, one of which, National Highway No. 163, also provides direct access to Ueno.

Iga City is a result of numerous mergers in modern times, beginning from 1941. The latest of these mergers came in November 2004, and is therefore the origin of the present day administrative boundaries. The Kizu River and its tributary, the Hattori River, is only a few minutes' drive away from Ueno Shi Station. The citizens' movement led by Yoshida is based in the New Town Area in Ueno, which grew into a residential area primarily after the 1980s, as people from outside, mainly from the Osaka-Kyoto-Nara metropolitan areas, began buying land and properties in the area. Ueno New Town itself, though, is a quiet residential locality, a short drive away from Ueno Shi station on the Iga Tetsudō railway line, and also in close proximity to the Kizu River, cutting its way through a hilly landscape. The New Town is a pleasant locality, with hills, forests and water nearby, and tracts of farmlands at the foot of the hills, a landscape often referred to as satoyama in Japan. This scenic location has provided the imagery of the furusato (ancestral homeland) in Yoshida's accounts as well. Another feature of this residential facility is that a sizeable proportion of houses here are second homes, bought or erected by people from urban areas like Osaka and Nagoya for holidays and recreational purposes.

Yoshida's Accounts: Open Burning and the Waste Dumps

The initial challenge

Yoshida Misawo is the President of the NPO, Haikibutsu Mondai Nettowaaku Mie (Mie Prefectural Network for Industrial Waste Problems) and the Chairperson of the Ueno New Town Residents' Association. Her efforts to stop industrial waste dumping have gained media publicity, and a number of news reports speak of this campaign, which she claims has the goal of 'bequeathing a clean environment in the historically nature rich Kizu River Basin' to future generations (Sankei Shimbun, 2011, Kyoto Minpo Web, 2011).

Figure 2: Yoshida Misawo (Photograph taken by the author, 12 June 2010).

I interviewed Yoshida in 2010, where she was still actively engaged in filing petitions to the relevant authorities on issues such as waste disposal in the Aoyama highlands and the deteriorating water quality of the Kizu River Basin, and protesting against the ongoing Kawakami dam project in the Kawakami River sub-basin of the Kizu watershed. This paper is primarily based on that round of correspondence, and two books that Yoshida has written over the years describing her struggles against unwilling politicians and polluting industrial units: Otochan Mitetena (You will be Looking on, I know) was published in 2001, and its sequel, Okachan Ōkini (Thank you My Dear Wife) came out in 2010. (Translations for both titles are not word for word, but capture the essence of their meaning. in Japanese households the wife is often called as Okāsan by the husband, and the husband as Otōsan by the wife. The words Okachan and Otochan are somewhat affectionate versions of these two terms, used by the Yoshida couple for each other.). Both titles refer to her husband, Yoshida Masaaki, who passed away during the prolonged struggle against industrial polluters in Ueno.

Yoshida Misawo was born in Nara Prefecture in 1931. She moved her critically ill husband, Yoshida Masaaki, to Ueno New Town in 1986, after Masaaki had suffered a sudden paralysis of his legs and needed physical rehabilitation. Misawo explicitly mentions that they chose to move to Ueno New Town due to the natural beauty of the place, and the fact that it was close to the Kansai region, where they used to live before (Yoshida, 2001, 2010).

The family's encounter with environmental problems in the Ueno area began accidentally. In 1989, while the couple was out on a routine morning walk, they were suddenly enveloped by choking, acrid smoke from the forests (Yoshida, 2001, p. 25). Yoshida says 'It was hard to breathe' in the smoke. Soon they found that the origin of the smoke was an incineration facility in the area, owned by a company coincidentally named Yoshida Industries. At first, the family thought a complaint to the city office would be enough to stop the incinerator from operating, an idea that turned out to be very naïve. The Yoshida family went to the Ueno City Office, but their pleas to stop the foul smelling 'open burning' (noyaki) were not accepted. Officials dismissed the complaint by saying that the City Office had no jurisdiction to stop the burning of garbage on private land (Ibid, p. 26), as carried out by the waste disposal unit of Yoshida Industries. The Yoshida family turned to their neighbors, in the hope that the neighborhood association would be able to pressurize the municipal authorities over this problem, but the initial response was disappointing. The Ueno Residents Association (Jichikai), was nowhere near unanimous over this issue. Of the 103 member households, 80 had bought land or houses in the region, but actually lived in urban centers like Osaka, Kobe or Kyoto. A further 10 families owned a second house or a weekend recreation villa in the area and thus were only intermittent visitors. Only 13 of the remaining households, who were permanent residents, eventually agreed that the problem of open burning in the area was indeed worth pursuing. The residents who refused to cooperate gave three kinds of reasons: first, some families were not interested in the air quality problem as the majority of their time was spent outside the area; second, there were residents whose properties were located further away from the problem than the Yoshida house, and who did not feel any serious urge to combat what they perceived as a distant problem; and third, some were simply afraid of standing up to an industrial unit, which was seen as more powerful than ordinary citizens. Yoshida mentions one instance when a family practically shut the door on them (Ibid, p. 83-84). Only 13 households agreed to rally behind the Yoshida family, and they formed the first group of protesters over the issue.

However, even after this small group of protesters came together, they found that they could not easily get accreditation as bona fide protesters. The municipal office refused to grant them the status of a civilian movement (Yoshida, 2001, p. 8) on the grounds that the law for registering residents' associations at that time required a minimum of 50 households to be members (Ibid, p. 46). The movement had to wait for four years until their fortunes improved. In July 1993, the official in charge of dealings with residents' associations at the municipal office changed. The new official, Tanimoto, was more sympathetic to the citizens' cause, and became instrumental in extending recognition to the would-be residents' association with its 13 households. This recognition meant that the Yoshidas' association was arguably the smallest residents' association in the whole country, and the accreditation was extended not because of the number of protesters, but for the importance of the demands raised.

According to Yoshida Misawo, the industrial unit that was responsible for the pollution adopted a stance of misleading the residents, subverting laws and at times simply denying any wrongdoing (Yoshida, 2001). Yoshida alleges that the industry knew the environmental consequences of their actions, but carried on regardless, partially assisted by the favorable treatment they received from the administration. Sometimes the industry would appear to be willing to discuss the problem, only to backtrack later. Once the company officials agreed to meet the residents to listen to their demands, but announced on the day of the meeting that the top executive's whereabouts were 'unknown' (Yoshida, 2001, p. 90-91)! When an enquiry was eventually carried out by the prefectural government in March 1992, the polluters suddenly stopped all burning activities just before the investigation was to begin, and they restarted operations as soon as it was over, suggesting worrying collusion between the authorities and the industry (Ibid, p. 86-87). Suspicions of collusion increased after an inspection carried out by a local judge, on 12 September 1992. He absolved Yoshida Industries of any wrongdoing, observing that only 'burnable garbage' was stored at the facility, despite the clear presence of asbestos and metal parts witnessed by residents (Ibid, p. 98). Even a dialogue with officials of Mie Prefecture resulted in disappointment, as despite the proof of illegal wastes being present at the dumpsite, the prefecture backed a plan by Yoshida Industries to set up an incinerator, prioritizing the industry's 'right' to do so.

Fortunes change for protesters

From 1989 to 1992 the protest movement encountered one challenge after another. At first they were woefully outnumbered and obtained no recognition of their concerns from the local administration, and the odds were seemingly stacked in favor of the polluters. Facing such challenges, it seemed that the movement would struggle to make much headway. But the residents' resolve was eventually strengthened when a forest fire broke out in 1992 near the dumpsite. Though it was doused quickly, it served as a wake-up call for those who were still reluctant to pursue the issue with full vigor (Yoshida, 2001, p. 107). In addition, the garbage at the site started to rot with the arrival of the summer rains, which released toxic gases that caused headaches and eye problems (Ibid, p. 110).

The year 1992 saw the fortunes of this movement change, due to both internal and external factors. At the internal level, there were two developments. The residents met an energetic lawyer, Murata Masato, who was impressed by the struggle of the Yoshida family, especially the physically disabled Masaaki, and pledged his support to the movement. The residents benefited much from the participation of Murata, who proved to be a key presence whenever the movement sought legal or administrative arbitration. Second, the citizens began to carry out their own inspection of the dump site. This began with causal observations, matured into careful recording of information from the number plates of the dump trucks, and culminated with a full scale inspection of the facility led by Dr. Hatakeyama Mitsuhiro, a local expert (Ibid, p. 78, Hatakeyama, 1998). This survey served as a response to the earlier prefectural survey that failed to impart any responsibility to Yoshida Industries. The citizens' survey was much bigger in scope, spanning 50 days, and the results showed a high concentration of CO2 in the air, along with the presence of asbestos and toxic metals in the waste, which raised the possibility of pollution of the Kizu River water through sub-surface leaching. These findings became the basis of a case in which five residents of Ueno New Town sought prefectural mediation over the garbage dump on 20 July 1992 (Ibid, p. 102). Though this mediation did not materialize, this was a step forward, as the citizens could now claim to be able to back up their claims with scientific evidence.

The external factors are related to developments in environmental regulations in this period in the country as a whole. It is generally observed that the 1990s were a period of environmental restoration in Japan, as laws came to the aid of the environment and citizens' environmental groups. In 1992, a law was passed to stop all open burning, and on 24 December 1992, the Ueno City Council adopted a resolution calling for a stoppage to open burning and any expansion of incineration facilities in the Ueno area, pledging also to protect the area's mountains and forests (Yoshida, 2001, p. 62). However, as Yoshida's account testifies, the laws did not, and could not, fix all the problems at a single stroke, and they faced numerous challenges on the implementation front. She laments that much of the legislation was only on paper, but not effective on the ground.

In 1995, Yoshida Industries proposed to set up small incinerators with a 5-ton capacity in the area which, according to the law at that time, did not require permission from residents' associations. However, the New Town residents' association had earlier pledged itself not to allow any incineration facilities apart from three existing ones in the area, and hence they thought that they had a valid reason for opposing the newly proposed installation. From this point on, the struggle also became a quest to legally recognize the citizens' right to control land use, over and above the rights of industrial corporations to make a profit. But while municipal recognition had paved the way for the Yoshidas' movement to emerge as a stakeholder in the issue of protecting the environment of the Ueno region, a subsequent and arduous challenge remained, that of taking the company to court and winning the case. This process took over 4 years. On 19 June 1997, the Yoshida family finally got the legal verdict they were fighting for. A High Court ruling recognized concerns over citizens' health as a priority, and recognized their right to information regarding dumpsites and incineration facilities (Ibid, p. 177). This was a landmark judgment, as the court instructed the then Mie Prefectural Governor, Kitakawa Masayasu to release all information about the dump site to the public (Ibid, p. 177).

From this point, the citizens were aided by coverage in the national media, which became a vital ally. The Nagoya Bureau of the Nippon Hōsō Kyōkai (NHK) involved itself in the process, and this active involvement of the media proved to be the final nail in the coffin of the company's case. The NHK broadcast an investigation led by Dr. Hatakeyama on 17 October 1997. The result of this investigation showed dioxin pollution stretching across large swathes of land in the vicinity. This finding gave an air of legitimacy to the claims of the citizens, due to the fact that dioxin pollution was widely recognized as a possible cause of cancer. Yoshida Industries did not back down easily, and started operating a new incinerating facility in 1998. But when this led to numerous complaints of physical discomfort like coughing, itching of the eyes, and chest pain among the residents (Yoshida, 2001, p. 203), the tide had seemingly turned against the company. Yoshida Industries' efforts to secure a favorable judgment from the Nagoya high court, based on a petition challenging the judgment of 19 June 1997, went in vain as the petition was turned down on 22 December 1998. Furthermore, the High Court ordered them to pay a token penalty of 600,000 Yen (Ibid, p. 213-215). The citizens' victory was completed on 7 July 2000, when the High Court handed down a verdict of prohibiting any type of waste disposal unit in the Ueno area, the first such verdict against industrial incinerators of any capacity (Ibid, p. 227). After this verdict, Yoshida Industries finally backed down and accepted all the demands of the Ueno New Town residents' association led by Yoshida.

Though this was a successful outcome for Yoshida Misawo, there was a personal loss. The arduous battle against the industry and life in the polluted environment had taken its toll on her husband Masaaki's health. He partially lost his eyesight while the courtroom battles wore on, and it gradually became clear that he would enjoy no rehabilitation, as his health deteriorated steadily. Finally, he passed away after a stroke.

Figure 3: An incinerator lies abandoned at the waste disposal facility (now defunct) of Yoshida Industries (Photograph taken by the author, 12 June 2010).

Yoshida's Account: The Sequel

Citizen victories against industrial firms in the Iga area did not end with the case surrounding Yoshida Industries. In fact, as Yoshida Misawo describes in her second memoir, Otōchan Mitetena, the battle spilled over into the new millennium, and continues even today. There was a sequel to the issue of open burning and waste dump in the form of a proposal to expand the dumping facility of Jōnan Kaihatsu, another industrial company. The civil response against it is described in Yoshida's second memoir.

This phase began in 2002, when Jōnan Kaihatsu sought an expansion of their waste dumpsite near Ueno New Town, because the existing facility was already full to capacity (Yoshida 2010, p. 9). This garbage dump was located around 800 meters from the Yoshida household. This time, Jōnan Kaihatsu posed an entirely different kind of challenge. As they could not go ahead with the expansion of the waste dump without the support of the residents' associations in the area, the industry first approached Yoshida for permission. When this did not materialize, Jōnan pursued a different plan: they offered a deal to the New Town residents, promising clean and potable water to New Town homes in exchange for an expansion of their industrial works. Yoshida recounts that this was a tempting offer for some of the Jichikai members as the area had already been afflicted by water shortages. They opposed Yoshida's decision to refuse permission to Jōnan. Yoshida tells us in her book that she felt isolated and hopeless at times, but her resolve to oppose any kind of industrial pollution in the area after the previous episode was strong, as it came from her sense of unfinished duty to her husband and the residents of the Iga City area. She writes that when she led other residents in an inspection of Jōnan's existing dumping facility in the area, she could 'hear' the pleas of the forests and mountains to save them from the toxic waste. During the inspection, the residents saw foul smelling and evidently improperly managed waste in the facility. This convinced Yoshida that any expansion by Jōnan would prove to be detrimental to the region's environment. The threat of metal pollution through sub-soil leaching, a familiar issue since the case with Yoshida Industries, was very much a possibility. However, visual evidence only did not count much as proof of environmental pollution, so the New Town residents had to establish scientifically that they were preventing Jōnan from expanding its industrial facility for good reasons. For this, Yoshida and other residents approached Ikeda Komichi, chief of the Tokyo based Haiki Butsu Mondai Zenkoku Nettowāku (All Japan Industrial Waste Pollution Network). When the residents sent a soil sample to Ikeda, he forwarded it to a laboratory in Ontario in Canada, which found the presence of metal toxicity in the soil (Yoshida, 2010, p. 37). Based on this, Yoshida called on the population on the locality and neighborhood to join the protest movement of the New Town residents. This effort took the form of a signature campaign, and eventually the movement amassed 10,000 signatures and submitted them to the Mie Governor in December 2004 (Ibid, p. 66).

The industry's response was to ignore the first stage of the protest, and behave as if everything was normal. Yoshida suggests that there was further collusion between the industrial unit and the local administration. This, she alleges, was once again blatantly exposed on 24 December 2004 when the prefectural officials inspected the dumpsite and gave a clean bill of health to Jōnan (Yoshida 2010, p. 71). However, independent inspections, as noted earlier, found toxicity in the soil: as in the previous episode with Yoshida Industries where dioxin pollution was found, the identification of Polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB) this time led to widespread perceptions of imminent hazard. In another survey carried out by the Meijo University Professor Makinouchi Takeshi, the following points were mentioned:

  1. The garbage dump was located in a beautiful natural setting. Its unnatural shape and size caused 'visual pollution.'

  2. The dump could collapse in an event of heavy rain or a strong earthquake. A point to be noted was the presence of an active geological fault in the region.

  3. The dump contained garbage other than what it was meant for.

  4. Though water contamination levels were below danger levels, fresh inspections should be carried out in relation to this threat.

  5. The discovery of PCB in the soil meant that it would affect the water in the Sankenya and Kizu River basins, and there was a possibility that the effects would reach as far as Osaka Bay. (Yoshida 2010, p. 114)

Based on these observations, the Ueno New Town residents association, in coordination with other resident associations in the vicinity, appealed for national mediation on the matter on 16 February 2006. Due to the merger of village units that created the present Iga City in 2004, Yoshida could find new support in the form of residents associations who now identified themselves as stakeholders in the issue.

Although the industry could muster some support in the administration, the pressure of civil protests proved too strong in the end. The prefectural government could not ignore these strong demands for long, and sent a fresh investigation team, that vindicated the New Town residents' long-standing claim: it found a PCB concentration of eight times the safe limit at the Jōnan dumpsite (Yoshida 2010, pp. 139-140). This finding led them to issue a notice of 'Disapproval of Any Extension of Industrial Waste Dumpsite's' to Jōnan in 2006, thereby handing victory to Yoshida's movement.

With this victory, Yoshida Misawo came to be recognized at the local level as a crusader for environmental preservation in the Iga City area. In the final section of her book, Yoshida argues that her movement has not attained its final goal yet. The waters of the Sankenya River are still severely polluted and though any extension to the dumpsite was denied in 2006, the original dumpsite still sits in the landscape like an unwelcome ghost (Yoshida 2010, pp. 150-151). She writes of continuing her struggle for a better life for the Ueno New Town citizens by freeing the area from pollution in the air, water and soil, and preserving the natural diversity of the Iga basin area for the benefit of future generations.

Discussion: Yoshida Misawo as a Postwar Environmental Activist

Yoshida Misawo's struggles against industrial waste dumping are remarkable, and when I spoke to her during a two hour long interview, I was moved by the passion she retains at her advanced age. She has become a well known advocate of environmental preservation in the Iga City area, and her books have won her admirers beyond her immediate locality.

In the larger context, Yoshida Misawo's movement can be located within the broad spectrum of postwar civilian movements in Japan in response to industrial pollution (McKean, 1981, Broadbent, 1998, Hase, 2002, Hasegawa, 2004). Hasegawa (2004) has observed that '…wherever environmental issues are recognized, some sort of social movements will emerge.' (Hasegawa, 2004, p. 70). McKean (1981) points out that citizen led protests in postwar Japan usually began with victims of pollution or concerned residents approaching local level bodies such as the Jichikai (McKean, 1981, p.26). According to Broadbent (1998), Japanese environmental protest movements are characterized by a high social intensity of pollution (Broadbent, 1998, p. 332), which stirs the residents into action (Ibid, p. 359). In addition, a notable feature of the Japanese environmental protest movements has been their NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) nature, implying a realistic adaptation to their target, which is improvement of their immediate localities (Ibid, pp. 355-356). Hase (2002) observes that there are three broad categories of environmental movements in Postwar Japan: (i) protest groups demanding compensation for problems of industrial pollution; (ii) groups opposed to development projects; and (iii) groups demanding a better standard of living (Hase, 2002, p. 8). The first group was characterized by the struggles of civilians in the 'Big Four' pollution cases, namely; those involving Yokkaichi asthma (Mie Prefecture), mercury poisoning at Minamata (Kumamoto Prefecture), and Niigata (Niigata Prefecture) and 'Itai-Itai Disease' caused by cadmium poisoning (Toyama Prefecture). In all these cases, the industrial units involved first denied any responsibility and the battles went to the courtrooms, where civilian claim were upheld (Hase, 2002, p. 9). In most cases during the high speed economic growth years, the familiar pattern was acute deterioration of the environment followed by a coalescence of protests and eventual solutions through legal means, the broad pattern being 'polluter pays after pollution assumes serious proportions' (Hase, 2002, p. 9). Yoshida's first movement, in this definition, would fall into the first group, while the second movement can be seen as belonging to the second group. However, there is considerable overlap within this classification, and this is borne out in Yoshida's movements as well. Furthermore, as Funabashi (1992) points out, after an initial spurt in environmental protest movements from 1964 to 1973 and a decline from 1974 to 1986, environmental movements enjoyed a renewed boost from 1987, with citizen-led opposition to development projects and protection of local environments becoming its main feature (Funabashi, 1992, p.7). Sorensen (2007) indicates that environmental protest movements matured as local level voices for preservation were raised in this period (Sorensen, 2007, p. 70). In line with this, Mason also observes: 'In some ways, it appears as if the Japan of the early and mid-1990s had entered a period of resurging environmental interest, with heightened activity by environmental NGOs' (1999, p. 187). The 1998 NPO Law also removed many of the bureaucratic obstacles and smoothed the way for even small local level organizations to gain voice (Pekkanen, 2006). A large part of these civil society groups, like Yoshida's NPO, have become active in the countryside, as the relatively pristine countryside environments have faced an onslaught of urbanization and industrial activities during this period. This point is taken up by Funabashi in his article: 'In the course of economic growth, large scale regional development plans that involve a risk of environmental disruption show a tendency to amalgamate in peripheral areas' (Funabashi, 1992, p. 10). Yoshida Misawo's first movement in 1989 was launched in response to industrial pollution, and demanded the industry acknowledge its responsibility for polluting the environment. It began as a petition, but the immediate authorities showed no sympathy, and in fact appeared to be working hand in glove with the industry. The movement then matured, as it took on the industry in the courts and secured a judgment asking the unit responsible to pay a fine. This pattern is consistent with McKean's point that most residents movements '…uncovered serious transgression of ethics, if not blatant violations of law, in the way their local politicians had concealed facts, extended favors to polluting industry, or promised municipal services to a company planning to build in the area.” (McKean, 1981, p. 27) Her second movement was a protest in anticipation of environmental degradation as it involved opposition to a plan to expand an industrial facility. Talking about these two movements, Yoshida sees them as very closely related, and in fact, she claims the second movement was a continuation of the first one. In her two books, Yoshida mentions her mission as 'preservation of the natural environment of the Iga area for the benefit of future generations,' which brings her aims closely in line with those of the third category of movements mentioned above, those concerned with improvements in living conditions.

Where does Yoshida Misawo stand as leader of a postwar environmental movement? In her first book, Yoshida repeatedly asserts that she chose to fight the industrial units because of her husband's health problems. This implies that she saw herself as a dutiful wife, and in fact, Yoshida tells us that the leader of the movement was her husband, even though her accounts, as well as my interview with her, led me to conclude that Masaaki's leadership was largely symbolic. During the second movement, her husband was no longer present, but Yoshida writes of his presence in her soul. In fact, in one part she describes how she got her resolve to fight Jōnan Industries by praying before her husband's photo dressed in a traditional Kimono. This, together with the title of her second book, again suggests that Yoshida continued to see herself as a devoted wife, fulfilling her duties to her deceased husband.

Susan Pharr (1981), in Political Women in Japan, has observed that Japanese women, when taking political roles, have done so in an indirect manner, by identifying their duties as extensions of their duties at home. Goebel-Noguchi (1992) points out that women have found leadership of environmental movements as especially suited to them. Goebel-Noguchi discusses her interviews with six environmental movement leaders and points out that these women often sought to move beyond the traditional roles of homemaker and mother, although they would not explicitly claim so. This observation is valid for Yoshida as well. She keeps on portraying her struggle as a wife's duty, yet she speaks of her goal of preserving the natural environment of the Iga area for its residents, implying an expansion of her identity not only as a good wife, but also as a voice for the local people. During my interview, Yoshida also spoke of her association with nature from childhood. She says that she still fondly remembers the days when she used to swim in the brook near her house and walk by crystal clear rivers. The upper Kizu basin, the location of Ueno, had been rich in forests and natural diversity, but postwar industrial and urban expansion steadily depleted the natural components in the landscape. In her two books, as well as during interviews (Yoshida, 2001, Yoshida, 2010, personal communication, June 12, 2010), Yoshida repeatedly asserts her resolve to protect the upper Kizu basin; in fact the subtitle of one of the books mentions her struggle to preserve the satoyama in the Kizu River basin. There are two points worth mentioning here. First, the use of the word satoyama evokes a powerful imagery. Satoyama is essentially the landscape of pre-industrial Japan, thus, the landscape of the ancestors (Takeuchi et al., 2003). Degradation of this landscape thus is a degradation of the traditional Japanese way of life, and this appeals to the general public even in today's heavily urbanized Japan. Thus, the word satoyama serves as a stimulant for Yoshida's campaign, making it attractive both within and beyond the immediate scope of Ueno district. Earlier, I noted how Yoshida writes about 'hearing' the pleas of the mountains and forests, implying that the traditional landscape of the area was in danger, and that someone had to save it from vanishing altogether. Second, Yoshida's identification of her duty to preserve the upper Kizu basin and the satoyama of the Iga basin area reaffirms her personal commitment to the environmental agenda; it signifies her identity as an environmental preservationist. Thus, Yoshida Misawo's movement presents the case of a traditional Japanese woman who accidentally found herself faced with an arduous task, that of taking on a polluting industrial unit. The immediate motive at the beginning of her campaign was her duty to her husband, and she portrays this struggle as the duty of a homemaker. However, her role expanded as the challenges took on new forms: she took on the industry in the courtroom, led signature campaigns, and even participated in environmental sampling surveys with other residents. None of these activities are typically wife's chores, and though Yoshida continued to identify her struggles as an extension of her wife's duties, it is clear that she had moved beyond the role of a housewife by the time of the victory of the first movement, and more so during the second movement.

Finally, what is the general context of Yoshida's movement? Through her long struggle of more than two decades, Yoshida Misawo has become an active voice for environmental preservation in the Iga basin, against the backdrop of industrial and urban expansion. Though her movements have concentrated specifically on opposition to industrial waste management in the countryside, the scope of this movement extends beyond poorly managed dumpsites to preservation of the traditionally rich natural landscape of the Iga basin, which is located in the upper part of the Kizu River watershed. Thus, Yoshida's movements have a dual identity: of being stakeholders in local level waste management, and a voice for preservation of the water environment of the region. The second movement against Jōnan also derived its strength from its extended scope, as Yoshida successfully appealed to the residents of downstream areas, as far as to the metropolitan areas of Kyoto and Osaka (Yoshida, 2010, p. 39).

Asano (2007) has drawn a distinction between anti-pollution and nature conservation movements in water environments (Asano, 2007, pp. 190-191). He points out that while the former is limited to demanding relief from pollution in the water and immediate surroundings, the latter has a much broader scope in its vision of saving nature from destruction: 'Concepts of water pollution have now come of age, and are concerned mostly about the condition of the whole watershed area, as opposed to only water quality.' (Asano, 2007, p. 193) As reported by the Sankei Shimbun (2011), the citizen's organization of 'Kizugawa Nettowāku' (Kizu River Network) was launched on 15 January 2011 with Yoshida as its President, and within a month, on 14 February 2011 the organization issued a formal call for removal of all industrial waste facilities from the Iga City area (Kyoto Minpo Web, 2011). During my interview with her, Yoshida spoke explicitly of her concern for protecting the river basin environment, by continuing struggles against industrial waste, and by educating young minds about the necessity of clean rivers and forested mountains. This takes us back to the point made by Goebel-Noguchi (1992) that traditional women in Japan have assumed roles of stewards of environmental preservation movements in the postwar period, and though they started as good wives and wise mothers, their roles extended to different dimensions, eventually fulfilling the role of activists for natural preservation.


This paper has looked at an environmental preservation movement led by an octogenarian woman in one of the most densely urbanized regions in Japan. Though the Kinki region is highly urbanized in general, the immediate location of the movement is an area full of natural diversity and beauty. The movement led by Yoshida Misawo shows that industrial pollution was not only a hallmark of the high speed growth years in Japan: it is a problem very much alive today in the Japanese countryside, and civil society groups still find it tough going protesting against those responsible for the pollution, who generally deny any wrongdoing. Yoshida's struggle was spread across two movements against two different industrial units: the first episode was mainly about air pollution and its effects on human health, while the second was concerned with soil pollution and the risks associated with the expansion of an already existing industrial facility. The first movement led by Yoshida share several common characteristics with the 'Big Four' pollution incidents, albeit on a much smaller, local scale, and in a similar pattern, victory was eventually achieved in the courtroom and the polluting company was instructed to pay compensation. The second movement shares commonalities with 'anti-development movements' as defined by Hase (2002) and employed familiar strategies of amassing signatures to put pressure on the administration, which then mediated on the citizens' behalf. However, there is another point to be noted in both these movements: in both cases, the movements involved on-the-spot surveys of the disputed sites by citizens, and laboratory analyses of samples. This shows that Yoshida Misawo, who began as a distressed housewife struggling to look after her sick husband in a polluted residential neighborhood, transformed herself into a leader of local environmental issues, with a broad focus on maintaining the natural diversity of the Iga basin area.

There is one final point worth mentioning. This comes from my own observations in the field, as well as from talking to Yoshida in person. While her movement has been successful, there is no heir apparent to this movement, and considering her age, it is also not clear how long she will be able to lead this struggle. Although she has achieved her primary mission by securing victory against industrial units, and although citizens in the Ueno New Town area are much better organized now against such threats in the future, protecting the environment in the whole upper Kizu River basin remains a major unfinished challenge. In the interview, Yoshida spoke of her desire to educate the young minds of the region. Yoshida Misawo is active in holding public lectures in universities and talks for local school children. Her involvement in such educational activities are an indication of the next frontier of her movement, which is, looking for followers to keep it alive even after she, as a leader, is no longer there to lead it. 

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About the author

Abhik Chakraborty is a PhD candidate at Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University in Oita Prefecture, Japan. Born in India, he came to Japan in 2007 and has since been researching river basin landscape changes, having earlier worked on how public memory and physical changes interweave to produce perceptions of landscape change in Indian river basins. His main research interests are man environment relations, landscape changes and river basin governance in modern and post growth Japan.

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Copyright: Abhik Chakraborty.
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