Another Great Wave? Ecocriticism in Japan

Noel Gough, School of Education, La Trobe University [About | Email]

Volume 19, Issue 3 (Book review 2 in 2019). First published in ejcjs on 24 December 2019.

Review of Wake, Hisaki, Suga, Keijiro, & Yuki, Masami (Eds.). (2018). Ecocriticism in Japan. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, hardback, v–296 pages, ISBN 9781498527842

Keywords: ecocriticism, harmony with nature, environmental destruction, slow violence.

In his introduction to The Oxford Handbook of Ecocriticism, editor Greg Garrard (2014, p. 1) observes that as an ‘important component of the environmental humanities, ecocriticism has been characterised using the metaphor of waves’:

‘First-wave’ ecocriticism is inclined to celebrate nature rather than query ‘nature’ as a concept and to derive inspiration as directly as possible from wilderness preservation and environmentalist movements. ‘Second-wave’ecocriticism is linked to social ecological movements and maintains a more skeptical relationship with the natural sciences.

Any juxtaposition of Japan with the metaphor of waves is likely to conjure mental images of Katsushika Hokusai’s famous woodblock print, The Great Wave off Kanagawa, from the late Edo period, and/or one of Japan’s most salient (and relatively recent) environmental disasters, the massive Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami of March 11, 2011 with its catastrophic aftermath of technological failure and nuclear radiation. These associations, complicated by erroneous suggestions that Hokusai’s wave illustrates a tsunami (see Julyan H. E. Cartwright & Hisami Nakamura, 2009), prompt me to begin this review by examining how ecocriticism in contemporary Japan relates to the metaphorical waves that Garrard identifies.

As Patrick Murphy (1998, p. xxiii) observes, although nature has long permeated literature, it ‘perhaps received no greater neglect in the Anglo-American intellectual tradition than in the early twentieth-century period of modernism and the early years of contemporary postmodernism’. Following the rise of contemporary conservation movements and growing public awareness of environmental crises, this neglect was to some extent rectified by the late-twentieth-century growth of environmentally-oriented literary study (often abbreviated to ‘ecocriticism’) as an academic specialisation, exemplified in the USA by the founding of the Association for the Study of Literature and Environment (ASLE) in 1992 and its journal ISLE: Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment. Nevertheless, this first wave of Anglo-American ecocriticism was both parochial and heavily biased towards nonfiction. For example, The Ecocriticism Reader: Landmarks in Literary Ecology (Cheryll Glotfelty & Harold Fromm, 1996) features essays by 25 US-based contributors (and one Canadian), in which the vast majority of literary examples come from the ranks of nonfiction, with fiction a distant second and poetry barely mentioned at all.

Murphy’s (1998) edited collection, Literature of Nature: An International Sourcebook, which Ursula K. Heise (2013, p. 642) characterises as ‘a pioneer of transnational ecocriticism’, foreshadows possibilities for developing a more international, cross-cultural, multidisciplinary ecocriticism by including chapters focused on literature representing all of the world’s geographic regions, among which four are by Japanese scholars. Heise (2018, p. vii), who also provides the foreword to Ecocriticism in Japan, concludes that ecocriticism is now ‘a thoroughly comparative enterprise’ no longer focused exclusively on its Anglo-American forebears, although Yuki Masami (2018, p. 1) asserts that regional and national variants of ecocriticism have taken shape ‘by comparing and contrasting themselves with the ecocritical theory and practice developed in the United States’. Yuki adopts Joni Adamson and Scott Slovic’s (2009, p. 6) terminology to describe this transnational turn as ‘a third wave of ecocriticism following a second-wave postcolonial turn’.

Waves appear again in Keijiro Suga’s (2018, p. 174) contribution to Ecocriticism in Japan: ‘Waves connect, and as such, can be a good material metaphor… for the far-reaching connectedness in which we live. Tsunami, or tidal waves, alone can prove the unexpected nearness of remote shores’. Suga’s chapter focuses on Japanese artists in a variety of media (including fictional and non-fictional writing, photography, theatre, flower arrangement, frottage, and poetry) whose works were deeply affected by the March 11, 2001 triple disaster of earthquake, tsunami, and subsequent spread of radioactive materials from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear meltdown, all of which demonstrate ‘how the lingering invisible waves are still flowing strong’. Some of the examples of the works that Suga describes are among the most affecting to be found in the book, such as ikebana artist Katagiri Atsunobu’s installation, ‘Sacrifice: Words Spoken by Flowers within 30 km of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant’. After the tsunami receded, the endangered flower, Monochoria korsakowii, was found growing wildly (and abundantly) near the coast, in areas where the tsunami had washed away houses and livelihoods (and might also have washed away the herbicides that endangered it). Katagiri’s displays of the fragile blue blossoms invite contemplation of the power of flowers as an instance of nature reviving itself in a place where humans are still struggling to do the same. Suga sees another powerful example of nature reviving itself in Shinnami Kyōsuke’s non-fiction work The Cattle and Soil, in which grasses and cows slowly reform the post-Fukushima radiation-laden landscape.

In her introduction to this volume, Yuki (2018, p. 2) intentionally differentiates ‘ecocriticism in Japan’ from ‘Japanese ecocriticism’, where ‘the former refers to any ecocritical practices in Japan and of Japanese literature outside the country whereas the latter involves some peculiarly Japanese characteristics or inclinations in such practices’. In her contribution to Garrard’s (2014) Handbook, Yuki (2014) describes ecocriticism in Japan as beginning in the 1990s and then developing in three phases: the first focusing on translation, the second introducing comparative approaches, and the third involving ecocritical interventions in Japanese literature. She sees this volume as a materialisation of the third phase, ‘demonstrating how ecocritical theory and practices interface and negotiate with Japanese literature while anticipating an emergence of Japanese ecocriticism’.

As an environmental educator who has long been troubled by the uncritical acceptance of ideas about the desirability of a ‘balance of nature’ in Anglophone discourses (see Gough, 2012), I was pleasantly surprised to find that Yuki (2018, p. 2) also focuses on her trouble with ‘a discourse of “harmony” in Japanese literature, culture and environmentalism’:

By definition, ‘harmony’ refers to a sound relationship; therefore, the term is often used to represent ecological health… An idea of ‘harmony with nature is often referred to as characteristically Japanese in two largely different ways. Some scholars… celebrate perceived harmony between humans and nonhuman nature as an ecologically sound alternative vision, whereas others see the notion of living in harmony with nature as culturally constructed and purely ideological with little ecological significance

Yuki’s (2018, p. 3) chapter provides a lucid account of the reasons for ‘harmony with nature’ being both the ‘most uniquely Japanese’ and the ‘most troublesome’ of three major themes in recent ecocritical analyses of Japanese culture. The other two—large-scale environmental destructions (such as the 1995 Hanshin earthquake) and the ‘slow violence’ (Rob Nixon, 2011) of less visible crises (such as the prolonged mercury poisoning of Minamata Bay by the Chisso Corporation from the 1940s to the 1960s)—are not unique to Japan (think Bhopal and Chernobyl among others), but both are well represented in the book’s contents, including Alex Bates’ (2018) treatment of nature and disaster in Murakami Haruki’s (2002) After the Quake, and two chapters (Daisuke Higuchi, 2018; Takazawa Shuji 2018) focusing on Ishimure Michiko’s Kugai jōdo (aka Paradise in the Sea of Sorrow 2003) series beginning in 1969 and chronicling a wide range of incidents related to Minimata disease over a fifty-year span. Kugai jōdo and its successors are written in a pioneering mixed genre style that brings together reportage and fictional writing, which has led some (Anglophone) critics to refer to her as the ‘Rachel Carson of Japan’ (see, e.g., Karen Thornber, 2016, n.p.), a comparison that I suspect undervalues Ishimure’s literary achievements. I have drawn attention elsewhere (Gough, 2004, pp. 160-163) to my reservations about the environmental movement’s veneration of Carson’s (1962) best known work, Silent Spring, so I will not repeat them here. Suffice it to say that I have long been underwhelmed by Carson’s anguished and repetitious hand-wringing about the effects of insecticides (and an introductory chapter that clumsily emulates dystopian science fiction). In contrast, both Shuji (2018) and Higuchi (2018) offer convincing appreciations of Ishimure’s imaginative and empathetic interpretations of her personal experiences of living near Minamata Bay and her spiritual connections to nature and outcasts/nomads there. Although I have not yet read any of Ishimure’s works, I am now motivated to do so. In Shuji’s account, Ishimure’s writing portrays a young girl as a spiritual messenger, envisioning herself as a white fox transformed into a human, believing that human words could never describe the vivid and nuanced world of nature and its spirits.

Ishimure’s Paradise in the Sea of Sorrow is also one of the three foci of Hisaki Wake’s (2018) chapter, which also examines the anime of Miyazaki Hayao and Hyakuta Naoki’s novel, The Eternal Zero.

Given that climate change has been a major political concern in Japan, at least since it hosted the negotiations leading to the 2007 Kyoto Protocol, I was a little surprised by its almost total omission as a major ecocritical concern in this volume. I am aware of Amitav Ghosh’s (2016) comments on the difficulty of reconciling the scale and agency of individuals, families and nations (that historically shaped European realism) with the magnitude, complexities and uncertainties of global climate change, but I have not previously associated Japanese literature, cinema, or art with narrow understandings of realism. Climate change has generated a rich vein of science fiction—see, for example, the special issue on SF and the climate crisis in Science Fiction Studies, 45(3)—and it is indeed a relatively early work in this sub-genre that provides the only Japanese example of such in this volume. Abe Kōbō’s (1970) novel, Inter Ice Age 4, initially serialised between 1958 and 1959, anticipates climate change caused by greenhouse gas emissions and the melting of glaciers and the polar ice caps, which results in sea-level rise and in turn motivates a clandestine genetic engineering of humans to live underwater as cyborg ‘aquans’. Abe’s protagonists do not seek ‘harmony with nature’: the aquans go underwater, leaving plants and other creatures on land to adapt without interference from humans. Abe’s works are the focus of Ueno Toshiya’s (2018) chapter, which is also a fascinating account of the generative juxtapositions that can be enabled by transcultural relationships. Drawing on Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s (1987, p. 4) concept of ‘machinic assemblages’ and Guattari’s (2000, p. 29) concept of ‘ecosophy’, Ueno explores their contributions to ecocriticism through interpretations of Abe’s novels.

Although most of the chapters collected in Ecocriticism in Japan focus on relatively recent cultural works, they span a range of historical periods, including Marjorie Rhine’s (2018, p. 21) exploration of ‘how to reimagine the relationship between the human and the nonhuman’ by reference to the eleventh-century ‘Tale of Genji’—which Rhine describes as ‘the most revered and canonical of Japanese texts’—and a ninth-century folktale translated as ‘On a woman who was violated by a large snake but survived due to the power of drugs’. In another chapter, Ronald Loftus (2018) harks back to one of the earliest environmental crises in modern Japan, the Ashio Copper Mine pollution case of August 1890 when the Watarase River basin flooded and spread pollutants across 4,000 acres (1,600 hectares) of farmland, destroying farmers’ livelihoods and homes. Loftus focuses on the writings of Taoka Reiun (1870-1812) whose critiques of Western-style modernity, capitalism, and industrialisation can be interpreted as early examples of ecocriticism.

As an admirer of anime artist Miyazaki Hayao’s work for many years I was also somewhat surprised by Wake’s (2018, pp. 224-226) skepticism about the ecocritical merits of works such as Nausicaå of the Valley of the Wind and Princess Mononoke in which Wake finds contradictions between environmental consciousness and ‘tech-fetishism’:

anime content that overtly seems to promote ecological thinking is just as likely often accompanied by motifs that promote ant-ecological messages. While waving flags for antinuclear and antiwar activism and advocating his respect for ecology, Miyazaki produced works often filled with bloody battles and deaths… While his works seem to be supporting the propagation of ecologically conscious ways of thinking, some of the cinematic elements that most deeply affect and inspire the audience are the meticulously drawn battle sequences.

Wake views all of the authors/artists he examines as demonstrating ‘obvious ambivalence regarding their strategies in producing popular artistic works and their publicly stated positions on nature and environmental issues’ (p. 234) and concludes that ‘environmental consciousness, if thematically employed in a popular culture product, is only likely to serve to increase the work’s market value’ (p.235).

Although Ecocriticism in Japan benefits from the varying perspectives provided by its Japanese and other (mostly Anglophone) authors, I appreciate the disciplinary diversity of the editors, who include a poet (Suga), a Japanese language professor (Wake), and a professor of socioenvironmental studies (Yuki). I certainly appreciate its broad sampling of literature and cultural media, including its glimpses of environmental aesthetics in Japan prior to industrialisation/colonisation, together with its deeper and more detailed examinations of current cultural interactions with nature.


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Adamson, Joni, & Slovic, Scott. (2009). The shoulders we stand on: An introduction to ehnicity and ecocriticism. MELUS, 34(2), 5-24.

Bates, Alex. (2018). Nature and disaster in Murakami Haruki’s after the quake. In Hisaki Wake, Keijiro Suga & Yuki Masami (Eds.), Ecocriticism in Japan (pp. 139-155). Lanham, MD: Lexington Books.

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Higuchi, Daisuke. (2018). Representations of nomads in the works of Ishimure Michiko’s: A historical perspective. In Hisaki Wake, Keijiro Suga & Yuki Masami (Eds.), Ecocriticism in Japan (pp. 203-222). Lanham, MD: Lexington Books.

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Rhine, Marjorie E. (2018). Walking the walk: A path toward praxis inspired by an ecocritical reading of The Tale of Genjiand a Japanese folktale. In Hisaki Wake, Keijiro Suga & Yuki Masami (Eds.), Ecocriticism in Japan (pp. 21-39). Lanham, MD: Lexington Books.

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Suga, Keijiro. (2018). Invisible waves: On some Japanese artists after March 11, 2011. In Hisaki Wake, Keijiro Suga & Yuki Masami (Eds.), Ecocriticism in Japan (pp. 173-187). Lanham, MD: Lexington Books.

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Ueno, Toshiya. (2018). Abe Kõbõ in Ecosophy. In Hisaki Wake, Keijiro Suga & Yuki Masami (Eds.), Ecocriticism in Japan (pp. 81-101). Lanham, MD: Lexington Books.

Wake, Hisaki. (2018). On the ideological manipulation of nature inherent in Japanese popular culture: Miyazaki, Hyakuta, Ishimure. In Hisaki Wake, Keijiro Suga & Yuki Masami (Eds.), Ecocriticism in Japan (pp. 223-238). Lanham, MD: Lexington Books.

Yuki, Masami. (2014). Ecocriticism in Japan. In Greg Garrard (Ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Ecocriticism (pp. 519-526). Oxford,UK: Oxford University Press.

Yuki, Masami. (2018). Introduction. On harmony with nature: Toward Japanese ecocriticism. In Hisaki Wake, Keijiro Suga & Yuki Masami (Eds.), Ecocriticism in Japan (pp. 1-19). Lanham, MD: Lexington Books.

About the Author

Noel Gough is Professor Emeritus (and Foundation Chair of Outdoor and Environmental Education, 2006-14) in the School of Education at La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia. He previously held senior appointments at the University of Canberra and Deakin University and has been a visiting professor at universities in Canada, China, South Africa and the UK. His research interests include curriculum inquiry and research methodology, with particular reference to environmental and science education. He received the inaugural Australian Museum Eureka Prize for environmental education research in 1997, and is founding editor of Transnational Curriculum Inquiry. He is a past president (2008) and Honorary Life Member of the Australian Association for Research in Education.

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