"Corporate Environmentalism and Industrial Disasters at the Besshi Copper Mine in Late Meiji Japan"

Takehiro Watanabe
Research Goals and Analytical Framework

This research is part of an on-going research on the formation of corporate environmentalism by focusing on events surrounding a series of environmental disasters in one of Japan's most intensely industrialized landscapes. During the late Meiji period, disasters imperiled the operations at the Besshi Copper Mine in Shikoku, a mine of great importance for Japan's national interest and the primary source of starter capital for the Sumitomo zaibatsu. The mountain tsunami of 1899, caused by a combination of air pollution from the refinery process, intense logging, and torrential rain, washed away an entire mining community and killed 513. The air pollution also drew violent ikki-style responses from local farmers when sulfuric acid damaged crops across vast regions. Two most notable cases, the Niihama case that began in 1893 and the Toyo case that began in 1905, were resolved by negotiations between the corporation, regional governments, and national ministries. The worker uprising of 1907 in Besshi, framed by historians as part of a national labor upheaval in a time of widespread change in labor management practice, was caused in part by the anxiety mineworkers faced with the increasing technological power of ore extraction and the mounting dangers of an underground workplace that had been extended deeper into the earth. Also during this period, the mining corporation launched a reforestation program with the explicit goals of restoration and conservation, thus diverging from the practice of tree plantations that began in the Tokugawa period. These cases at Besshi were discussed in the Diet and had a lasting effect on industrial environmental policy for the nation and private corporations.

As industries caused greater strain on the environment, these debates determined the responsibility of private corporations for the public good. These arbitrations were complex, involving the state, the mining company, industrial labor, the agricultural sector, and the leadership from regional communities. At a time when the modern epistemic regime was reformulating and introducing key categories in Japanese society, questions concerning corporate social responsibility came to be answered by the urgency with which these environmental disasters were handled.

Research Method

I will primarily use methods of social and cultural historical research. Archival research will be conducted at the following sites:

The Toyo Historical Museum (Toyo, Ehime, Japan)
The Besshi Copper Mine Memorial Museum (Niihama, Ehime, Japan)
The Sumitomo Archive (Kyoto, Japan)
The National Diet Library (Tokyo, Japan)

At these sites, I will obtain copies of historical documents that relate to the above-mentioned natural disasters. During my prior research at these archives in 2001-2003, I identified the materials needed for this research. The research contacts I had made during this earlier research phase will facilitate locating and copying these materials.

I will also discuss my research outcome with my overseas research collaborator, Professor Ian Miller, who is a specialist on Japanese environmental history. Expected Outcome

This research will result in the reporting of the findings in the form of a conference paper and publication. I have been invited to participate in an international conference titled: "Japan's Natural Legacies: Bodies and Landscapes Realized, Idealized, and Poisoned," which will be held in Montana, USA, in October of 2008. This conference will bring together historians and other specialists of Japanese environmental history to finalize plans for publication and further collaborative research. The findings from this research will be presented at this conference. I will also build upon the findings for this research for further research topics on the history of environmentalism and industrialization.

The Implications of Research

Today, Japan's environmental policy is explained as a response to the industrial disasters that occurred during the postwar high economic growth era. This research seeks to locate an earlier precedence, one of many that set the terms used later to make sense of the postwar cases. To this end, the research will consider corporate environmentalism as borne of the modern experience of economic unevenness and ecological destruction. Similar to the way the contemporary discourse of sustainable development and biodiversity conservation articulates our understanding of the relationship between nature and capital, the society-wide response to these disaster cases gives clues as to how Japanese society weighed environmental sacrifices of modern life.

Outside Sophia Participants
Ian Miller, Assistant Professor of History, Harvard University (USA)