Learning in the Afterlives: Multiple Temporalities of Pollution

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This is the seventh post in a series on water pedagogies edited by Sritama Chatterjee.

At the Ashio Copper Mine Poisoning Exhibition Museum in Ota City, Japan, an introductory panel reads, “Although some greenery can be seen on barren mountains, mine drainage containing heavy metals does not stop even now and will last forever. We must not take our eyes off of the mine poisoning measures.”1

After the mine closed in 1973 and refinery ended in 1989 in Ashio, various community museums were established along the 107-kilometer-long Watarase River. An eco-museum of the wetland is also envisioned by residents downstream.

In this article, I delineate how different “water” emerges from the place-based museum pedagogies in three museums. The first case narrates the history of pollution through local struggles; in the second case, the museum arranges its exhibition material in a larger scale of the river basin; and the third case focuses on nature conservation and restoration. I show that learning in the afterlives of mining is a process of making sense of the multiple temporalities of pollution and paying attention to how water matters in different ways.

An enduring legacy of mining

The Ashio copper mine poisoning is said to be the “origin” (genten 原点) of the pollution disaster in Japan. The sulfur dioxide smoke turned mountains in Ashio barren, and the water-borne heavy metal polluted the midstream and downstream areas of the Watarase River through flooding in the Meiji period.

The Ashio Copper Mine Poisoning Exhibition Museum resists the general impression that mine poisoning is a past incident by drawing on the history of local social struggles. It exhibits materials from the bursting of the Gengorozawa retention basin in 1958, which polluted the farmlands in Ota City, and the arbitration documents of the Morita Village Farmers’ Association requesting compensation from the Furukawa Mining Company in the 1970s.2

The exhibition also displays a chronological table of later social movements against landfill development in Ashio and petitions for improvements in irrigation systems in Ota City. The temporal representation addresses the pollution not as a one-off incident but as an enduring legacy. This legacy concerns both the long-lasting effects of the pollution and the future use of the lands in the copper mining town and the polluted sites.

On the other hand, as the quote from the panel mentioned above suggests, while mountains in Ashio are still under reforestation, the presence of mine drainage in the river is uncertain and less visible. This uncertainty raises the question of how local actors understand the mine poisoning in other places that do not share the same local history of social struggles. In other words, the materials in other museums are arranged and organized through a different temporal-spatial framework and thus enact a different kind of water.

The blue riverbed of the Watarase River in Tatebaya City. Credit: Author, February 2022.

Mountains and rivers

The Shōzō Tanaka Commemorative Museum in Tatebaya City is a community museum exhibiting both the history of mine poisoning (kōdoku 鉱毒) and the career of Shōzō Tanaka, who fought against Ashio mining during the Meiji-Taishō period. While most panels exhibit the history of the Meiji-Taishō period, the museum describes the mine poisoning as an ongoing problem.

Unlike the museum in Ota City, which narrates the mine poisoning from the perspective of local farmers’ social struggles, the museum shows a collage of events along the river basin. One of the panels exhibits materials from different regions as evidence of how mine poisoning remains unresolved: newspaper cuts on the bursting of the Gengorozawa retention basin in 1958 and that in 2011 due to the Great East Japan Earthquake, photos of farmland in a neighboring city struggling to recover, and facilities in Ashio such as the mine drainage treatment plant and the Sunokobashi tailing dams for the storage of the resulting sediments.

In the regular and special exhibitions, the museum arranges and organizes materials from different regions through the relationship between upstream mountains and the river. For instance, in response to the experience of Typhoon Hagibis in 2019, the two recent special exhibitions display maps of the Watarase River and pinned extracted literature and drawings along the river. Barren mountains in Ashio are not only witnesses of smoke pollution in Ashio but also a risk factor of flooding, and heavy metal pollution may spread widely if the tailing dams in Ashio collapse.

A mountain side with little vegetation in Ashio. Credit: Author, June 2022.

Thinking as nonhuman species

One of the flood control measures along the river basin is the construction of the Watarase-yūsuichi, a flood retention basin across four prefectures of Tochigi, Ibaraki, Saitama, and Gunma. The social struggle by evicted villagers and Shōzō Tanaka against its construction in the Meiji-Taishō period is part of the regular exhibition in the museum in Tatebayashi City.

On the other hand, after the eviction, the area gradually becomes a wetland dominated by two types of grass, reed (Phragmites australis) and amur silver grass (Miscanthus sacchariflorus). In the face of new development plans, an environmental justice movement initiated by residents started in 1989. The movement envisions the Watarasse-yūsuichi as an eco-museum,3 and the Watarase-yūsuichi was later registered as a Ramsar wetland in 2012.4

Learning in the Watarase-yūsuichi now has one more theme other than the history of pollution and social struggles: appreciation of wildlife and nature. Pedagogical practices of environmental education, including bird watching, plant observation, and making compost from reeds, were carried out by both governmental and non-governmental organizations. The citizen-participatory species surveys and extermination of alien species invite citizens to think with and think as their nonhuman counterparts, such as storks (Ciconia boyciana) and other threatened species. With an emphasis on multispecies presence in the Watarase-yūsuichi, the eco-museum does not speak of an environment yet to be recovered from mine poisoning. Rather, the wetland is a place to be conserved, and restoration aims to nurture biodiversity.

In the Watarase wetland, volunteers had mowed reeds to make compost and mulch. Credit: Author, February 2022.

Different water along the river

Multiple temporalities of pollution stem from the Watarase River ever since the Ashio copper mine poisoning incident. While some farmlands are still struggling to recover, some villages have overcome the adverse effects. The Watarase-yūsuichi even sets off a different trajectory from the pollution disaster and becomes a wetland. Although many of the museums along the river aim to contribute to the inheritance of the pollution experience, they have their temporal-spatial frameworks for explaining the incident and its relationship to the present and future.

As a result, it is crucial to understand how water matters differently in different places. The museum in Ota City mainly focuses on water as irrigation water and the effects of water-borne heavy metals on farmlands. The museum in Tatebayashi illustrates the hydrologic connection between mountains and rivers yet to be restored. In the context of nature conservation and restoration in Watarase-yūsuichi, water is nurturing and where wildlife flourishes. The differences of the museum pedagogies once again illustrate that histories in the afterlives of mining are plural.

1 The original Japanese text was: “禿山の緑は、多少見られるものの、今でも重金属を含む鉱山廃水は留まるところを知らず、永久に続く。鉱毒対策に目を離すことはできない.”

2 See also SHŌJI Yoshirō, and SUGAI Masurō, Tsūshi Ashio kōdoku jiken 1877~1984 [History of the Ashio Copper Mine Incident, 1877~1984], (Yokohama: Seori shobō, 2014).

3 Watarase-yūsuichi o mamoru Tonegawa ryūiki jūmin kyōgikai [Tone River Basin Residents’ Council of Watarase-yūsuichi Protection], “Watarase-yūsuichi eko myu-jiamu puran e no torikumi [Watarase Eco-museum Plan Initiatives],” http://www.watarase-kyougikai.org/about/eco-museum.html.

4 Wataraseyūsuichi Rasmar Jyoyaku Shichi Toroku Kirokusyu Henshūiinkai, Wataraseyūsuichi ga Rasmar Jyoyaku Shichi ni [Wataraseyūsuichi becoming a “Ramsar Convention Wetland”], (Utsunomiya: Zuisōsha, 2013).

Feature Image: In Ashio, volunteers were digging out pampas grass roots from the land for reforestation while the mountain in the background was undergoing erosion control measures. Credit: Author, November 2021.
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I am a Ph.D. student at Hitotsubashi University, Tokyo, Japan. I am currently conducting multi-sited ethnographic research in the Ashio-Watarase River region. My research project aims to understand the afterlives and material traces of industrial pollution, with a focus on the multispecies temporalities of repair and recovery. I am also a research assistant at the Archive for Environmental Studies, the Ohara Institute for Social Research, Hosei University.

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