In this book, Stolz tells the story of three Japanese who in differing ways set out to challenge Japanese capitalism while seeking a new relationship with nature. In doing so, he relates their works and their thought to events and currents in Japan in the context of Marxist ideas about the subsumption of nature by capital. He provides many fresh insights, even when covering those parts of the story that are already familiar. His interpretations are cogent and clearly argued.

Stolz starts with the basic premise that the liberal ideology of Meiji Japan was inherently problematical in its rupture of the human subject from nature, leading inevitably to the severe cases of environmental disaster that have occurred in Japan throughout its modern history. At several points, Stolz eschews the view of a naturalized past based on a radical ecology. The advent of the Meiji era, he writes, in no way represented a clean break with the past. Despite all attempts to arrest it, nature insisted on intruding into the falsely dichotomized human body, most notably in the form of cholera outbreaks and then of ever-more devastating floods. The flood of 1896, the worst at that point to hit the Kanto Plain on which Tokyo stands, was rendered all the more damaging by the cocktail of poisonous pollutants that it carried from the Ashio copper mine.

This event, the first and the most egregious of the pollution scandals that have chequered Japan’s modern history, provides the framework for much of the discussion in the first half of this book. The reaction of the state, in a move that was repeated many times later, was to engineer a solution through a reinforcement of dykes and levees, but this strategy only made the flooding worse. Eventually, in an ironic twist, the authorities destroyed the homes of the villagers who were strengthening the levees against the flood waters because according to the recently enacted River Law, the state had the prerogative to do so. This telling episode forms one of the centerpieces of Stolz’s book. It marked the moment when Tanaka Shōzō, one of the book’s three main protagonists, converted from his faith in a governmental solution to a complete opposition to the liberal politics of Meiji Japan and an active support of the villagers whose homes were destroyed. He lived among these people until his death in 1913.

The Ashio copper mine and Tanaka’s role have been treated before in the English-language literature, but this book is surely the first to interrogate this transformation in Tanaka’s thinking. From this time onward, Tanaka advocated a social ecology built around the concepts of flow (nagare) and poison (doku)—all-encompassing concepts for him. Any attempt to control the constantly flowing force of nature gave rise to “harmful backflows” (95). In Stolz’s words, “Human action contrary to nagare not only thwarted nagare but actively created doku” (97).

The other figures about whom Stolz writes have figured less prominently in writings on radical Japanese thought. One of them, Ishikawa Sanshirō, was a sort of rural anarchist who was deeply influenced by the English activist Edward Carpenter and the French anarchist geographer Elisée Reclus. Ishikawa rejected a party-based socialism in favor of one based on the transmission of ideas outside formal organizational structures. He espoused a democracy that was close to the soil, believing that it could be reinforced through constant contact with nature, including nudism.

Kurosawa Torizō, the third member of Stolz’s triumvirate, was the founder of one of Japan’s best-known dairies. Kurosawa’s social ecology was based on a “critique of capitalism and its relations with nature” (164), as well as a fundamental attachment to the symbolic and actual appeal of the “dairy farm,” on which cows’ manure fertilized the soil on which grew the grass that fed the cows. Kurosawa, however, never extended his criticisms of capitalism into a critique of imperialism; he and his company were co-opted into the war effort. Both during and after the war, his dairy developed incongruously into a major pillar of the Japanese food industry, eventually becoming embroiled in a series of scandals concerning tainted products, as if to support Tanaka’s thesis about the pervasiveness of poison under capitalism.

Stolz’s book gains its special strength from its close intertwining of Marxist theory with the lives of the central protagonists, as shown in his conclusion about Kurosawa’s dairy: “In the process of tracing the continuities between the pre- and postwar incarnations of Snow Brand, our true enemy has now revealed itself: the real subsumption of nature under capital, or, in other words, the active manipulation of nature by humans to produce a nature most conducive to capital accumulation” (189). As this statement suggests, Bad Water successfully stitches together environmental history, a social ecology that predates that of Bookchin, and Marxist theory.1

Note

1 

See Murray Bookchin, The Philosophy of Social Ecology (Montreal, 1994).