Farmers along the Watarase River sixty miles northwest of Tokyo had never worried much about the spring and summer floods, even the occasional big ones, because the waters brought rich top soil from the north and with it, better harvests. The floods of 1890 were different, however. New seeds refused to sprout once the waters evaporated; fish in the river died; silkworms ate mulberry leaves along the shore and shriveled up; sores broke out on field workers’ feet. And when even bigger floods came six years later, the devastation was massive: nearly 84,000 acres of land ruined, more than 7,000 fishermen without jobs, 16,470 homes laid waste. The source of the new grimness was clear to anyone who gave thecene an honest look: wastes and smoke from the huge mines around Ashio, the city at the river’s source, which were producing nearly a third of Japan’s copper by the mid-1890s.1 Heavy deforestation to build mines and workers’ homes had denuded the surrounding mountainsides, transforming lush vistas into moonscapes and allowing mountainside soil to gush downstream when the rains came—soil saturated with a “chemistry textbook table of nasty elements and compounds, ranging from arsenic to zinc.”2 Once the 1896 floods had worked their evil, Ashio and its famous mine owner, Fukukawa Ichibei, became national bywords for pollution and industrial greed.
Nation Versus People: Ashio and Japan’s First Evironmental Crisis