Isaac Meyer

Historian, teacher, podcaster

Episode 201 – The Green Archipelago

This week: Japan’s a pretty verdant place, but how did it stay that way when so many other places were ravaged by human development?

Listen to the episode here.

Sources

Totman, Conrad. The Green Archipelago.

Totman, Conrad. A History of Japan.

Basically everything Conrad Totman ever did.

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Adding to the strain on Japan’s environment was the need to rebuild major monuments after a set time — particularly Shinto shrines, since Shinto’s fierce taboos surrounding decay require sites to be continuously restored. Ise Shrine, shown here, is rebuilt every 20 years on alternating sites, and has been since the 600s.

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The Todaiji Buddha, which required 160,000 cubic feet of charcoal to produce.

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Stands of Japanese cypress, or hinoki, were among the most valuable timber sources in Japan — and the most heavily harvested.

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Zojoji, one of two burial temples of the Tokugawa shoguns in Edo.

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Nikko Toshogu, a shrine to the deified spirit of Tokugawa Ieyasu. Ieyasu’s building boom was the largest one in Japanese history before the Meiji Era.

 

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3 Comments

  1. Danny

    Very interesting episode about an issue I knew nothing about.
    I’m wondering whether there another side of the story, a dog that didn’t bark, or rather a cow that didn’t moo or a sheep that didn’t bleat – lack of widespread pastoralism that in other countries causes much deforestation and prevents reforestation since it makes lands marginal to farming valuable even without trees on it, which seemed not to have been the case in Japan.

  2. V. much enjoyed this episode, but inevitably it raised as many questions as it answered.
    1. Japanese demography is critical, but – unless I missed it – you rarely mentioned what was happening to the population over time. Was it like the UK – relatively sparsely populated till industrialization – or like France (or China), already heavily populated in earlier times thanks to prosperous agriculture
    2. On a related point, could you do an episode or two on natural disasters in Japanese history? Earthquakes, obviously, fires – you mentioned, but were any on the scale of London 1666 or SF 1905? And what about plagues, which played such an important part in European history?
    3. In general, you have not said much about economic history – I guess that’s not your field. But a few salient questions would be interesting, notably: how did Japanese living standards compare to Europe (and China) before industrialization?Also: were Japanese peasants tied to their daimyo like feudal serfs in medieval Europe? could they move around and sell their labour? Did the bakufu control domestic trade under the Tokugawa? Could peasants mover freely to live in the cities? etc etc
    4. You did mention Japanese respect for nature as a factor helping to explain the preservation of its forests. I wondered whether the Japanese have ever suffered from the schizophrenic European attitude in this respect. While seeing forests as the last refuge of true nature, spontaneity, integrity etc etc (viz As You Like It, Rousseau’s Noble Savage, German Romantics etc), Europeans also always feared the forest (e.g. Bros Grimm fairy tales) – not surprisingly since you could get lost in them, or eaten by wolves or bears. Walking the woodland paths in Japan, you often see signs warning about bears, often with a bell to ring (heaven knows what use that’s supposed to be, but “so des”!), so they must still be around in Japan.
    Surely there’s enough here for a few (dozen) episodes?
    regards
    Laurence Copeland

  3. Jason

    When I was in grad school environmental history was just taking off as field within history. I’m so glad you did something in this discipline. How can we expect to formulate sound policies to manage our precious planet without knowing where we’ve been?

    After listening to this podcast I wondered if there was something else that you didn’t mention contributing to Japan’s surviving forests namely the fact that much of the country lives in dense urban areas. With people living in dense cities it means that few forests and green spaces get knocked down and paved over to make for the 3 bedroom houses with 2 car garages. How and when did Japan embark on a policy of encouraging dense cities? Undergirding that density is Japan’s incredible passenger rail network. I was so impressed by the Tokyo subway and the JR, it really put my humble (and suffering) DC metro to shame; I rode the Yamanote line to go nowhere in particular (and considered doing the same with the Shinkansen thanks to the JR Pass). So I was wondering, do you think you could do a podcast on the history transportation in Japan?

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