Thanks to the student participants whose blog entries and photo contributions are the basis of this story. 

It’s one thing to study Japan’s environmental history in the classroom and another thing to learn through direct experience in the field. 

In May, History professor Leslie Pincus led students from History 392, “Doing Environmental History in Japan,” on a nineteen-day extension course exploring environmental legacies and prospects for sustainable futures in Japan. 

ACT ONE: After arriving in country, the group was challenged to orient to new surroundings in the Aoyama district of Tokyo. From the hotel, they were charged to locate the post office, a grocery store, and the local Shinto shrine, as well as figuring out the subway system and how to get to Waseda University, where classroom sessions were held. In the late afternoon, the group headed over to explore the century-old landfill island of Tsukishima in Tokyo Bay and finished the day with a “traditional” Japanese dining experience.

ACT TWO: Rikugien is an Edo-era strolling garden complete with ancient trees, a large koi pond, and meandering paths in the heart of bustling Tokyo. Everything was manicured “down to the smallest shrub in the far corner of the garden,” wrote Kerrel Spivey. Yet the tall trees provided canopy to keep the hot day cool, and a tea house there had Spivey imagining “a Tokugawa feudal lord quietly sleeping inside.” Each of the garden views evoked a classical poetic site, once for the pleasure of the Tokugawa elite, but now open to the public.

Sunrise behind Mount Fuji. (photo: Leslie Pincus)

ACT THREE: In a joint class, Michigan and Waseda University students explored the issues of sustainability through case studies of cellphone production from Congolese mines to Japanese corporations in Thailand. Together the students discussed ways to create a more sustainable and equitable production cycle.

ACT FOUR: Hidden beneath Tokyo’s towering buildings, a series of rivers and canals connects districts across the city. Tokyo’s history is inscribed in these waterways, which once served as its main transport arteries. Some are lined by early seventeenth-century stone walls; others are spanned by bridges built using modern earthquake-safe technologies.

ACT FIVE: The mountain town of Nikko is home to shrines, temples, and a museum dedicated to the first Tokugawa shogun, Ieyasu, whose rule began the relatively peaceful Edo period. The students explored the beautifully lush landscape dotted with points of historical interest.

ACT SIX: Not far from Nikko are the Ashio Copper Mines. Active from the late 1700s, intensive mining operations began with Japan’s industrialization and devastated the surrounding mountain environment. Restoration work continues, and the students met with the nonprofit Forest N’ People Project Organization, who explained their long-term effort to reverse the damage. Each student planted a seedling in hopes that it would withstand the contaminated soils and help restore the ecology of the mountain slopes. Later, students toured part of a 1,500-meter shaft where they saw historical tableaus depicting underground labor—figures using rudimentary Tokugawa-era tools and Meiji-era mechanical drills and explosives.

History 392 students enjoying Okonomiyaki on Tsukishima. (photo: Leslie Pincus)

ACT SEVEN: In and out. Tokyo sees more than 2,300 tons of seafood per day move through its Tsukiji Fish Market. Aside from the intense smell of fish and blood, the place is abuzz with haggling fishermen and restaurant owners, knives on the chopping blocks of fish wholesalers, and electric carts whizzing past clueless tourists. As the market winds down after 9 a.m., visitors are jostled and splashed as vendors empty their tanks onto the cobblestones. Not a scene everyone enjoyed equally! “Post-market, instead of indulging in the day’s catch, I recuperated with fishless maple toast,” Anna Norman blogged.

Tsukiji fronts Tokyo Bay, a veritable “waste world” whose continued usefulness as a dumping site for the metropolis is projected to be less than fifty years. The students learned that Tokyo is attempting to manage these limits with public campaigns, a 2.5-kilometer extension into the bay, water purification, and metal cages to keep waste from wandering.

ACT EIGHT: On the ground at the Whole Earth Nature School (WENS), a nonprofit located on an upland plateau at the base of Mount Fuji, the group took in the bucolic scenery of Japanese rural life, waded barefoot into a muddy paddy to plant rice, and thinned out an overgrown bamboo grove on the mountainside. WENS’s mission is educational—it provides outdoor experiences that encourage people (especially kids) to first enjoy nature, then to love it, and finally, motivated by that love, to preserve it for future generations. The camp experience had everyone taking turns cooking and cleaning up, working together in teams. After dinner, the group gathered around the campfire for music, song, and stories, and the next day everyone was off to explore a huge ice cave formed by Mount Fuji’s volcanic lava.

FIN: The group learned something about themselves and the place they come from. “Traveling in unfamiliar places, engaging across cultures with experts and activists, getting ‘down and dirty’ in nature challenged and inspired us in so many ways,” said Pincus. “We encountered our surroundings with all five senses and got to know one another as fully dimensional human beings, each with surprising talents and strengths.” 

As for being in Japan, Catherine Cerny put it best: “You realize your country isn’t the center of the world ... . It’s the kind of concept you understand intellectually, but experiencing it firsthand really brings the point home.”

History 392 students while hiking in the backcountry of Nikko National Park. (photo: Leslie Pincus)