GSEP Off-Campus Project AY2023 (3)
| February 27th-29th, 2024 |

In the third part of the series, Chan Yu Zi and Ireen Tasnim Progga Islam, fourth year students from Malaysia and Bangladesh, explore the Ashio Copper Mine, the site of Japan’s first major pollution in the late 19th century. Read their report to learn more about Japan’s environmental legacy:

Uncovering Japan’s Industrial Legacy: The Ashio Copper Mine Museum Expedition

the mine’s entrance

The second day of the off-campus trip started off with a visit to the Ashio Copper Mine in Tochigi prefecture. We embarked on an intriguing ride as we entered the mine’s entrance. Inside, the ambient sounds of dripping water greeted us, accompanied by a slight chill in the air. According to the guide, the mine has a 400-year history, with dimensions stretching 1200 metres in height, and extending 1200 kilometres in depth. At the end of the mine, a concrete barrier was used to prevent the underground water from flooding in. Despite the challenges of maintaining such a vast place, preservation efforts are still regularly carried out to prevent the leakage of hazardous substances, which could otherwise pose risks to the surrounding environment and people.

a wax figure of a miner

Along the visiting route, we saw recreations depicting how miners worked in different eras with the conditions during the Edo era standing out. Miners worked without protecting gear in dark conditions, and often faced suffocation due to insufficient oxygen. As a result, the miners had to rush in and out of the mine to catch a breath. There were also many other challenges in the mining process. For instance, the miners had to be very careful with the amount of soil removed so that the soil above would not fall on them. Moreover, they have to constantly remove the underground water as their work would be difficult to proceed with lots of water on the ground. Over time, enhancements of working conditions were observed with the introduction of Japanese and western mining technologies; innovations such as oxygen tanks and dynamite-containing tanks improved safety and increased the efficiency of miners. Nevertheless, the mine can be too hot at times, reaching 40 to 60 degrees Celsius. Due to these harsh conditions, the mine set its motto as 安全専一, taking safety as its main priority.

While the extraction of copper mine brought a lot of profit to the government and business owners, it also caused severe environmental issues, leading to the environmental disaster, famously known as the Ashio Copper Mine incident. A lot of trees were cut down to obtain the fuel required for copper extraction. This deforestation not only has caused ecosystem imbalance, but also human-made disasters such as landslide, and river drying. Furthermore, the sulphur dioxide emissions from the smelters have also led to the death of crops in surrounding areas.

Moreover, the Ashio Copper Mine played a pivotal role in Japan’s industrialization indeed but its legacy is also marred by environmental degradation and social upheaval. The intertwining of progress and pollution underscores the complex dynamics at play in the nation’s history.

Notably, the Ashio Copper Mine stands as a poignant symbol of Japan’s first major pollution disasters. The pollution resulting from mining operations profoundly impacted the local environment and community. The contamination of the nearby Watarase River and surrounding agricultural land not only devastated crops but also posed grave health risks to the local population. Furthermore, the emissions from the mine’s copper smelters, laden with toxins, had catastrophic consequences for the surrounding forests, leading to widespread deforestation and ecosystem destruction.

The gravity of the situation prompted a grassroots protest movement to emerge in the 1890s, catalyzing a fervent call for action to address the environmental crisis. At the forefront of this
movement was Tanaka Shōzō, whose impassioned advocacy for environmental justice resonated deeply with the affected communities. Tanaka Shōzō’s bold appeal to Emperor Meiji himself
exemplifies the urgency and gravity of the situation, as well as the desperate plea for intervention to alleviate the suffering of the affected populace.

This historical episode serves as a stark reminder of the inherent tensions between industrial progress and environmental preservation. It highlights the imperative of responsible stewardship of natural resources and the need for impactful regulatory frameworks to safeguard both human well-being and ecological integrity.

By acknowledging the dual nature of the Ashio Copper Mine’s legacy– as a catalyst for modernization and a harbinger of environmental catastrophe– we are compelled to confront the
complex ethical and moral dilemmas inherent in the pursuit of economic development. This acknowledgment reinforces the importance of adopting a holistic approach to development that
prioritizes sustainability, social equity, and the preservation of our natural heritage. As stewards of the future, it is essential upon us to heed the lessons of history and forge a path towards a more just and sustainable future for all.

From this visit, it became evident how important it is to empathize and consider the perspectives of other stakeholders, highlighting the significance of transdisciplinarity. Although
tradeoffs are often inevitable when working with different stakeholders, we can still strive to achieve the best possible solution agreed upon by every stakeholder. Therefore, in such situations, a mediator with strong leadership abilities and effective communication skills becomes crucial, and nurturing future leaders who possesses this ability is the essence of the GSEP program.