Natural and Unnatural Disasters: 3/11, Asbestos, and the Unmaking of Japan’s Modern World”

Date(s) - 02/20/17
4:00 pm - 5:30 pm

Northwestern University Hall

Hosted by
Northwestern University

Natural and Unnatural Disasters: 3/11, Asbestos, and the Unmaking of Japan’s Modern World”

Northwestern University

SHC Klopsteg Lecture: BRETT WALKER

Monday, February 20, 2017 4:00 PM – 5:30 PM

BRETT WALKER: History, Philosophy, & Religious Studies, Montana State University

“Natural and Unnatural Disasters: 3/11, Asbestos, and the Unmaking of Japan’s Modern World”

Description: At 2:46 p.m. on March 11, 2011, a massive earthquake devastated northeastern Japan and caused one of Earth’s most dangerous nuclear catastrophes. The quake was 9.0 on the Richter scale and it unleashed a tsunami that swept away entire communities. Along with an enduring nuclear legacy, it also left an estimated 25 millions tons of rubble, much of it contaminated with asbestos and other carcinogenic toxins. Indeed, when the tides of the devastating tsunami ebbed, the unnatural disaster of cleaning up Japan’s pulverized and aerosolized built environment remained. Now, every time a backhoe or shovel digs into this rubble, asbestos fibers are released into the environment to threaten human health.

Japan’s history of asbestos use contrasts with many other industrialized nations. Although the United States E.P.A. began phasing out asbestos in the 1970s and banned most of its use in the 1980s, as did the United Kingdom in 1985, Japan continued to use chrysotile asbestos until 2004. Indeed, asbestos was a critical fiber in the construction of Japan’s modern built environment because of the culturally engrained fear of fire. Unlike many other industrialized countries, Japan has had large cities since the late sixteenth century, as well as the accompanying catastrophes of massive urban conflagrations. Japan also suffered through the most blistering examples of fires in built environments: the incendiary and atomic bombs that burned some of its largest cities to the ground during World War II, cooking hundreds of thousands of people. In the postwar period, with such grim wartime memories fresh in the minds of urban planners, asbestos offered a powerful solution to fires in sprawling built environments, until it became closely connected to pulmonary diseases, including lung cancers.

This paper investigates asbestos in the construction and, more importantly, destruction of Japan’s built environment, with a focus on the impact of the 3/11 disaster and the later clean up. The paper is part of a larger Guggenheim-funded project concerned with the unmaking of the modern built world, and what it means for the future of human health.

**co-sponsored by the Kaplan Environmental Humanities Workshop

Bio: Brett L. Walker is Regents Professor of History at Montana State University, Bozeman. His research and teaching interests include Japanese history, world environmental history, and the history of science and medicine. He is author of The Conquest of Ainu Lands: Ecology and Culture in Japanese Expansion, 1590-1800, The Lost Wolves of Japan, Toxic Archipelago: A History of Industrial Disease in Japan, and A Concise History of Japan, from Cambridge University Press.


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