Landscapes in the Dark Valley: Toward an Environmental History of Wartime Japan

By: William M. Tsutsui

JAPAN’S “HOME FRONT” during the Second World War has received surprisingly little academic attention over the past half century. Japanese observers have long seen the war years as a “dark valley” (kurai tanima), a time of extreme deprivation and suffering, a memory “too bitter to recall with detachment.”1 Western scholars, with a few notable exceptions, also have tended to slight Japan’s domestic experience of war in favor of military history and grander political and diplomatic narratives.2 Only in recent years have analysts on both sides of the Pacific shown increasing interest in wartime life in Japan, recognizing that mass mobilization had significant long-term consequences for Japanese society. But while studies have suddenly proliferated on topics like wartime industrial and labor policy, the mobilization of Japanese women, and the legacy of statist economic and political structures, some important aspects of Japan’s home front have continued to be overlooked.31
     A striking omission from the scholarly literature is a systematic study of Japan’s natural environment during World War II. Wartime mobilization, dislocation, and combat clearly left their marks on the Japanese landscape and on the Japanese people’s relationships with the natural world. Structures for managing, utilizing, and perceiving the environment—both formal and informal, economic, political, and cultural—were recast under the pressures of “total war.” Many wartime developments—from deforestation to changing patterns of rural land-use to the radioactive aftermath at Hiroshima and Nagasaki—would have sweeping implications, even long after the end of the conflict. Gaining a fuller understanding of Japan’s complex and compelling wartime experience demands that closer attention be paid to the environmental policies, costs, and consequences of the Second World War.42
     This essay represents a preliminary step toward such a reappraisal of wartime Japan from the perspective of environmental history. The central concern here will be a fundamental—and deceptively modest—question: What impact did World War II have on Japan’s environment? Few historians have directly addressed this issue. The implicit assumption of most observers has been that war—especially “total war” in the twentieth century—has been recklessly and unambiguously destructive of the natural environment. The atomic bombings in Japan, the use of chemicals like Agent Orange in Indochina, and the burning oil wells of the Persian Gulf usually are taken as evidence aplenty for the notion that modern warfare is inevitably ruinous for the environment.53
     Nevertheless, as this essay argues, the environmental effects of war are much less neat (and often much less obvious) than might at first be assumed. Specifically, while the Second World War clearly had a deleterious impact on many aspects of Japan’s natural environment, there were also significant ways in which the war brought unexpectedly beneficial environmental consequences. War, in other words, need not necessarily be all bad for the environment. At the same time, the case of Japan also suggests that the effects of warfare on the environment (be they favorable or detrimental) are often less lasting and less significant than we might imagine. Nature, happily, has extraordinary powers of regeneration, and humankind, regrettably, has an uncanny ability to shatter delicate ecological systems even in times of peace. In short, the environmental legacies of war are complex, contingent, and often surprisingly transitory.4
     This essay will range widely in attempting to survey the environmental impact of World War II on Japan. The causal factors of wartime environmental change—direct war damage from bombing, indirect damage from economic and military mobilization, the consequences of the wartime scarcity of raw materials, and the repercussions of Japan’s disengagement from the world economy—will provide the basic organizational structure. While both natural and man-made environments will be considered, the emphasis will be on the war’s impact on the natural, non-human world: Japan’s fields and forests; air and water; flora, birds, animals, and fish. To keep this broad summary manageable, the boundaries of both Japan and World War II will be drawn narrowly. Geographically, this essay will consider only the Japanese home islands (naichi). Wartime environmental changes in Okinawa and in the extended Japanese empire (which eventually stretched from Sakhalin and Korea, through much of China and Southeast Asia, to Micronesia and even to the Aleutian Islands) were so varied and complex as to warrant separate treatment. Chronologically, the focus will be on the Pacific war years of 1941 to 1945. During this time of “total war” in Japan, environmental change was rapid and pressure on natural resources was intense. Needless to say, the environmental impact of mobilization also was felt significantly in the 1930s and, during the postwar Allied Occupation (1945–1952), the environmental consequences of reconstruction were often directly continuous with wartime patterns. As with consideration of the Japanese empire, however, analysis of the full sweep of the Japan’s “Fifteen Years’ War” and the postwar transition are beyond this scope of this essay.5
Direct War Damage 
COMBAT IN the Japanese home islands was limited to the incendiary bombing of Japanese cities, the atomic attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and some very limited shelling of coastal targets by the U.S. Navy. Between mid-1944 and the end of the war, sixty-six Japanese cities were subjected to intense American bombings, most of which made use of incendiary weapons designed to spark widespread fires in Japan’s densely populated, largely wood-built urban areas. This strategy proved only too successful and, in the span of just a few months, the centers of most of Japan’s large and mid-sized cities were effectively reduced to ashes. In one single mission, the Great Tokyo Air Raid of March 1945, 16.8 square miles of the city were burned to the ground and more than eighty thousand people died. Cumulatively, during 1944 and 1945, almost one-quarter of Japan’s housing stock was destroyed by bombs, burned in the subsequent conflagrations, or demolished by the Japanese authorities to form fire breaks; approximately 30 percent of the Japanese population was left homeless. No one can be sure exactly how many died in the bombings, but certainly hundreds of thousands of Japanese were killed or injured as a result of the American attacks.66
     When one considers the tremendous costs of the incendiary bombings—in human life, in the resulting mass flight from the cities, in sheer physical destruction—it is difficult to imagine that the experience was anything short of an environmental nightmare. Nevertheless, when viewed from the perspective of the non-human environment, and when considered in the broader context of the environmental consequences of the war, the bombings of Japanese cities appear of relatively limited and temporary significance. For example, the raids destroyed approximately 178 square miles of Japan’s houses, schools, shops, offices, and factories.7 This is a considerable area to be sure, yet it is but a fraction of the vast tracts of Japanese forest clear-cut and scoured during the war, or the considerable expanses of land and sea tainted by military facilities, mines, and industry. Moreover, most of the areas destroyed were highly environmentally degraded even before the attacks: Japanese cities were (and remain) crowded, polluted, and relatively inhospitable to nature. Parks were few, green space was minimal, and, by 1944, just about the only urban animal life consisted of rats, mice, and crows. As the dyspeptic French journalist Robert Guillain wrote of Tokyo just before the bombings: “The capital stirred in its filth. A Japanese house rots in 20 years. So does a city. Tokyo, rebuilt in 1923 after the big earthquake, was rotten. … You could imagine no way to save this capital from crumbling in rot and ruin except some catastrophe that would again compel rebuilding—a purifying fire, for example, that would destroy it all.”87
     From the ashes of 1945, Tokyo and the other devastated cities did indeed regenerate and rebuild in good order. Gardens, shacks, and market stalls sprouted from the rubble in a matter of days and reconstruction began in a matter of weeks. Millions fled Tokyo in the days after the Great Air Raid, but by 1952 the population had returned to its 1944 peak. The housing stock was a little slower to rebound, but by the mid-1950s most of the destroyed cities had erased the scars of the bombings and were growing rapidly.98
     The experiences of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, at least from the environmental standpoint, were remarkably similar to those of the firebombed cities: The toll in human life and suffering was extreme and the damage to manmade structures was tremendous. The areas devastated by the atomic bombs were, however, quite small—five square miles in Hiroshima, half that in Nagasaki—and the weapons, certainly compared to the nuclear devices developed during the Cold War, were relatively very weak. Residual radiation, even at the hypocenters, had declined to unthreatening levels within a matter of days.10 Perhaps most strikingly, plant and animal life seem to have been relatively unaffected by the bombs. Survivors reported that mosquitoes and flies virtually disappeared after the attacks but that they returned in profusion after several days; fish in shallow ponds perished, while those in deeper ponds tended to survive; the plentiful rats of the two cities, many observers noted, showed few ill effects from radiation. Scientific tests by Japanese researchers confirmed these accounts: Earthworms and earwigs collected near the hypocenters showed no structural or genetic abnormalities; aquatic insects, studied over a period of years, lived and reproduced normally; even experimental rabbits and mice, exposed to the bomb in the labs of Hiroshima University of Literature and Science, were found to be in good health physically and genetically. A survey of fauna at the Hiroshima hypocenter in October 1947 found that animal and insect populations had fully recovered.119
     The flora of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were also remarkably resilient. In the immediate aftermath of the attacks, worries about the biological recovery of the bomb sites abounded: “[A]ll Japan wondered then if grass would ever grow again, if a flower would ever bloom in the earth of those two atomized cities.”12 Although bamboo and rice plants were scorched as far as five miles from the hypocenters, even trees at the center of the cities, burned to the ground by the blasts, began to send out new shoots from their roots within two months. Some malformations occurred among plants that sprouted close to the hypocenters, but botanists reported that such abnormalities had ceased to appear within three or four years after the bombings. In general, vegetation erupted in profusion in the cities’ ruins, with a wide variety of plants colonizing the disturbed ground. By June of 1946, twenty-five species of weeds grew thickly at the very site of the detonation in Hiroshima, and scientists reported luxuriant growth of plants that previously had been rare in the area. Gardens planted in burned-out neighborhoods also prospered. In 1947 it was said that the yields of wheat, eggplants, and soybeans from makeshift fields in Hiroshima surpassed those of neighboring farming villages. To the surprise of many, tomatoes, which city residents had been unable to cultivate for decades because of fungal and insect damage, flourished in the years after the bombing.13 John Hersey described the scene almost lyrically: “Over everything—up through the wreckage of the city, in gutters, along the riverbanks, tangled among tiles and tin roofing, climbing on charred tree trunks—was a blanket of fresh, vivid, lush, optimistic green; the verdancy rose even from the foundations of ruined houses. Weeds already hid the ashes, and wild flowers were in bloom among the city’s bones. … Especially in a circle at the center, sickle senna grew in extraordinary regeneration, not only standing among the charred remnants of the same plant but pushing up in new places, among bricks and through cracks in the asphalt. It actually seemed as if a load of sickle senna seed had been dropped along with the bomb.”1410
     But this postwar vegetative revival was only short lived. As one report by Hiroshima scientists concluded, not without a sense of regret: “In 1948, houses and buildings rapidly increased in number; and urban construction was well underway by the following year. Consequently, vegetation was destroyed; and by the end of 1950, it was difficult for one to retain the early post-atomic bomb images of the city.”1511
     In short, the atomic bombs—like the incendiary attacks—were tremendously and tragically destructive for one species, homo sapiens. When viewed from a less anthropocentric viewpoint, however, the environmental implications of direct combat in Japan during World War II are far more ambiguous.12
Economic Mobilization 
DESPITE THE obvious scars left by American bombing, the more indirect effects of war—and specifically of the economic mobilization for war—seem to have had the more profound consequences for the environment in Japan. Starting in the late 1930s, the exploitation of Japan’s natural resources accelerated as the nation prepared for, and subsequently embarked upon, total war. The examples of this heightened pressure on the environment are seemingly countless. In the years before Pearl Harbor, for example, the Japanese government aggressively promoted a new export drive in the hopes of generating much-needed foreign currency. As a result, deep sea fishing for tuna and crab was expanded rapidly, with the canned seafood sold almost entirely to the American market. Whaling also was stepped up. In the mid-1930s, for the first time, Japanese fishermen ventured beyond their coastal waters and sent factory ships into the Antarctic, their whale oil destined primarily for the margarine and soap factories of Germany. In 1930, Japan accounted for only 1 percent of the world’s whale catch; by 1938, Japan claimed 12 percent of the total and was the largest producer after England and Norway. Japan’s forests also were called upon to help the nation’s trade balance. Imports of lumber and wood pulp were slashed from the early 1930s; domestic cutting was stepped up to meet internal needs and, increasingly over the decade, to be sold on international markets.1613
     The Japanese government also worked assiduously to integrate Japan’s economy—especially the agricultural sector—more fully with the empire. Korean farmers were pressed to grow rice for export to Japan, even though the climate and agricultural infrastructure were not particularly well suited to rice monoculture. In Manchuria, meanwhile, soybeans were promoted as the crop of choice. Japanese farmers were encouraged to move acreage from soybeans into wheat; the wheat was exported to the continent and Manchurian soybeans were imported to satisfy Japanese demand. The problems of these arrangements—which reduced agricultural diversity and self-sufficiency—became apparent during the Pacific war years, when repeated crop failures in Korea and transportation bottlenecks led to serious food shortages in Japan.1714
     Industrial and mining development further contributed to environmental degradation in the mobilization for war. Air and water pollution seem to have worsened during the 1930s, in step with the accelerating industrial preparations for war. Prefectural authorities regularly reported contamination issues related to mines, chemical plants, starch factories, and paper mills through the war years. The Fisheries Agency of the Ministry of Agriculture recorded over a thousand cases of industrial water pollution injurious to commercial fisheries in 1937 alone; smoke, ash, and dust from the humming factories of Kansai choked the air of Osaka and other major cities; and some facilities—such as the Kamioka smelter of Mitsui Mining and the Minamata complex of Nihon Chisso, both later proven to be major sources of heavy metal wastes—are known to have greatly increased production (and the flow of toxic effluents) during the Pacific war.1815
     The starkest example of the destruction wrought by mobilization during the Second World War could be found in Japan’s forests. Japan is a heavily forested country and historically has made extensive use of its timber resources. Even before the war, many Japanese forests were heavily utilized and degraded. Charcoal was a major source of fuel for homes and small industry (and very large tracts of accessible woodland had long been coppiced for charcoal and firewood production); farmers also made extensive use of the organic materials on the forest floors, gathering leaves, twigs, and nuts for compost and animal feed. Forests were exploited for the needs of industrial society—for telegraph poles, railway ties, and mine supports, for building materials, wood pulp (for paper and rayon), and for countless other uses.16
     Through the early 1930s, as much as a third of Japan’s wood, lumber, and pulp needs were satisfied by imports, largely from the Asian continent and North America. As the state endeavored to reduce import dependence, however, domestic logging increased rapidly, with the pace heightening even further after 1941. This wartime acceleration in timber production—much of it from clear-cut old-growth forests—was driven by the effective end of all wood imports during the Pacific war, the worsening fuel shortage (which led to heavy demand for charcoal), the heightened consumption of industry (especially the mines), and the intense need during the last years of the war for materials to rebuild Japan’s bombed cities. Even trees of great age, beauty, and cultural significance—the stately rows of pines along the Tôkaidô highway, the ancient avenue of cryptomeria leading to the Nikkô Shrine—were sacrificed in the war effort. The government also promoted the aggressive reclamation of woodlands for agricultural production and ordered that the nurseries and seedbeds used to grow saplings for reforestation programs be converted to food crops.1917
     The scale of the wartime cutting was staggering, and it was clear by the time the Allied Occupation forces arrived that Japan’s forest resources were dangerously depleted. Between 1941 and 1945, 14,000 square miles (or 9,000,000 acres), about 15 percent of Japan’s forests, were logged. Much of that area—over 10,000 square miles (6.5 million acres) or about 10 percent of Japan forests—was clear-cut. In 1945, almost 50 square miles a week were clear-cut. The situation was exacerbated by the fact that artificial reforestation had all but ground to a halt during the war, as the loss of able labor and the dwindling supply of seedlings made replanting impossible.20 Postwar studies confirmed that the gap between timber harvested and the regeneration of woodland through natural growth and artificial reforestation was sobering. As one American forester wrote in 1951 of Japan’s “forest emergency,” “Japan is rapidly approaching the point where the wood needs of the nation can no longer be met from its resources. … Heavy drain to meet the needs of the population has changed the characteristics of most of the accessible forests so now they show little resemblance to the original stands. Virgin forests in large segments … are found only on the higher mountains where they are beyond physical or economic accessibility. The accessible forests have been reduced to a depleted condition from poor forest management, prolonged over-utilization, insufficient reforestation, soil erosion and depredation by insects.”2118
     One of the most peculiar—and, for Japan’s forests, one of the most destructive—developments of the war years was the pine root oil project.22 During 1944 and 1945, as petroleum supplies in Japan dwindled, researchers desperately sought alternative sources of fuel for the war machine. One of these, discovered by Navy chemists, was the distillation of high-octane motor fuel from the resinous roots of pine trees. Such arboreal alchemy required tremendous human energy and tremendous natural destruction: The production of one gallon of pine root oil required 2.5 man-days of heavy labor and many tons of freshly dug roots. Japan’s imperial subjects, though exhausted from more than a decade of mobilization and scarcity, responded dutifully, establishing 34,000 stills and squeezing 70,000 barrels of crude a month from the islands’ green oil fields. By the end of the war, once-dense pine forests lay ravaged. “Monumental piles of roots and stumps lined many of the roadways,” one observer reported. “Mountainsides were stripped bare of every tree and sapling.”23 The cruelest irony was that such ecological devastation and communal sacrifice was all for nought. Despite the official propaganda, Japanese scientists never perfected the refining of pine root oil, and barely a drop ever made it into the fuel tanks of Japan’s bombers and battleships.19
     The consequences of wartime deforestation were complex and far-reaching. The massive loss of forest resources and numerous old-growth stands was just the beginning of the damage. Wartime forestry practices contributed to the proliferation of dangerous pests, most notably pine bark beetles, insects which had little impact before 1939, but which reached epidemic proportions by the end of the war. Hasty clear cutting and dwindling transportation capacity left many felled trees to rot on forest floors, creating optimum conditions for the beetles’ spread. Entomologists reported that more than 1.5 million acres of Japan’s coniferous forests had been infested by 1946.24 Water control was a far greater concern. Aggressive logging on hill- and mountainsides created considerable problems of erosion and uncontrollable runoff. Streams and rivers collected silt, choking downstream reservoirs, dams, irrigation systems, and coastal deltas. Flooding, always a problem in Japan, seems to have worsened during the war as deforestation and erosion weakened the land’s natural defenses against typhoons and the annual snow-melt.25 In short, the wartime mobilization of Japan’s forests had profound environmental implications that stretched far beyond the woodlands and the coppices.20
Environmental Consequences of Scarcity 
WHILE WARTIME economic and military mobilization would seem to have been uniformly damaging to Japan’s air, water, land, and forests, the environmental consequences of scarcity—the endemic wartime shortages of critical natural resources and manufactured goods—were considerably more ambiguous. In some cases, doing without—facing life deprived of agricultural chemicals, gasoline, or the latest industrial technology—brought surprising and significant benefits to the environment. In many other cases, however, scarcity led simply to a frenzied search for substitutes and the heightened exploitation of nature.2621
     Fertilizer is an interesting case. Before the war, Japanese agriculture was one of the world’s most intensive users of chemical fertilizers.27 Supply declined precipitously after 1941, as ammonia production was diverted away from nitrogenous fertilizers and toward the munitions industry, and as imports of phosphate rock and potash—raw materials upon which the Japanese fertilizer industry was dependent—were suspended. Farmers, under tremendous state pressure to produce, desperately sought alternate sources of soil nutrients. Many turned to increased use of compost, an apparently sound, environmentally sensitive, sustainable strategy. Yet much of the material to be composted came from scavenging in upland forests. All woodlands within walking distance of farming villages had their floors swept clean of leaves, needles, undergrowth, windfall, and all other organic matter. The result of this widespread clearing was that forest soils were not replenished, slowing growth and weakening the trees. Moreover, forest litter has an important role in soil conservation. Without leaves and other clutter, precipitation was less easily absorbed and runoff from woodlands increased, with accelerated erosion, sedimentation of waterways, and damaging flooding the result.28 The lack of chemical amendments also created intense demand for night soil, which had long been an important fertilizer in Japan, especially in the agricultural areas around large cities.29 Under the acute wartime conditions, night soil was increasingly applied to fields as raw sewage, rather than being composted, as had traditionally been the common practice. The result of this unhygienic shortcut was that water supplies were regularly tainted by sewage-polluted runoff, and parasitical and bacterial infections rose both in the countryside and the cities.3022
     Japan’s birds and animals, both wild and domesticated, struggled for survival during the years of wartime scarcity. Livestock that competed with humans for food suffered during the war, while those that did not tended to hold their own and even flourish. The numbers of pigs, chickens, and rabbits on Japanese farms plummeted, as did the number of horses, many of which were drafted into army service in China after 1937. Sheep, whose wool was a valuable wartime commodity, increased modestly in number, while the population of goats (a favorite of impoverished peoples worldwide) grew many times over. Large domestic pets, especially dogs, all but disappeared from Japan during the war and—in a well-known, heartbreaking story—most of the animals in Tokyo’s Ueno Zoo had to be sacrificed as safety threats and major consumers of scarce food and forage.3123
     The Japanese tradition of netting and eating migratory songbirds went from being a regional curiosity to being a patriotic duty during World War II. Through gruesomely efficient methods of mist-netting and bird-liming, Japanese hunters delivered huge catches of thrushes, grosbeaks, finches, siskins, and buntings. The “official” wartime harvest was approximately 7.5 million songbirds per year, though even the government estimated that the actual figure was at least twice as much. During the war, the mission of the Game Management Division of the Ministry of Agriculture turned from research and conservation to promoting the rapid exploitation of Japan’s wildlife resources. Guides to the most palatable species of song- and shorebirds were published, and a program to collect thrush feathers for use in pillows and quilts at veterans’ hospitals was introduced. It is not surprising that, when the Allied Occupation forces arrived in Japan in 1945, they were startled to find an almost complete absence of birds—other than crows and the occasional sparrow—everywhere in the country.3224
     The wartime experience of Japan’s fisheries is an important counterexample. Japan was the world’s greatest fishing nation prior to World War II, with more than twice the annual production of the United States. Japanese fishermen heavily exploited coastal waters and, by the 1930s, Japan boasted an extensive deep-sea fleet as well. Crab-canning factory ships worked the Bering Sea; Japanese tuna fleets combed the central and south Pacific; trawlers swept the East China, South China and Yellow Seas; and Japanese whalers landed rich catches off Antarctica. The ecological pressure of Japan’s efficient deep-sea operations was intense, and signs of depletion were obvious in many of Japan’s offshore fisheries well before the war. Crabbers in Hokkaido and the Kuriles overfished their grounds and suffered declining harvests in the 1930s. Tuna fishermen, meanwhile, were forced to continually expand the range of their operations as overfishing depleted traditionally rich areas. In the East China and Yellow Seas, at the very heart of Japan’s offshore trawling, catches declined steeply after 1931 and certain highly desirable species (including red sea bream and several types of croaker) all but disappeared from the fishermen’s nets.3325
     With the start of the Pacific war, however, virtually all deep-sea fishing and whaling came abruptly to an end. The vast majority of Japan’s ocean-going fishing vessels—as well as most of its skilled seamen—were drafted into war service by the Navy. All of Japan’s large factory ships (numbering some twenty in 1941) were destroyed during the war, as were 95 percent of Japan’s otter trawlers. But even had the deep-sea fleets been preserved, there would not have been sufficient supplies to keep them operating during the hostilities. Indeed, even coastal fisheries were severely hampered after 1941 by mounting shortages of cotton yarn, ramie, manila hemp, and, most importantly, petroleum.3426
     Japan’s wartime withdrawal from offshore fisheries and the reduced intensity of its coastal operations seem to have had a significant effect on fish stocks in the western Pacific. Postwar studies of certain fisheries suggested that the 1941-45 respite allowed for a measurable regeneration in some grounds and some species. Notably, in the once-depleted fisheries of the East China and Yellow Seas, Japanese trawlers once again began landing significant catches of bream and croaker in the late 1940s.35 Although the wartime hiatus in Japanese fishing was short lived—by the 1950s, a rebuilt and much larger Japanese fleet was busily overfishing all of the traditional grounds as well as a number of new ones—the war thus can be said to have had a beneficial environmental impact, at least in the short term, when it came to fisheries resources.36 Interestingly—and perhaps not surprisingly—researchers have found that a similar temporary recovery of fish stocks took place in the north Atlantic during World War II.37 It is also worth noting that wars in general may have brought much needed relief to the fish inhabiting the waters around Japan. Not only was the Pacific war a welcome break, but in World War I, Japanese offshore fisheries also closed up shop, as trawler owners found it more profitable to sell their vessels to the European powers for use as patrol boats and mine sweepers.3827
     One additional consequence of scarcity is worth considering. The profound, often crippling wartime shortages of natural resources—especially fossil fuels—had the effect of driving many Japanese—from housewives to corporate engineers to university scientists—to new extremes of desperation, frugality, and creativity. One might even suggest that, impelled by stringency, Japanese individuals and institutions became unconsciously more environmentally responsible in their behavior and their consumption patterns. A similar tendency was apparent in wartime Britain and the United States, although compared at least to America, where the consumer economy actually grew during World War II, the breadth and depth of scarcity was far greater in Japan.39 Many observers, for example, have noted the ingenuity of wartime Japanese in trying to conduct a modern war and maintain a dignified lifestyle in the absence of many of the essential raw materials of twentieth-century industry. Few have explored, however, whether Japanese schemes for overcoming wartime shortages were consistent with what are now considered to be environmentally sensitive technologies and the search for renewable sources of energy. The Navy, for instance, conducted extensive experimentation on the production of diesel fuel from coconut oil, birch bark, pine needles, and orange peel. When the battleship Yamato made its famous suicide run to Okinawa in April 1945, it was powered entirely by edible refined soybean oil. Sweet potatoes, meanwhile, became a valuable source of aviation fuel. Ethanol, mixed in ever greater proportions with precious gasoline, became the standard in Japanese warplanes by 1944.40 In one of the weirder—and yet most creative—wartime experiments, Japanese oceanographers attempted to utilize ocean currents for the transportation of food and other necessities. Scientists explored the “shipping” of soybeans from the continent after they discovered that the Japan Current would carry 90 percent of bottles set adrift off the east coast of Korea to the northwest coast of Honshû. Plans were laid for floating small wooden vessels and tiny armadas of metal drums (all filled with food or fuel) from as far away as Taiwan to the Japanese home islands.41 While the surrender made such plans unnecessary, they show how acute scarcity in wartime Japan could give rise to a kind of environmental consciousness and a conservation sensibility born of want.4228
Autarky and the Environment 
TOTAL WAR brought not only the destruction of combat, the pressures of mobilization, and the rigors of deprivation, but also the oblique and often overlooked costs of national isolation. Japan’s wartime disengagement from the world economy and the community of nations had complex and unexpected environmental implications. At the start of the twenty-first century, internationalization and globalization often are assumed to be threats to the environment. Multinational corporations are viewed with suspicion by environmental activists, multilateral trade agreements often are seen as sacrificing ecological concerns, and many nations (including Japan) are accused, often justifiably, of exporting their environmental ills to developing countries. Such sweeping condemnations of transnational integration are belied, however, by the fact that Japan’s withdrawal from the world trading system and from multinational agreements after the start of the Pacific war seem to have had unfavorable environmental consequences. In other words, Japan’s environment—indeed, the world’s environment—may actually have been better off in many ways if Japan had remained “globalized” in 1941 rather than pursuing a course of diplomatic isolation and economic autarky.29
     Two examples are particularly revealing. The first is the case of pyrethrum. Little known today outside the ranks of organic gardeners, pyrethrum is a powerful natural insecticide made from the dried flowers of chrysanthemums. Prior to World War II, pyrethrum was considered the international standard in commercial insecticides and was used by homemakers and farmers around the world, though it was utilized in a particularly intensive fashion in the United States. Over 90 percent of the prewar supply of dried chrysanthemum blossoms came from Japan, and the vast majority of this production was exported to the United States where it was processed into insecticidal powders and sprays. After Pearl Harbor the trans-Pacific trade in pyrethrum ceased. The environmental impact in Japan was minimal: Lands formerly used for growing chrysanthemums simply were diverted to more pressing agricultural needs. But in the United States, the implications of this sudden disruption in trade were more striking. American consumers—and especially the military, which had used pyrethrum for delousing front-line troops—howled for the development of a suitable substitute. While chrysanthemum growing in the United States might have been considered as a possibility, it was chemists who stepped forward with a solution to the pyrethrum crisis. Apparent salvation came in the form of an obscure inorganic compound, identified as a potent insecticide by Swiss researchers in the late 1930s, but not immediately marketed since it was not competitive with cheap and effective pyrethrum products. This compound was, of course, dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane, or DDT, which became ubiquitous during World War II and notorious environmentally in later years. To add insult to injury—and make the irony of the situation complete—after World War II, Allied Occupation advisers aggressively promoted the use and production of DDT in Japan, all but assuring that the Japanese pyrethrum industry would not rebound from the wartime rupture in global markets.4330
     Another sobering example is the case of Japanese fur sealing. Japan began intensive sealing operations in the 1890s, first harvesting the migratory fur seals that traveled along the Kuriles and through the Japan Sea, but later expanding the hunt to the rich seal rookeries of the Aleutians and Robben Island off Sakhalin. The rapid decline of the Pacific fur seal population was apparent by the early twentieth century, and the major sealing nations (the United States, Canada, Russia, Britain, and Japan) agreed in 1911 to an ambitious treaty that mandated strict kill quotas, with the goal of stabilizing seal populations and guaranteeing a sustainable sealing industry over the long term. The treaty proved remarkably and unexpectedly successful, and for almost three decades was a model of international cooperation in wildlife conservation. The signatories for the most part obeyed the provisions of the agreement, and the fur seal populations rebounded strongly. From the moment the treaty was signed, however, critics in Japan called for revisions that would allow for larger seal harvests. Owners of sealing ships were especially vocal, but fishermen also complained, asserting (wrongly, as scientists would later prove) that fur seals ate large quantities of valuable fish species, especially salmon. The chorus of discontent grew through the 1930s. Then, in October 1941, after the Japanese government had already burned most of its international bridges, Tokyo announced the unilateral abrogation of the 1911 Fur Seal Convention. No good statistics exist on how many fur seals Japanese hunters went on to slaughter during the war. During the late 1930s, Japan’s quota under the international treaty had been about three thousand seals a year; wartime estimates suggested that at least twice that many were taken annually after 1941 from coastal waters and that many more (perhaps as many as seventy thousand in total) were killed in the Robben Island breeding grounds. Indeed, by the end of the war, the Robben Island colony was devastated and, in just a few years, many of the ecological gains made in three decades of international cooperation were destroyed.44 The fur seals of the northwest Pacific were thus the unfortunate and largely forgotten victims of Japan’s wartime withdrawal from international diplomacy and the global economy.31
AS THIS brief survey has suggested, the environmental consequences of World War II in Japan were profound, pervasive, and unpredictable. The war was undeniably extremely damaging to the Japanese environment. Human beings suffered terribly, as did songbird populations, old-growth forests, fur seal colonies, and fragile watersheds. Yet casually assuming that the Second World War was as dismal a “dark valley” for Japan’s natural environment as it was for the Japanese people is erroneous. The war was not an unmitigated disaster for Japan’s environment. Fish stocks swelled, alternate fuel research flourished, and the soot-belching smokestacks of many Japanese factories were bombed into prolonged inactivity. Although one might hesitate in borrowing John Dower’s phrase and christening the Pacific conflict a “useful war” for Japan’s environment, one can hardly deny that the war’s environmental impact was uneven, contradictory, and often equivocal.4532
     Most of the wartime environmental changes described in this essay, even the most destructive effects of bombing, mobilization, and scarcity, turned out to be remarkably transitory. Bombed cities were quickly rebuilt, the Occupation banned the mist-netting of songbirds, mountainsides were reforested, and fishermen rapidly depleted the waters around Japan once again. In this light, it may well have been popular perceptions of the environment, shaped by the traumatic experiences of mobilization and war, that ultimately would have a more lasting and significant impact on Japan’s postwar landscape and environmental record. How were individual Japanese, already victimized by bombings, hunger, and incessant sacrifice, affected by a world stripped of trees and birds, a life of scavenging for edible insects and weeds, and the backbreaking labor of unearthing pine roots? How did the profound stringency of the war years shape postwar patterns of consumption, notions of the “good life,” and attitudes toward resource conservation, recycling, and waste? How did the wartime relocation of millions of urbanites to the countryside affect perceptions of rural life, agriculture, and the land? How did wartime propaganda use images of nature and shape popular impressions of the environment and Japan’s particular relationship with it? Only by addressing such questions—and many more besides—will historians begin to comprehend the environmental impact of World War II in Japan in its full complexity and long-term social, political, and ideological significance.33
     As Paul Fussell has observed, “The damage the war visited upon bodies and buildings, planes and tanks and ships, is obvious. Less obvious is the damage it did to intellect, discrimination, honesty, individuality, complexity, ambiguity, and irony.”46 Even less obvious, one might add, were the knotty, elusive consequences of World War II for the environment.34

William M. Tsutsui is associate professor of history at the University of Kansas. He is the author of Banking Policy in Japan (Routledge, 1988) and Manufacturing Ideology: Scientific Management in Twentieth-Century Japan (Princeton University Press, 1998), which was awarded the John Whitney Hall Prize of the Association for Asian Studies. His current research focuses on the environmental and social history of Japan during the interwar period, World War II and the Allied Occupation.

NotesThe author wishes to thank Ed Russell, Richard Tucker, Donald Worster, Adam Rome, and audiences at the University of Michigan, the University of Alaska-Anchorage, and Harvard University for their comments on earlier versions of this work. Research on this essay was supported by grants from the General Research Fund of the University of Kansas and the American Council of Learned Societies.1. Thomas Havens, Valley of Darkness: The Japanese People and World War II (New York: Norton, 1978), 6.2. In addition to Havens’s Valley of Darkness, Ben-Ami Shillony’s Politics and Culture in Wartime Japan (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1981) was another path-breaking volume. Many of the most valuable sources in English on Japan’s wartime experience remain works published in the immediate aftermath of World War II.3. Important recent works include John Dower, Japan in War and Peace (New York: The New Press, 1993); Noguchi Yukio, 1940-nen taisei, saraba “senji keizai” (Tokyo: Tôyô keizai shimpôsha, 1995); Okazaki Tetsuji and Okuno Masahiro, eds., Gendai Nihon keizai shisutemu no genryû (Tokyo: Nihon keizai shinbunsha, 1993); and Eric Pauer, ed., Japan’s War Economy (London: Routledge, 1999).4. Two important recent works which examine war and the environment in East Asia are Julia Thomas, Reconfiguring Modernity: Concepts of Nature in Japanese Political Ideology (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001), chap. 8; and Ruth Rogaski, “Nature, Annihilation, and Modernity: China’s Korean War Germ-Warfare Experience Reconsidered,” Journal of Asian Studies 61 (May 2002), 381–415. Thomas focuses on the meanings and uses of “nature” in Japanese ultranationalist ideology.5. See, for example, Arthur Westing, Warfare in a Fragile World: Military Impact on the Human Environment (London: Taylor and Francis, 1980); Arthur Westing, Ecological Consequences of the Second Indochina War (Stockholm: Stockholm International Peace Institute and Almqvist and Wiksell, 1976); Barry Weisberg, ed., Ecocide in Indochina: The Ecology of War (San Francisco: Canfield Press, 1970).6. Havens, Valley of Darkness, 176–82; John Dower, Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II (New York: Norton, 1999), 45–48; Shigehara Terusaku, Tokyo kûshûka no hyakugojû-nichi (Tokyo: Taihei shuppansha, 1974); Gordon Daniels, “The Great Tokyo Air Raid, 9–10 March 1945” in Modern Japan: Aspects of History, Literature and Society, ed. W. G. Beasley (Tokyo: Charles Tuttle, 1976).7. Kenneth Werrell, Blankets of Fire: U.S. Bombers over Japan during World War II (Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1996), 226. For the sake of comparison, in 2000, the approximate area of the city of Albuquerque, New Mexico, was 180 square miles; of the city of Indianapolis, Indiana, 360 square miles.8. Robert Guillain, I Saw Tokyo Burning, trans. William Byron (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1981), 118. Guillain, who was consistently critical of Japan and the Japanese in his wartime writings from Tokyo, may have exaggerated the decrepitude of Japanese cities, even in the straitened circumstances of war. In any case, even the most cynical planners of the U.S. bombing campaign did not rationalize their incendiary attacks as a form of urban renewal for Japan.9. Tokyo hyakunenshi henshû iinkai, ed., Tokyo hyakunenshi, vol. 6 (Tokyo: Tokyo-to, 1972), chap. 4; Tokyo-to sensaishi (Tokyo: Tokyo-to, 1953), chap. 6; Edward Seidensticker, Tokyo Rising: The City Since the Great Earthquake (Tokyo: Charles Tuttle, 1990), 155–64, 165–67. Robert Guillain even adopted a botanical metaphor for the reconstruction of Japanese cities: “Tokyo would sprout like grass, like a forest. On the field of ash and twisted steel into which that capital of unpainted wood had dissolved, three million people were already busy.” See, Guillain, I Saw Tokyo Burning, 281.10. Committee for the Compilation of Materials on Damage Caused by the Atomic Bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Hiroshima and Nagasaki: The Physical, Medical, and Social Effects of the Atomic Bombings, trans. Ishikawa Eisei and David Swain (New York: Basic Books, 1981), 55, 73–79. The release of radiation in the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear accident was several hundred times greater than that of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombs. J. R. McNeill, Something New Under the Sun: An Environmental History of the Twentieth-Century World (New York: Norton, 2000), 312.11. Committee for the Compilation of Materials on Damage Caused by the Atomic Bombs, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, 80–3; a number of detailed studies are presented in Genshibakudan saigai chôsa hôkokushû, vol. 1 (Tokyo: Nihon gakujutsu shinkôkai, 1953), especially 217–25, 247–63, 281–3.12. Guillain, I Saw Tokyo Burning, 240.13. Committee for the Compilation of Materials on Damage Caused by the Atomic Bombs, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, 83–6; Genshibakudan saigai chôsa hôkokushû, vol. 1, especially 118–9, 225–41, 263–80.14. John Hersey, Hiroshima (1946; reprint, New York: Vintage Books, 1989), 69–70.15. Committee for the Compilation of Materials on Damage Caused by the Atomic Bombs, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, 86.16. On the offshore fishing industry, see The Japanese Tuna Fisheries (Tokyo: Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers, Natural Resources Section Report 104, 1948); Canned Crab Industry of Japan (Tokyo: Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers, Natural Resources Section Report 109, 1948). On whaling, Japanese Whaling Industry Prior to 1946 (Tokyo: Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers, Natural Resources Section Report 126, 1950); Bjorn Basberg, “Convergence or National Styles? The Japanese Challenge to the British-Norwegian Hegemony in the Twentieth-Century Whaling Industry” in Global Markets: The Internationalization of the Sea Transport Industries Since 1850, ed. David Starkey and Gelina Harlaftis (St John’s, Newfoundland: International Maritime Economic History Association, 1998), 259–83. On lumber and general aspects of economic mobilization in the 1930s, see Jerome Cohen, Japan’s Economy in War and Reconstruction (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1949).17. B. F. Johnston with Hosoda Mosaburo and Kusumi Yoshio, Japanese Food Management in World War II (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1953), especially chap. 8.18. An overview of pollution problems in the 1930s is presented in Kamioka Namiko, Nihon no kôgaishi (Tokyo: Sekai shoin, 1987), 75–103. Specific instances of wartime pollution are described in River Control and Utilization in Japan (Tokyo: Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers, Natural Resources Section Report 149, 1951), 104–112; O’Neill, Something New Under the Sun, 95–96, 138–9; Margaret McKean, Environmental Protest and Citizen Politics in Japan (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981), 45–50; Timothy George, Minamata: Pollution and the Struggle for Democracy in Postwar Japan (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Asia Center, 2001), chaps. 1 and 2.19. Reforestation in Japan (Tokyo: Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers, Natural Resources Section Report 113, 1948), 15–16, 32–34; Kiyosawa Kiyoshi, A Diary of Darkness, trans. Eugene Soviak and Kamiyama Tamie (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1999), 11, 63.20. Reforestation in Japan, 19–31. On wartime forestry, see also Nihon ringyô hattatsushi hensan iinkai, ed., Nihon ringyô hattatsushi: nôgyô kyôkô, senji tôseiki no katei (Tokyo: Nihon sanrin kai, 1983).21. Forestry in Japan, 1945–51 (Tokyo: Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers, Natural Resources Section Report 153, 1951), 81, 21.22. For an overview of the pine root oil project, see Cohen, Japan’s Economy, 147–8; an excellent summary of the technology of the project is provided by Miscellaneous Targets: Japanese Fuels and Lubricants, Article 4, Pine Root Oil Program (Tokyo: U.S. Naval Technical Mission to Japan Report X-38(N)-4, February 1946).23. Cohen, Japan’s Economy, 147.24. Bark Beetle Epidemic in Japan (Tokyo: Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers, Natural Resources Section Report 90, 1947).25. C. J. Kraebel, Forestry and Flood Control in Japan (Tokyo: Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers, Natural Resources Section Preliminary Report 39, July 1950). See also River Control and Utilization in Japan..26. Susan Hanley has argued that Tokugawa Japan (1600–1868) was a “resource-efficient culture”: “The Tokugawa solutions to limited resources enabled the Japanese to reach a high level of civilization using a minimum of resources, and wherever possible, natural, renewable materials.” See, Susan Hanley, Everyday Things in Premodern Japan: The Hidden Legacy of Material Culture (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997), 75. Hanley does not explore in detail what specific legacies of this economical preindustrial lifestyle may have remained significant in mid-twentieth-century Japan. The anguished response of many Japanese to wartime scarcity suggests that Japanese culture had grown significantly less “resource efficient” during the half-century since the start of industrialization.27. Cohen, Japan’s Economy, 365–6.28. Fertilizer Practices in Japan: A Preliminary Report (Tokyo: Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers, Natural Resources Section Report 93, 1947); Walter Lowdermilk, Water Resources and Related Land Uses in Japan (Tokyo: Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers, Natural Resources Section Preliminary Report 70, January 1952), 22–23.29. On Japanese night soil practices, see Hanley, Everyday Things, 110–15; Anne Walthall, “Village Networks: Sôdai and the Sale of Edo Nightsoil,” Monumenta Nipponica 43 (Autumn 1988). Japan’s wartime preoccupation with nightsoil was such that the Central Yoshimura Kiyohisa, Kôtô hiyrôgaku (Tokyo: Seibidô shoten, 1943), 109–110; Fertilizer Practices in Japan, 54.

30. Fertilizer Practices in Japan, 32–34; see also, Crawford Sams, “Medic”: The Mission of an American Military Doctor in Occupied Japan and Wartorn Korea (Armonk, N.Y.: M.E. Sharpe, 1998), 92–96.31. Japanese Crop and Livestock Statistics, 1878–1950 (Tokyo: Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers, Natural Resources Section Report 143, 1951), 121–33; Akiyama Masami, Dôbutsuen no Shôwa shi (Tokyo: Detahausu, 1995). Kiyosawa Kiyoshi noted matter-of-factly in his diary entry for 24 June 1943 that “This spring in Minami-Azumi in Shinshû, they killed all the dogs and presented the hides to the army.” See, Kiyosawa, Diary of Darkness, 42.32. Mist Netting for Birds in Japan (Tokyo: Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers, Natural Resources Section Report 88, 1947); Wildlife Conservation in Japan (Tokyo: Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers, Natural Resources Section Report 116, 1948), 22–23; Japanese Ornithology and Mammology During World War II (Tokyo: Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers, Natural Resources Section Report 102, 1948), 9.33. Kuwata Toichi, Suisan Nihon (Tokyo: Dai Nihon yûbenkai kôdansha, 1942); Kuwata Toichi, Gaikan Nihon suisanshi (Tokyo: Umi to sora sha, 1943); Canned Crab Industry of Japan, 16, 19; The Japanese Tuna Fisheries, 5, 49; Francois Bourgois, Japanese Offshore Trawling (Tokyo: Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers, Natural Resources Section Report 138, 1950), 8. On depletion of whale stocks, see Japanese Whaling Industry Prior to 1946, 26ff.34. Fisheries Programs in Japan, 1945–51 (Tokyo: Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers, Natural Resources Section Report 152, 1951), 9–13; see also Japan’s Big Fishing Companies (Tokyo: Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers, Natural Resources Section Preliminary Report 5, March 1947).35. Bourgois, Japanese Offshore Trawling, 52.36. See Georg Borgstrom, Japan’s World Success in Fishing (London: Fishing News, 1964), especially chap. 1; Fisheries Programs in Japan, 1945–51, 10–12.37. Westing, Warfare in a Fragile World, 154.38. Bourgois, Japanese Offshore Trawling, 7.39. Paul Fussell, Wartime (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989), 195–207; Susan Strasser, Waste and Want: A Social History of Trash (New York: Metropolitan Books, 1999), 229–63.40. Japanese Fuels and Lubricants—Article 2, Naval Research on Aviation Gasoline (Tokyo: U.S. Naval Technical Mission to Japan Report X-38(N)-2, February 1946); History of Mission (Tokyo: U.S. Naval Technical Mission to Japan, November 1946), 12–13. Critics have noted that the production of alternative fuels can have negative ecological impacts, especially if previously unexploited land (such as forests or wetlands) is “reclaimed” for the cultivation of biofuel inputs. While an ecological accounting of biofuels is beyond the scope of this essay, it is apparent that wartime Japanese scientists were exploring alternative fuel technologies that are now considered to be environmentally responsible by many, including the U.S. Department of Energy, for the renewability, sustainability, and reduced emissions that they promise.41. History of Mission, 11.42. Adam Rome notes, for example, that wartime fuel shortages stimulated interest in solar housing in the United States, but that the postwar return to plenty and a rejuvenated mass consumption economy stunted the further development of such environmentally sensitive technologies. Adam Rome, The Bulldozer in the Countryside: Suburban Sprawl and the Rise of American Environmentalism (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 45–86.43. On the prewar pyrethrum industry in Japan, see Pyrethrum in Japan (Tokyo: Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers, Natural Resources Section Report 78, 1947). On the development of DDT and its wartime adoption in the United States, see Edmund Russell, War and Nature: Fighting Humans and Insects with Chemicals from World War I to Silent Spring (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001). On the introduction of DDT into Japan and the postwar pyrethrum industry, see Yoshikuni Igarashi, Bodies of Memory: Narratives of War in Postwar Japanese Culture, 1945–1970 (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2000), 65–72; Sams, “Medic,” 14, 84–85, 138; Hosono Shigeo, Yushutsu nôsanbutsu to shite no jochûgiku (Tokyo: Nôgyô sôgô kenkyû kankôkai, 1950).44. Japanese Fur Sealing (Tokyo: Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers, Natural Resources Section Report 129, 1950). For an excellent overview of the background to and negotiation of the 1911 Fur Seal Convention, see Kurkpatrick Dorsey, The Dawn of Conservation Diplomacy: U.S.-Canadian Wildlife Protection Treaties in the Progressive Era (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1998), chaps. 4–5.45. Dower, Japan in War and Peace, 9–32.46. Fussell, Wartime, ix.

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