Monday, April 02, 2007

Ashio Copper Mine

Today, I went on another field trip with Aiichirou, our local human rights guru here in Utsunomiya. You might recall that he took Matt and I on a tour to discuss the issue of Burakumin Discrimination last year.

Today, I was the lone traveler and our destination was the town of Ashio, site of one of the worst environmental disasters in Japan. The part that really hit home about this is just how close this horrific environmental damage was to Nikko, my favourite place in Japan. As we began our journey at 9AM this morning, Aiichirou told me that Ashio's problems is\are on two levels. First is the pollution and next is the issue of forced labourers abducted from nations occupied by Japan in the 30s.

First, a bit of history. The Ashio Copper Mine was initially exploited under the Tokugawa shogunate during the Edo period from the 1600s on. Due to the technological limitations of the time, it was only semi-productive while it remained open and was eventually shut down. With the industrial revival brought on by the Meiji Restoration, aiming to bring Japan up to par with the rest of the world, the mine was re-opened as a private venture by Furukawa company in 1871. That is when what some say the template for Japan's many environmental problems was created. With a total lack of regard for the surrounding natural environment, the population of villages surrounding the mine and kilometers downstream, production was successively ramped up at the Ashio mine to the point where it was supplying anywhere from 20-40% of Japan's total copper production. This copper was then exported in exchange for the import of iron ore and steel for use in the ever expanding industrial sector, including the massive military expansion which continued right through WWII.

The refining process of copper being what it is, it is a severely damaging enterprise. Within 15 years of the mine's reopening, all of the trees on the mountains surrounding the refinery were dead. The mountains were then left bare and with no water absorption, this led to frequent major floods. These floods brought contaminated water downstream to communities within a huge radius of Ashio spanning 5 prefectures. Hundreds of acres of farmland were contaminated over and over again with each recurring flood over the decades that the mine continued to operate. Surveys done in the late 1800s show that the mortality rates of affected area was nearly double the national average while the birthrate was substantially lower. Despite the complaints from residents and demands by local politicians that the mine be shut down, nothing was done. The mine continued to operate until 1972! And the problems resulting from it continue to this day.

There are pages and pages of information on this available online, but here are some photos which I took today which show the damage, still evident 35 years after the mine stopped production.

You can clearly see the bare mountainside, with only small grass currently growing.

You can see that concrete was used to halt erosion once the trees were killed and landslides began.

After the mine was shutdown, the focus turned to flood prevention and dams were built to keep the poison water upstream... in theory.

The damage is all the more striking when you leave the immediate area of the mine and once more find yourself in unaffected areas where the trees are still present.

Very interesting place to visit. 100 years of pollution, a lasting legacy.

The second reason for our visit here as I mentioned earlier was the use of forced labour at the mining site. It is a generally accepted fact, one even substantiated by an NHK documentary a while back, that people were abducted from Japanese occupied China and Korea and forced to work at the Ashio mine. The problem of recognition is what continues to this day. In a striking example of the power of the Japanese Right Wing, which is fighting the survivors and descendants of the forced labourers inch for inch. Here are two photos.

The first shows a monument erected by the municipality in remembrance to the Chinese labourers who worked and died here. After years of fighting, the Chinese community finally got their monument.

The second shows the monument erected by local Koreans, since their memorial has been denied to this day.

Do you see a slight difference in scale? That is because the establishment of a permanent memorial for the Koreans has been blocked at every turn by the same groups who deny such facts as the use of sex-slaves by the Japanese military and who continue to selectively censor Japanese textbooks who dare mention some of the less than honorable acts perpetrated by Japan in the past. Why were the Chinese allowed their memorial and the Koreans not? Because the Koreans have insisted on the inclusion of the words "kyosei renkou" which means "taken by force." The right wing groups insist that they chose to come work in Japan, the worker insist they were taken by force, the fight continues to this day.

Luckily, there are people like Aiichirou who are talking about this and trying to get action and make things right. Good luck!

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