Tanaka Shozo + Watarase River and Shimotsuke Plain

Contributed by Zachary Czuprynski

We often explore the lives of the successful. What are they doing differently than me? Do I need to work harder? Set higher goals? What can I learn from their success? But, are we trapped in seeking answers – dogmas from those we perceive above us? After all, aren’t we taught that we learn from our failures, not our successes? Indeed, it is easy to get obsessed searching for this one recipe that will lead us all to greatness. I will counter this by sharing an account of a man who failed his entire life, yet, through the most steadfast devotion and sacrifice, refused to lose the fight.

Born a peasant in 1841, Shozo Tanaka is a Japanese politician and idealist who is also widely acknowledged as Japan’s first conservationist. Although much is not recorded from his childhood, he was the son of the Konaka village “headman”, a position that involved tax collection and speaking for the local community. Shozo later took over his father’s position, beginning his humble career in politics, but never really held power until his election to the national parliament.

Tanaka’s timing in politics occurred at a very interesting point in Japan’s history, marked by intense industrialization, cutting-edge technology (for the 1800s, mind you), and burgeoning applications of electricity. There’s no doubt that this had a major influence on Tanaka’s ideological developments which contemplated the relationship between human and nature, and the role of politics in a healthy environment. The basis of his environmental philosophy derives from twin processes of nature, “poison” (doku) and “flow” (nagare). With these, Tanaka Shozo took a firm stance in politics and activism, fighting against the Japanese state’s intervention with the literal “flow” of nature.

In the 1880s, a battle erupted. A copper mining industry began an operation in the Nasu Mountains, upstream of Watarase River and Shimotsuke Plain – one of the most fertile areas in the region. The effect on these ecosystems was horrendous. Waste from Ashio mine turned rivers blue, annihilated rice and potato crops, and decimated the fish population. In addition to destroying the community’s food source, villagers downstream were highly susceptible to health issues. Ankles developed sores, eyes became swollen and red, and some people even contracted eye diseases and became blind when exposed for too long. Within a decade, half a million people were impacted by the mine’s pollution and consequential famine.

View_of_Watarase_River,_at_Omama_(3110698662)
View of the Watarase River (Kimbei Kusakabe)

Shozo was outraged, and demanded that the government protect the people residing in Shimotsuke Plain. He gave speeches, articulated petitions, recommended legislation, wrote articles, and led demonstrations. The result? Executives of Ashio mine and government officials used their power to discredit Tanaka. He was branded as “crazy” and “unpatriotic” – a potent attack to his dignity as a proud Japanese citizen – since the copper was necessary for military development. Despite being persistently ridiculed and alone as the government complied with the mining operation, Shozo held a firm stance and continually spoke out against the dual-edged katana…for twenty years:

“If you cannot cut off the poison at its source; if you cannot cleanse the waters of our river; if you cannot restore fertility to our land; if you cannot protect our lives; then murder us, your loyal subjects.”

Yet, after his relentless protests, nothing changed. Losing faith in politics, he resigned from office in 1901, but did not give up the battle. One day, recently after his resignation, Shozo charged the Emperor’s carriage, unarmed, as it was traveling to the palace. Expecting a quick death as a martyr, he rushed in and yelled, “Petition the Emperor! Petition the Emperor!” Albeit not being killed as he anticipated, Shozo was tackled and put into prison, declared as a “madman”. His efforts were overlooked. At his utmost devotion, again, Tanaka Shozo failed and was ignored. And yet, he did not give up.

After being released from prison, Shozo decide to serve the community of Yanaka – an area the government declared a reservoir for polluted water, giving little to no compensation for the affected people. This transition from politics was an important change for Tanaka. Perhaps a life of humble service could be more valuable and effective than exercising power.

“While I played politics, the people died.”

It is in the town of Yanaka that Shozo dedicated his last years. He shared a life of poverty with the community and spoke on behalf of the people as the Japanese government continued to destroy their homes. Shozo continued furthering his ideologies during this time. His philosophies reflected a life of struggle and frustration in politics concerning the environment:

“A true civilization does not destroy mountains, defile rivers, tear apart villages or murder people.”

While in Yanaka, Shozo arranged public meetings and classes to educate the community about the connection of people and nature – particularly, the obligation humans have to respect nature, the obligation of the government to acknowledge this relationship and support citizens, and the importance of stewardship.

Thirty thousand people attended “madman” Tanaka Shozo’s funeral on September 4, 1913. Tanaka embodied a life of virtue – he held solid convictions, passion, and was relentlessly devoted to the environment and his community. He leaves a spirit that whispers to us a reminder of our duties to nature – that we are here to serve the Earth, not reign over it. Yet, he never achieved the successes of figures we emulate today. Perhaps struggle, sacrifice, and devotion cultivate deeper meaning than any amount of success could instill in us.

“The care of rivers is not a question of rivers, but of the human heart.”

Cover photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

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