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Cultivating collaboration

April 23, 2015

Who knew airport layovers could foster so much creativity! Co-authors Bruce L. Batten and Philip C. Brown join us today to chat about the inspiration and processes behind their new book, Environment and Society in the Japanese Islands: From Prehistory to the Present. Both well-respected historians in their fields, Batten and Brown collaborated to offer readers a fascinating glimpse into the complex connection between humans and nature, and how that relationship has changed over time.

 

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Q: Can you remember a particular moment or memory that prompted you to study the topic of environmental and societal patterns, particularly in the Japanese Islands?

 

PCB: I came at this via my study of early modern Japanese agriculture and its sensitivity to drought, cold, and excessive water. That led to my second book on how villagers socially engineered a solution—joint ownership and reallocation of arable lands in ways very sensitive to micro-climatic and topographic variations.

 

BLB: I grew up amidst Oregon’s spectacular natural scenery and like many other (current and former) residents of the state have always had a strong interest in environmental issues. I studied geology and paleontology at the University of Oregon before moving on to Japan language and history. I had always wanted to put my various interests together, and this project was what finally made it possible. So I’m thrilled.  

 

 

 

Q: What brought you together to work on the project? Had you known each other as BattenandBrowncolleagues before the book?

 

PCB: Usually time between planes in airports is pretty dead, at minimum quiet and solitary. However, our meeting for the Bozeman conference gave us our first chance to actually meet face-to-face after a number of years of exchanging e-mails. Since our travel schedules meshed, especially on the return, we had a lot of time to begin to develop ideas for what ultimately became Environment and Society in the Japanese Islands. Several trial runs and a wonderful Hawaii conference later, here we are. Most productive time I ever had while in an airport!

 

BLB: That’s about the size of it! 

 

 

 

Q: Were there any memorable moments during your travels for research?

 

PCB: Although my interest in the relationship of farm communities to their natural surroundings has been long-standing, my particular interest in floods was sparked by photographs of 1950s dike construction in the Shinano River, Japan's longest. Looking for other documents in Tokamachi, a small Piedmont town in Niigata, someone brought several boxes of old photographs in to the documents preparation room. The home of a local photographer's family had been destroyed by the 2004 Chu-Etsu earthquake. While the photographs had been rescued -- a trove dating back to the very early 20th century -- the family could no longer keep them and donated them to the library.  Among the images of a fire that destroyed the town, streets buried so deep in snow that people used entrances on the second floor, and more, were images of building flood control dikes that looked very much like those that would have been built a hundred or more years before that time.  How could Japan, which had gone through such dramatic economic and industrial transformation that it became a world power, continue to rely on old technologies of flood control?  With that began my current work on Japan's changing response to flood hazards, and which marked my transformation into an historian of technology and the environment.

 

BLB: I have lived in Japan for more than 30 years, so I can’t really say that I “traveled” during the research for this book. But I can relate some of my feelings about Japan’s natural environment. When I first came to the country, I had heard about Japan’s beauty and was expecting a lot. Frankly, I was disappointed because there were people and signs of their activity everywhere. Of course, that’s hardly a bad thing, but I was really hoping for more pristine scenery, such as one might encounter in Oregon. Later I learned to appreciate Japan’s “built environment,” which is the result of millennia of interaction between human beings and their natural surroundings. That interaction is the theme of this book.  

 

 

 

Q: What’s next for the two of you?

 

PCB: In addition to the monographic project noted above -- how Japan’s approach to dealing with floods has changed over the past two centuries, and the relationship between these developments, Japan’s economic transformation, and military expansion -- I’ve committed to edit two other books. One deals with science, technology and medicine in Imperial Japan, the other on East Asian environmental history that will include China and Korea in addition to Japan. Both are rather new fields for East Asian studies and it is exciting to be making a contribution to their growth.

 

BLB: I’m writing the chapter on “Climate and Environment in History” for the forthcoming Routledge Handbook of Premodern Japanese History. Once that’s finished, I intend to return to a long-standing commitment with another press to complete a history of Japan from a global environmental perspective. Also, in order to avoid the tunnel vision to which scholars are prone, I intend to continue reading voraciously in fields unrelated to Japanese history. Cross-fertilization among disciplines is the key to new insights, and I often get new ideas while reading—or doing—things that have no apparent bearing on my current research.

 

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Bruce L. Batten teaches Japanese history at J. F. Oberlin University in Tokyo, specializing in the ancient and medieval eras. The former director of the Inter-University Center for Japanese Language Studies in Yokohama, Batten is also the author of To the Ends of Japan: Premodern Frontiers, Boundaries, and Interactions and Gateway to Japan: Hakata in War and Peace, 500 – 1300.

 

Philip C. Brown, a professor of history at The Ohio State University, specializes in early modern and modern Japanese history, focusing on developments affecting rural Japan. His previous publications include Central Authority and Local Autonomy in the Formation of Early Modern Japan: The Case of Kaga Domain and Cultivating Commons: Joint Ownership of Arable Land in Early Modern Japan.

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