Professor Yuki Masami is one of Japan’s eminent researchers in the area of literary studies known as “ecocriticism.” Today I would like to ask her what ecocriticism is, what the state of ecocriticism in Japan is, and what she is personally researching.
First, I would like to start by asking what approach ecocriticism takes to literary works. I would like to know the background leading up to its inception, and what developments there have been in the field up until today.
Looking at it comprehensively, “ecocriticism” is a form of literary studies focusing on the relationship between humans and the environment. Research in this field was formalized around the year 1990. In the 1960s and the 70s, literary scholars started questioning how the field of literary studies had been centered around Caucasian males, and a revisionist movement began that looked at problems of racism and sexism. It was in the 1970s that the environment age began globally, and research in the field that is now called ecocriticism began to exist at the individual level. However, cross-referencing seemed to be difficult to do at the individual level, and without an academic society, collaborative research and the exchanging of ideas could not be expected.
Ecocriticism has gone through several changes. This is often spoken of with the metaphor of “waves.” The beginning of ecocriticism was the “first wave,” and some scholars say that ecocriticism is currently on its “fourth wave.” During the first wave when the field was still new, the word “environment” was used to refer to the natural environment, especially wilderness. The researchers were also mainly Caucasian.
After that, an increasing number of ecocritics started to question, if not overtly criticize, the scholarly tendency to focus on the natural environment. With the social environment being brought into view, there was now a shared recognition that issues of race and gender were also deeply related to environmental problems. At the same time, the field started to be more diverse in terms of race and gender, as well as more global with less of a focus on the United States. One could say that ecocriticism is a very diverse area of literary studies.
Ecocriticism involves a process of revising the literary “canon.” Given that literary studies mainly focus on novels, the fact that ecocriticism addresses literature as a whole and not just novels is what makes it distinct.
What ecocriticism focused on early on was “nature writing.” Nature writing refers to nonfiction essays written in the first person about human relationships with the natural environment. Nonfiction essays had not been given much focus in literary studies up until then, but ecocriticism saw these first person nonfiction essays as containing deep musings regarding the relationship between humans and the environment. Ecocriticism also looks at cultural and literary representations in movies, comics, and animation.
The majority of what I am talking about is discussed in the introduction of The Ecocriticism Reader*1, jointly edited by Cheryll Glotfelty, one of the pioneers of ecocriticism as a field of study, and Harold Fromm.
Glotfelty brought up the idea of ecocriticism being “open and suggestive,” which is what it is known for today. Simply put, she meant that ecocriticism should have a wide scope. Because of this, ecocriticism is also known as “literature and the environment,” as the term “ecocriticism” might be seen as being restrictive.
Since being “open and suggestive” means emphasizing the relationships it has with other fields of study, taking an interdisciplinary approach is another one of ecocriticism’s characteristics. Furthermore, ecocriticism being open indicates an awareness that it should incorporate voices other than that of scholars. Since ecocriticism works on issues of the environment, it becomes important to consider the thoughts of a wide variety of people and not just that of scholars. On the other hand, it is also true that some researchers working in the area of ecocriticism felt that ecocriticism, because of its very openness, was not polished enough as literary theory.
Starting in the 21st century, transnational perspectives have started to show up. After recognizing the link between environmental and racial issues, research on shared problems that go beyond race is now coming up. This parallels the rising interest in global environmental problems.
I believe that the concepts and approaches born out of ecocriticism and environmental humanities have lots of potential to reinvigorate previously discussed ideas from new perspectives.
For example, take multispecies studies which, in Japan, is led by Okuno Katsumi. I believe that “multispecies” is a concept that can be “applied” when discussing works by Ishimure Michiko, Japan’s representative writer of environmental literature. Ishimure’s works powerfully depict the relationships between humans and nonhuman existences.
Ishimure’s works have been discussed with such concepts as “animism” and “coexistence,” or in the case of the Minamata disease, “co-suffering.” These concepts have been discussed in many fields and not just the field of literary studies. At the same time, these discussions have a tendency to idealize the premodern era. However, if these concepts are looked at in the framework of “multispecies,” a critical distancing takes place and the platform for discussion opens up. If this aspect of Ishimure’s works that has been discussed as “coexistence” is discussed from the perspective of “multispecies,” it allows for discussion to happen in more fields and with more people from different generations.
Let me talk a bit regarding the issues raised by “multispecies.” I am still in the middle of my research, but as I understand it, multispecies studies aims to revise the concept we have of “species” itself.
The problems with how the term “the Anthropocene” is used, which are discussed in many fields including ecocriticism and environmental humanities, involve the question of “Who is ‘we’?” The historian Dipesh Chakrabarty argues that modern day humans have never thought of humans as being a “species.” I am interested in how multispecies studies will respond to the scenario that interprets the Anthropocene epoch as a geological age when humans as a “species” became a “geological force.”
When thinking of the issues associated with considering humans a “singular species,” I feel like referencing Ishimure Michiko’s works. Ishimure’s works contain many depictions of human suffering. Regardless of the truth, Ishimure’s works depict how people who are discriminated against, such as Minamata disease patients and individuals who are treated as mad, still look at others as fellow humans.
For example, a Minamata disease patient said to the president of Chisso*2, “I want you to think of us as fellow humans,” and “I want you to think of our pain together with us as a fellow human.” This patient confronted the president and the executives as fellow humans. However, the president of Chisso and the executives refused to treat the patients as humans. That was why they were able to emit poisonous substances into the sea without feeling guilty. A wide perspective of humans that treats them as a “single species” is created when a recipient of discrimination faces others as “fellow humans.” In the world of such humans depicted by Ishimure, there are interactions with octopuses, foxes, and Japanese andromeda. Such multispecies relationships are depicted.
In this way, Ishimure’s works are interesting to look at when studying the problems associated with treating humans as a single species, as well as when critically considering the scientific concept of “species.” When discussing the Anthropocene epoch that treats humans as a “geological force,” we must think of “whether we are one species or not.” I think that ecocriticism has an important role to play in these discussions.
Could you tell us about how you got interested in ecocriticism?
I grew up in the countryside. I played in the rivers, the fields, and the mountains. When I look back on it now, I think that I was lucky to have had those experiences as a kid. There was a stream where small fish swam at the back of the house. My grandmother would do our laundry there, and my mother would clean our pots and pans in it. I called it a stream, but really it was an irrigation channel that brought us the water we needed for our fields. Regardless, there was moss growing on the sides, and pond snails stuck here and there. I really had so much fun with this stream. I used to get naked and play in this small stream that flowed through our land.
However, when I was in the upper grades of primary school, that stream was lined with concrete. The small fish stopped showing up, and the fireflies also stopped appearing when they used to. This had a great impact on me, and I found myself angry. Why would they do something like this? Back when I was in primary school, I would stand there in front of the construction site watching the construction company at work and feel a vague frustration that I found difficult to express using words. However, there was nothing I could do, and no action I could take, so I had no other choice but to continuously feel that vague frustration.
I entered college, and after taking a class taught by Professor Noda Ken-ichi, I decided to major in American literature, eventually continuing on to get my master’s degree. When I was writing my master’s thesis, I had the opportunity to take a series of intensive courses taught by Professor Scott Slovic, who is one of the founders of ecocriticism alongside Dr. Glotfelty. In these courses, I read many works of environmental literature, and they all left a great impact on me. “Is this also literature?” My preconceptions of what literature is fell apart.
When I read these works, I connected them to the vague frustration I felt as a kid. “Why do they have to do this to such beautiful water?” Before I knew it, I had started on the path that I am on now. Thus, my past experiences and my study of ecocriticism are not separate. It feels strange to say it after the fact, but I may have been drawn in by this connection.
A good number of people in the field of ecocriticism do not make a distinction between their private lives and their lives as researchers. Problems that have to do with the environment are human problems. This field is simultaneously local and global, and things that are personal are deeply related to that which is professional. I was drawn in by this stance, and before I knew it I had started studying ecocriticism.
Your doctoral dissertation was about soundscapes, and afterwards it seems that your interests expanded into many different branches. Were there any experiences, people or works that you encountered that resulted in your interests expanding?
The reason I became interested in soundscapes and acoustic ecology has to do with how I studied literary landscapes in my master’s program. My adviser, Professor Noda, focused on the landscapes in literature, and I took a course taught by him on landscape theory. “Why is it all about looking?” This question that I had at the time may have served as my starting point. Ocularcentrism is closely related to the problem of discrimination. Therefore, I wondered to myself if literature could be studied from the perspective of sense experiences other than sight.
At the time I was reading works by Terry Tempest Williams. I think that this also contributed to my interest in aural experiences. Williams is well-versed in indigenous cultures, and reading her works, I was very impressed by the oral traditions of these indigenous communities and their attitude of “listening.” There were many indigenous communities in Nevada where I did my Ph.D. I am not sure if it was because they felt close to me because I was Asian, but I was allowed to participate in their tribal gatherings. I became interested in indigenous cultures and encountered them in real life as well. I believe that this is why I ended up studying soundscapes.
After returning to Japan, I felt that exclusively studying American environmental literature alone would only result in impractical theories. Since environmental problems are also local problems, I thought that it was important to also focus on Japan. Because of this, I shifted to comparatively studying Japanese literature alongside American literature. I ended up studying works by Ishimure Michiko and Morisaki Kazue through this process.
You previously published a Japanese translation of David Abram’s The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human World*3*4. In the translator’s postscript, you wrote that this was the first written work to use the term “more-than-human” in an academic way. Could you elaborate on what the concept of “more-than-human” is?
“More-than-human” is a concept very closely related to multispecies. I would even say that the two terms can sometimes be used interchangeably. However, the two concepts are not exactly the same. Multispecies focuses on thinking of humans as one species, including rethinking our conception of a “species” itself. On the other hand, “more-than-human” refers to how there are also other existences going above humans. What the two terms refer to are similar, but the approaches taken by both concepts are a bit different.
One of the chapters in The Spell of the Sensuous is contained in Green Literary Criticism*5, an anthology of Japanese translations of ecocritical essays that was published in 1998. I was in charge of the translation of one chapter of The Spell of the Sensuous, and I felt that it was a very thoughtful scholarly work. The term “more-than-human” came to be used by many people in their writings, but nearly none of them ever credit Abram. This shows how common of a term “more-than-human” is becoming.
However, this term was still rarely used in Japan. When thinking of why this concept of “more-than-human” was not used in Japan, I realized that it was because there existed no translations of Abram’s works except for that one chapter of his book. Important concepts only come into common use if the scholarly work has been translated, so I decided to translate his book myself.
The Spell of the Sensuous is written in a style similar to the “narrative scholarship” style used in ecocriticism. I found this quite interesting. Narrative scholarship differs from conventional academic styles in the sense that the researcher places themselves in the location depicted in the work while analyzing the work by both looking at the work as a literary text and looking at the locations influencing the text. The experiences and thoughts gained from this process are used in the analysis of the text. Therefore, this method of research incorporates personal speculations.
“Narrative scholarship” is becoming widely used in ecocriticism, but it was rare at the time The Spell of the Sensuous was first published in English in 1996. This book was likely based on Abram’s doctoral dissertation, and doctoral dissertations are expected to be written in an academic style. Reading The Spell of the Sensuous makes it clear that his writing style is very ingenious.
First, let us look at the introduction. There are two introductions: an academic introduction and a personal introduction written in a narrative scholarship style. In fact, the whole book has both an academic section and a personal section. Abram is attempting to incorporate the speculations that he was unable to write about in an academic way. I think that this attempt itself is necessary to approach “more-than-human.” It is likely impossible to approach “more-than-human” using conventional academic methods. In other words, the style of this book itself is one method of showing the way to “more-than-human.”
In Japan, the writings by Suga Keijiro are good examples of narrative scholarship.
You have published two monographs. The second work, Foodscapes of Contemporary Japanese Women Writers: An Ecocritical Journey around the Hearth of Modernity*6*7, contains your critical essays about literary foodscapes alongside interviews with four authors. In the introduction, you wrote that you emphasized “listening to the dialogue spun between the text and the embodied world from which the text arose.” This book reflects your research stance which is open to others in order not to turn scholarly work into a critical monologue by the researcher.
I want to ask you to elaborate on your research on food issues, the problem of pollution and the issues of nuclear energy, using this research stance that involves physically participating in the research target.
The problems involving food and the problem of pollution are connected. What made me realize this was again, Ishimure Michiko. In particular, it was the unforgettable sentence “Though it’s called Minatama disease wakame kelp, it’s the taste of spring” in her book Paradise in the Sea of Sorrow*8*9 that helped me realize this. I had always found it very strange that the people living in the area ate wakame kelp even while knowing that it had been contaminated by organic mercury. This question I had led to my interest in food and pollution.
The current discussion of food and pollution focuses on the safety and risks of different types of foods. The problem of the polluted wakame kelp has nothing to do with this. I thought of the sentence “Though it’s called Minatama disease wakame kelp, it’s the taste of spring” used in Ishimure Michiko’s literary world, a world that had a large impact on the world and moved the hearts of the readers, and wondered what kind of food scenery she was depicting. This prompted me to begin considering the relationship between food and pollution. This was the beginning of my research on food through the lens of ecocriticism.
My interest in pollution grew from there, and what I am currently researching is the problem of radioactive pollution. However, I am not just approaching this topic from a literary studies perspective, as I am also engaging in conversation. Researchers in the field of ecocriticism do not just ask themselves what ecocriticism is, but they also ask themselves what ecocriticism does. This is how it has been since the early days of the field. There are many different types of ecocritics, and I tend to lean more towards asking myself what ecocriticism does. I am focusing on literary studies as my field of expertise, but I also actively take advantage of opportunities to put my research into practice.
One of these opportunities involves the issue of geological disposal of high-level radioactive waste. It is unfeasible to store high-level radioactive waste aboveground. If the storage facilities are targeted in a terrorist attack, the consequences would be deadly. It therefore becomes necessary to dispose of the waste as soon as possible. The Japanese government has chosen the policy of geological disposal which involves safely isolating the radioactive materials in an area around 500 meters underground, but it is still undetermined where this disposal area will be. It is necessary to engage in conversation with many individuals before deciding on a place, but these conversations still have not taken place.
This high-level radioactive waste is also known as “nuclear power trash.” Geological disposal is not so much a nuclear energy problem as a trash problem. However, in virtue of the problem having to do with nuclear energy, people are split on this issue, with some people being for nuclear power, and others being against it. When an issue becomes this contentious, it is only natural that there is no room for conversation. However, a conversation regarding geological disposal is necessary. I am currently engaged in assisting with these conversations.
To assist with these conversations, I participated in a symposium on nuclear power trash held in Sabae City, Fukui Prefecture, in autumn of 2019. There are so many nuclear power plants located in Fukui that the area is called the “Nuclear Ginza.” Therefore, all the speakers were on edge. One of the panelists was a representative from NUMO (Nuclear Waste Management Organization of Japan), an organization that advocates for geological disposal.
NUMO holds interactive information sessions regarding geological disposal all throughout Japan. They say something like “Please do not worry. The waste will be buried using very safe methods.” They hope to convince people on the issue. The moderator for the symposium was the author Taguchi Randy. I have participated in several conversation efforts together with her. She was a good choice for a moderator, as her words are easy to understand while she talks about important topics. I participated as a panelist, approaching this issue through the lens of literary studies.
When I was participating in this symposium, I thought that a don’t-make-waves attitude would be inefficient at prompting conversation, so I chose to use leading questions instead. In order to explain what it means to “think like uranium” which is completely exploited for the sake of modern convenient life before being disposed of, I brought up the essay “Thinking Like a Mountain*10” by the American nature writer Aldo Leopold. The main topic of this essay is an exploration of what human actions look like in the big picture from the perspective of the ecosystem as a whole.
I told the representative from NUMO that, “you say the nuclear power trash will be buried using safe methods, but, if I was the uranium remnants, I would be very upset. My resources were all used up by humans, and now I am to be buried as trash at the end of it all.” What I was surprised by was how after I said this, the representative from NUMO responded by saying, “If I was the uranium, I would be very angry. I contributed to humanity only to be thrown away as trash.” At that moment, for the first time, it felt like I had formed a connection with the representative from NUMO. I felt that a platform for discussion was beginning to open up.
I thought that literature would be an effective way of creating a platform for discussion regarding geological disposal. If I am overly critical of the opposing party, then the conversation will only end in an argument. That is why I chose to use literature as a medium, telling the other party, “There is an essay that talks about this.” I think that literature has a significant role to play when looking for common ground to move the conversation forward. In these ways, I am using the ways of thinking that I have developed while analyzing works as an ecocritic to address actual problems.
Lastly, I would like to ask you to talk about “environmental humanities.” Environmental humanities is a collaborative field ranging from humanities to social sciences that started in the 21st century. This field has the goal of finding interdisciplinary approaches to cultural and philosophical frameworks engaging in the environment. You also participated in collaborative research when researching satoyama, with the results published in the book Narratives on Satoyama*11 coedited by you and your ex-colleague. Could you tell us more about this research?
I jointly edited Narratives on Satoyama together with Kuroda Satoshi, a historian at Kanazawa University where I used to work. We incorporated the voices of researchers from other fields. Collaborative research in the field of environmental humanities is common in Australia, Scandinavia, and North America. Each region has its own topics that are discussed. For example, the problem of aboriginal peoples is focused on in Australia. In Scandinavia, problems peculiar to cold regions and climate change are prominent issues. Even in North America, environmental topics peculiar to that region are discussed such as urban nature in Los Angeles.
Kanazawa University is located in satoyama. Satoyama research was very active there, and several researchers gathered to study satoyama because of a shared awareness that this issue was something that Kanazawa needed to address. Everyone was aware that it would be dangerous to proceed with only a scenario of coexistence, and everyone agreed that the study should be done properly through discourse and with a historical perspective. The results of this are compiled in Narratives on Satoyama.
Environmental humanities is a platform more than it is a research field. It is a platform for researchers with a shared awareness of a given issue to come together and do in-depth collaborative research, so it is necessary that the researchers have a shared awareness of the issue for this platform to exist. It is necessary to gain expertise knowledge to share it, as well as to understand the actual issue at stake for collaboration to take place.
The issues I speak of include local issues, but also global issues like climate change, and issues like the geological disposal of radioactive waste as I have mentioned. Satoyama was a theme appropriate to Kanazawa. In all these cases, the research was all done in the name of solving actual problems. All these cases were examples of environmental humanities projects with the goal of finding common ground for conversation.
As I understand it, you are referring to bringing literary imagination to the platform for discussion. That may be one answer to the question of how literary imagination can contribute to society. Thank you for speaking to us about such interesting topics today.
- *1Glotfelty, Cheryll and Harold Fromm, eds., 1996, The Ecocriticism Reader: Landmarks in Literary Ecology.
- *2In the 1960s, the Chisso Corporation’s Minamata factory let unprocessed liquid waste containing inorganic mercury methylmercury byproduct used as a catalyst flow into the sea, resulting in the Minamata disease.
- *3Abram, David, 1996, The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human World.
- *4Yuki Masami, trans., 2017.
- *5Fromm, Harold, Lawrence Buell and Paula G. Allen. Ito Shoko, Yoshida Mitsu and Yokota Yuri, trans., 1998, Green Literary Criticism.
- *6Yuki, Masami, 2013, Foodscapes of Contemporary Japanese Women Writers: An Ecocritical Journey around the Hearth of Modernity.
- *7Michael Berman, trans., 2015.
- *8Ishimure, Michiko, 1972, Paradise in the Sea of Sorrow: Our Minamata Disease.
- *9Livia Monnet, trans.,  2003.
- *10Leopold, Aldo, 1949, “Thinking Like a Mountain.”
- *11Yuki, Masami and Kuroda Satoshi, eds., 2017, Narratives on Satoyama: Dialogues of the Environmental humanities.