Iron Archipelago: Environment and Industry in Early Modern and Modern Japan

Date of Award

Fall 10-1-2021

Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)



First Advisor

Botsman, Daniel


This dissertation examines Japan's homegrown iron industry during its heyday in the Tokugawa period (1603-1868) and as it persisted deep into the twentieth century, paying particular attention to its environmental consequences. Other societies have seen their metals industries grow and develop in times of war. During the long-lasting peace of the Tokugawa period, the inhabitants of the mountains of Chūgoku developed technologies of mining and smelting to produce increasing quantities of iron. This one region supplied most of the iron used across the archipelago for such fundamental purposes as farming implements, tools, and samurai swords. Chapter 1 explores how local people formed new communities around the demands of ironmaking, reshaping labor relations, the connections between ruling authorities and industry, and the use of resources. The new mining techniques also had far-reaching environmental consequences. Chapters 2 through 4 explore how people across the river basins of Chūgoku negotiated the impact of hydraulic iron sand mining on their environments and their communities. Faced with the harmful effects of tons upon tons of tailings washed downriver by mountain miners, downstream people navigated the political configurations of their river basins to push for limits on mining through a range of strategies including legal action. Their efforts demonstrate that the environmental politics of premodern societies can be far more complex than we often acknowledge. The intensity of the dynamics surrounding iron mining also recasts our understanding of Tokugawa Japan's much-vaunted sustainability. For the inhabitants of Chūgoku, the process of sustaining the archipelago on domestic sources of iron was far from static and far from entirely sunny. Finally, the modern afterlives of Japan’s homegrown iron industry open a new window on the significance of the early modern past to the nation’s rapid rise as a modern power. As Chapter 5 examines, the developments of Tokugawa-period ironmaking did not “pave the way” for the rise of modern industry in any simplistic way. And yet, even as Japan developed a new Western-style steel industry based around imported technology and imported ore, the older forms of ironmaking persisted alongside the new ones and in hybrid form. Most significant to Chūgoku’s remaining ironmakers was their role supplying Japan’s Imperial forces. In this context, technologies advanced during the Tokugawa “Great Peace” survived well into the twentieth century largely through their adaptability to the military machinery of modern empire.

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