Industrial Pollution in Meiji Japan: The Case of the Ashio Copper Mine

by Justin Aukema
June 16, 2016

(The area around the Ashio Copper Mine, c. 1895; from Wiki Commons)

In 1877, Furukawa Ichibei purchased the Ashio Copper Mine in Tochigi Prefecture, close to the Tokugawa mausoleum at Nikko. Furukawa had made his fortunes in exporting silk, and now he was ready to try his hand at mining. The case of the Ashio Copper Mine illustrates the prosperity that Japan’s modernization brought to some, and the negative aspects that it brought to many others in society (McClain 2002: 237).

Mines are by nature an incredibly dirty and polluting industry. This was even more so the case in Meiji when there was a lack of effective pollution controls and an insatiable demand for the precious material resources needed to industrialize the nation and turn it into a modern empire. The Ashio Copper Mine was no different, although the insidious nature of Furukawa and his co-conspirators of the elite in the Japanese government greatly exacerbated the problem.

In 1884 Furukawa discovered a new vein of copper which he attempted to exploit by importing modern mining technologies from abroad and by greatly expanding the size of the mine. By 1890 he had turned the mine into the biggest of its kind in Asia. However, Furukawa dumped chemical waste from the mines directly into the nearby Watarase River and stripped the surrounding mountains of their trees. When the tree-bare area inevitably suffered landslides and flooding in 1890, vast quantities of pollutants were carried into the Watarase River and spread throughout cities in Tochigi, Gunma, and Saitama. The people of these areas, who relied on the land for farming and the river for fishing lost their livelihoods because of this, and many people’s physical health suffered as well (McClain 2002).

In 1891, Tanaka Shōzō, the area’s elected representative and former activist with the Popular Rights Movement (jiyū minken undō) protested the treatment of the Watarase River valley residents at the nation’s first Diet assembly. This brought the Ashio pollution case to national attention, and Tanaka passionately argued that the people were being “sacrificed on the alter of industrial progress” (ctd. in McClain 2002: 239). He also declared on the Diet floor in December 1891 that “to destroy the people is to destroy the nation” (McClain 2002: 239).

(Miners at the Ashio Copper Mine, c. ???; from 憲法のたたかいのblog)

However, in 1892 the Japanese government sided with the Furukawa mine and, instead, offered the pollution victims a meagre compensation which amounted only to one day’s wages. Meanwhile, by the late 1890s, chemicals from the Ashio mine such as arsenic and sulfuric acid had destroyed at least one-hundred square miles of farmland. Another massive flood in 1896 caused even greater damage which now affected 136 towns and villages in five prefectures (Shoji and Sugai 1992). In the face of continued government complacency, angered villagers decided to organize and protest their case directly, and in 1897, eight-hundred marched to Tokyo in demonstration. Much of the population was sympathetic to the pollution victims’ case, and prominent critics like Kōtoku Shūsui and Tokutomi Sohō argued their case in the press. This wave of popular support forced the government to adopt minor pollution controls at the Ashio mine which marginally improved conditions (McClain 2002).

Yet the government was unable to alter its basic demand for copper and thus adopt effective pollution controls at the mine. Why was this? The basic reason is that Japan needed the money from exporting copper to support its military/imperial expansion abroad. During the Sino-Japanese War (1884-5) and the later Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905), Japan used this money to buy the iron and steel it needed to build ships. In this context, Shoji and Sugai wrote that “copper production was of vital significance in that copper was equated with the nation itself”; they continue “the Ashio Copper mine, by meeting the increased demand for copper, which was needed for both foreign-exchange and military purposes, came to be the foundation upon which Japan’s imperialism was built” (1992).

In this context, the Ministry of Home Affairs devised a plan to concentrate polluted waters from the mine in the low-lying Yanaka Village. It planned to forcefully evacuate the villagers and completely destroy the town with this move. In protest to this move, as well as the onset of the Russo-Japanese War, Tanaka took up permanent residence in Yanaka Village. However, his moves were ultimately unsuccessful; the plan went ahead, Japan went to war with Russia, and the Ashio Copper Mine continued operating (Shoji and Sugai 1992).

It was not until 1955 that the Furukawa company finally installed a device in its smokestacks to remove sulfuric acid from smoke. Pollution victims of the mine would have to wait even longer for some justice; they didn’t settle their legal case with the company until 1974 (Shoji and Sugai 1992; McClain 2002).

  • Find reading questions for this text here
  • In addition to pollution victims and miners, read about some of the other groups who experienced the underside of Japanese modernization here at the University of Colorado Boulder website.


McClain, James L. (2002) Japan: A Modern History, W.W. Norton & Company.

Shoji, Kichiro and Masuro Sugai (1992) “The Ashio Copper Mine Pollution Case: The Origins of Environmental Destruction” in Ui, Jun. Industrial Pollution in Japan. United Nations University Press, 1992. Full text available online here.

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