Environmentalists often complain about the terminology used by the media to describe things related to climate change. Their biggest gripe might be the term “natural disaster,” which gives the impression of a terrible event that is outside of human control.

In truth, they say, human influence on the environment has exacerbated problems that contribute to hurricanes, floods, drought and forest fires. To them these events are not “natural” at all, unless you subscribe to the belief that humans, being biological entities, are impossible to remove from the calculus of nature; which means such events are disasters because that is their effect on civilization. Nature’s ways are never anything other than natural.

So it was significant that the media described the deadly mudslide that struck the city of Atami in Shizuoka Prefecture on July 3 as being “human-caused,” which isn’t to say that all media agreed on which humans caused it and to what extent they were to blame. Tokyo Shimbun’s account on July 11 neatly summarized the disaster: Some 56,000 cubic meters of mud and debris carved a natural gully between two hills, destroying dozens of homes on its way to the sea.

The source of the mudslide was a mound of soil near the top of the ravine that had been deposited there over a period of years by an unnamed real estate company that had not prepared the land properly. During torrential rains the soil came loose and followed the laws of gravity. The prefecture blamed the real estate company, which no longer owns the land, while the real estate company claimed that it had followed proper procedures.

Tokyo Shimbun’s investigation points not only to obvious violations of the law by the company, but also negligence on the part of local government in not monitoring the mound and sanctioning the company as the mound kept growing, so the human disaster here was caused by at least two sets of humans — one commercially motivated, the other bureaucratic.

In the same issue of Tokyo Shimbun, Hiroyuki Shinoda reviewed other in-depth reports on the mudslide in his regular survey of weekly magazines, focusing first on Shukan Shincho, which tends to take a sensational angle. He then contrasts the Shincho story with a feature in Shukan Asahi, which takes a wider view of the concept of human disaster by explaining how the Atami mudslide was caused not so much by a confluence of bad decisions, but by a system of mismanagement that is prevalent nationwide.

The operative word in all the media coverage is “morido,” which doesn’t have a convenient English equivalent, but means “soil that is added.” Because more than 70% of Japan is mountainous, level land is precious, and sometimes must be created for the purposes of housing and agriculture. A common method is to remove the tops of hills (kirido) and use the resulting soil to fill in the spaces between hills (morido). Such operations require proper drainage to make sure ground water does not accumulate in the added soil. In many cases retaining walls are also necessary.

The morido in the Atami disaster was essentially soil mixed with industrial waste that was left on the side of the mountain, thus suggesting the soil may have been trucked in from far-flung construction sites. Such improper dumping has been on the rise in Japan, since it is becoming increasingly expensive to find legal landfills in which to deposit demolished building refuse and excavated soil.

The Shincho article attempted to demonize almost everyone involved, including another unnamed company that now owns the land containing the accumulated soil and which is creating a solar farm on land higher up the mountain. The company had cut down trees to accommodate the farm, thus possibly decreasing the tract’s ability to retain water, but according to the company’s lawyer, whom the magazine tagged as a famous player in the antinuclear power movement, the mound was already there when the company bought the land 10 years ago.

Shukan Asahi’s reporting, which extended over two issues, attempted to place the Atami disaster in a larger narrative about land management, which has a direct effect on flood control. One article also looked into the solar farm, and concluded that while it probably contributed to the disaster it was not the direct cause of it.

For context, the magazine discussed the deadly floods in Kumamoto Prefecture in July 2020. Because the Kuma River overflows in heavy rain, surrounding areas are often flooded, and one resident told the magazine that the 2020 flood was different. The flood waters were yellow rather than colorless, meaning they contained soil runoff.

The magazine found that many mudslides start in areas where forests have been cleared indiscriminately. When that happens the ground loses the ability to retain water. In the case of the Kuma River flood, an expert identified many nearby locations where the ecosystems had collapsed due to recent clear-cutting. As imported wood for construction has become more expensive, the cutting down of Japanese forests — some of it illegal — has accelerated, spurred by the government’s mission to achieve 50% self-sufficiency in timber by 2025. Consequently, the government offers subsidies not only for increased timber production, but also for the purchase of heavy machinery to carry out such production, and in order to get that machinery into forested areas, roads must be created, thus damaging watersheds even more.

One expert interviewed by Shukan Asahi says that in the past clear-cutting was done deep in the mountains, but now such work is moving closer to residential areas, which means there will be more mudslides like the one that destroyed part of Atami. Since there is no effective forest management policy in place to police the timber industry or counteract its effects, such “human-caused disasters” can be remedied if the government and commercial enterprises work together to make it happen, but in an economy that rewards short-term gain that isn’t likely.

See www.philipbrasor.com for addenda to Media Mix contributions.

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