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Ashio Copper Mine, Japan


This is a famous historical case in Japan that pitted two unequal forces against each other: the Furukawa Corporation and peasant protesters. Prior to the Ashio mining activities before 1880, the surrounding area was densely forested. The destruction of the trees caused by the concentrated sulphurous acid from the mines, caused the erosion of the topsoil, which allowed the rainwater to flow directly into the river. As a result, the Watarase River carried the poisons and affected the agricultural lands nearby. To further worsen the problem, the Ashio mine lacked storage facilities for the slag and untreated ores. Thus, these materials accumulated in the rice-fields through the irrigation systems and caused the topsoil to turn hard like cement. As the copper mining continued, damage to the agricultural lands increased, the farmers were forced to close the irrigation canal gates to keep out the poisons every time it rained. The poisons also affected the quality of drinking waters, which had a serious affect on the people’s health.

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Basic Data
Name of conflict:Ashio Copper Mine, Japan
State or province:Tochigi Prefecture
Accuracy of locationMEDIUM (Regional level)
Source of Conflict
Type of conflict. 1st level:Mineral Ores and Building Materials Extraction
Type of conflict. 2nd level:Tailings from mines
Mineral processing
Specific commodities:Copper
Project Details and Actors
Project details

Around 1900, between 8000 and 9000 tons of copper were produced per year. In 1890, during the first major flooding, 1600 hectares of farmland and 28 towns and villages in the Tochigi and Gunma prefectures were severely damaged.

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Project area:1600
Type of populationRural
Affected Population:25000
Start of the conflict:1895
End of the conflict:1973
Company names or state enterprises:Ichibei Furukawa from Japan - Owner of the Ashio Copper Mine
Relevant government actors:Emperor of Japan, Prefecture of Tochigi
International and Finance InstitutionsJardine Matheson from China - signed a contract with Furukawa in 1886 - 1887, which allowed Furukawa to obtain technology for mining
Environmental justice organizations (and other supporters) and their websites, if available:Shozo Tanaka, farmers´ organizer, member of the Diet
Conflict & Mobilization
IntensityHIGH (widespread, mass mobilization, violence, arrests, etc...)
Reaction stageMobilization for reparations once impacts have been felt
Groups mobilizing:Farmers
Landless peasants
Local government/political parties
Fisher people
Forms of mobilization:Media based activism/alternative media
Official complaint letters and petitions
Public campaigns
Referendum other local consultations
Street protest/marches
Appeals/recourse to economic valuation of the environment
Environmental ImpactsVisible: Air pollution, Biodiversity loss (wildlife, agro-diversity), Floods (river, coastal, mudflow), Food insecurity (crop damage), Loss of landscape/aesthetic degradation, Soil contamination, Soil erosion, Waste overflow, Deforestation and loss of vegetation cover, Surface water pollution / Decreasing water (physico-chemical, biological) quality, Groundwater pollution or depletion, Large-scale disturbance of hydro and geological systems, Mine tailing spills
Potential: Genetic contamination, Reduced ecological / hydrological connectivity
Health ImpactsVisible: Exposure to unknown or uncertain complex risks (radiation, etc…), Deaths
Potential: Malnutrition, Infectious diseases
Socio-economical ImpactsVisible: Increase in Corruption/Co-optation of different actors, Displacement, Lack of work security, labour absenteeism, firings, unemployment, Loss of livelihood, Loss of traditional knowledge/practices/cultures, Violations of human rights, Loss of landscape/sense of place
Project StatusStopped
Conflict outcome / response:Compensation
Deaths, Assassinations, Murders
Environmental improvements, rehabilitation/restoration of area
Do you consider this an environmental justice success? Was environmental justice served?:No
Briefly explain:There was mining for many decades. In the end, although these tragic events served as a motivation for the government to enact laws against industrial pollution, the environmental activists themselves did not achieve anything, since the people from the Yanaka village were still displaced and their original homes destroyed. The compensations were given to the farmers, but they were insufficient compared to the damage that was caused. The memory remained of Shozo Tanaka's movement.
Sources & Materials
References to published books, academic articles, movies or published documentaries

Kenneth Strong, Ox Against the Storm: A Biography of Tanaka Shozo: Japan's Conservationist Pioneer, 1995

Environmental Conflicts, Environmental Justice, and Valuation
[click to view]

United Nations University
[click to view]

Institute of Developing Economies - Japan External Trade Organisations
[click to view]

Meta information
Contributor:Yuki Sasaki
Last update18/08/2019
Conflict ID:1461
Legal notice / Aviso legal
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