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Year : 2018  |  Volume : 16  |  Issue : 1  |  Page : 41-51

Nature Interrupted: Affect and Ecology in the Wake of Volcanic Eruption in Japan

Japanese Studies Program, Earlham College, Richmond, Indiana, USA

Correspondence Address:
Eric J Cunningham
Japanese Studies Program, Earlham College, Richmond, Indiana
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Source of Support: None, Conflict of Interest: None

DOI: 10.4103/cs.cs_16_50

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Date of Web Publication26-Mar-2018


On September 27, 2014 Ontake-san, a volcano in the highlands of central Japan, unexpectedly erupted sending a plume of ash and rock miles into the atmosphere. Lodge and shrine structures were heavily damaged and more than 60 climbers lost their lives as a pyroclastic flow engulfed the mountain's summit. Humans have long dwelled on and around Ontake-san, maintaining their livelihoods through farming, gathering, and hunting. The mountain has also been the focus of religious devotion and spiritual training for hundreds of years, and spiritual practitioners still visit the mountain regularly. However, in the modern era, Ontake-san and its surrounding environment has also been a site of resource development and exploitation, including industrial forestry, dam building, and tourist recreation. Thus, the mountain occupies, and its eruption occurred within, a landscape of contested meanings and values embodied by various entities and materially inscribed through their actions and interactions. In this article I employ an affective ecology framework to consider Ontake-san's eruption as an interruptive 'destabilizing moment' within which new trajectories and life projects may emerge. I argue that the affective qualities of local life projects present challenges to dominant modes of conservation, resource development, and capital accumulation.

Keywords: Affect, ecology, Japan, conservation, forests, environmental politics, capitalism, spirituality

How to cite this article:
Cunningham EJ. Nature Interrupted: Affect and Ecology in the Wake of Volcanic Eruption in Japan. Conservat Soc 2018;16:41-51

How to cite this URL:
Cunningham EJ. Nature Interrupted: Affect and Ecology in the Wake of Volcanic Eruption in Japan. Conservat Soc [serial online] 2018 [cited 2020 Jul 7];16:41-51. Available from: http://www.conservationandsociety.org/text.asp?2018/16/1/41/221954

   Introduction Top

Just before noon on September 27, 2014 Ontake-san, a volcano located in the Kiso Valley region of central Japan, unexpectedly erupted. The explosion launched a plume over four miles into the air, producing a pyroclastic flow—a dense mass of hot ash, lava fragments, and gas—that raced downhill, engulfing everyone and everything in its path. Local rescue efforts began almost immediately as ash-covered climbers made their ways down the mountain. Japan's Ground Self Defence Force began to arrive the next day in such numbers that, as one woman put it, the area 'looked like a war zone 1.' Over the following days and weeks the bodies of 57 climbers were recovered; another was recovered in the summer of 2015, but five others remain unaccounted for even as recovery efforts have officially concluded. Given this great loss of life, media outlets across Japan have labeled this eruption as the nation's worst post-war volcanic disaster.

For residents of Otaki, a village located at the base of Ontake-san, this eruption has cast a shadow over an already precarious lifeworld. Like many other rural communities in Japan, the village is confronting the edges of its own existence. A 2007 documentary by NHK, Japan's national broadcasting company, described Otaki as a 'cornered village' (oitsumerareta mura), citing its large financial debt, sputtering economy, and dwindling population (Sugiura and Yamada 2007). Today, residents of the village have only a few economic pathways, mainly related to tourism, for their livelihood. One of these is a village-owned ski resort located on Ontake-san, which provides some job opportunities, though these are mostly seasonal, unskilled, and low paying. However, due to the eruption the resort opened late (in February) for the 2014-2015 season. There remain concerns about whether or not the resort will open for future seasons, and, if it does, whether or not tourists will come.

Ontake-san erupted onto a landscape composed by the actions and interactions of various elements, with the actions of humans having most impact over the past several hundred years. As detailed below, since the formation of the modern Japanese state in the second half of the 19th century, projects of natural resource development and exploitation, and later conservation, have shaped the landscape in significant ways. These projects include industrial forestry, the building of dams and other hydrological infrastructures, the establishment of national forests, and tourism development. A cumulative effect of these projects has been the emergence of what I call a 'resource landscape,' a hegemonic conceptualization and materialization of the environment premised on the incorporation of various organic and inorganic elements and energies for intentions and purposes that primarily take shape beyond the local scale. I characterize the resource landscape as both a part of and a product of a broad assemblage, which I describe, following Anderson and McFarlane (2011), as a vast set of connections and relations between “heterogeneous elements that may be human and nonhuman, organic and inorganic, technical and natural” (124).

Through such a characterization I point to 'the agency of assemblage' in which the affective dimensions of elements (their ability to affect and be affected) fosters a 'distributive agency' in which effects emerge as collective properties (Bennett 2010: 20-24). Viewed in this way, the resource landscape of Ontake-san is an emergent effect of affective relations among heterogenous elements located at various scales. At the same time, I note, following Bear et al (2015) that the resource landscape is 'not pre-formed, but heterogeneously made through processes of aligning multiple projects, converting them toward diverse ends that include (but are not limited to) the accumulation and distribution of capital' (Section 3, paragraph 3). In this regard, the resource landscape is also the result of a more specific agency enacted by certain groups (i.e., capital and governmental entities) through 'assemblage practices,' which Li (2007: 264) describes as 'the hard work required to draw heterogeneous elements together, forge connections between them and sustain these connections in the face of tension.' In sum, Ontake-san erupted onto a contingent resource landscape that has emerged both through diverse affective relations among heterogenous elements and through specific assemblage practices that rely on the ongoing incorporation of various elements and their affective capacities. Yet, while the seemingly stable form of the resource landscape has become hegemonic, it is not a complete or absolute project. Given the distributive agency of assemblage, in which the affective dimensions of heterogenous elements are never fully predictable or controllable, the potential for novel formations that may cause shifts (often small, sometimes large) is constant.

In what follows, I consider Ontake-san's sudden eruption as what Sue Ruddick (2010: 24) calls a 'destabilizing moment,' in which the seemingly steady compositions of the world are thrown into disarray, illuminating what Deleuze describes as 'the often invisible terrain of life' (Deleuze 1994: 139-140, cited in Ruddick 2010: 24) and offering spaces for alternative compositional trajectories and world-making projects. Specifically, I employ an affective ecology perspective to look at enduring sets of relations among human and non-human entities, entangled with and embedded within, the resource landscape assemblage. I suggest that these sets of affective relations are resistive to large-scale resource projects and the accompanying resource landscape in that they are generative of alternative value templates and subjectivities that embrace common life, vitality, and livability. The affects of these local-level relations foster the emergence of a relational ontology in which 'bodies are understood not in terms of eternal and immutable essence but in terms of relations and affect' (Singh 2013: 191). Within this ontology, the potential value of any body rests in its capacities to affect and be affected; in other words, to collaborate with other bodies in ways that increase common vitality. I argue that in the wake of the eruption, human actors who dwell within the Ontake-san landscape are engaging in affective relations, collaborating and caring for various elements with renewed attention to the value of common life.

   Framework & Methodology Top

Below, I outline an affective ecology framework that is attuned to generative relations among heterogeneous forms—human and non-human, organic and inorganic, embodied and disembodied—which I draw upon to consider the implications of eruption for the Ontake-san landscape, its broader ecological assemblage, and the heterogenous elements that dwell therein.

I begin with a brief overview of Otaki, a village located at the base of Ontake-san, and a historical account of resource development, exploitation, and conservation projects that have contributed to the assemblage of a resource landscape in the area. I then focus in on Ontake-san's 2014 eruption to consider its interruptive qualities. Specifically, drawing on ethnographic research conducted in the summers of 2015 and 2016 I look at how human dwellers in the landscape are responding to the eruption in terms of their relationships with environmental elements and their livelihood practices. Finally, I explore the affective dimensions of assemblage components in Otaki, based on ethnographic fieldwork conducted between 2008 and 2010 in order to illuminate local level relations, practices, and formations that have endured despite the emergence of the hegemonic resource landscape and its associated political economy of resource development. I argue that in the wake of eruption, these affective relations and the landscapes they foster offer potential sites of resistance to the hegemony of the resource landscape, as well as alternative forms of livability and world-making capable of increasing the vitality and joyfulness of the varied beings who dwell on and around Ontake-san.

   Affective Ecology Top

Scholars both inside and outside of the social sciences speak of ecological systems as exceedingly complex sets of interrelated components that 'self-organize spontaneously to produce global patterns of behavior that emerge from simple rules' (Abel and Stepp 2003: subheading 3, paragraph 2). More recently, scholars are invoking the concept of assemblage (Anderson and McFarlane 2011; Dewsbury 2011; Li 2007) to address such complex sets of connected components across 'social' and 'natural' domains. The term refers to vast sets of connections and relations among a variety of different components, including organic and inorganic entities, institutions, human actors, as well as discourses and knowledges (Li 2007: 266). At first glance, assemblage seems akin to network, but differs from the latter concept in at least two distinct ways. First, assemblage highlights action—emergences, practices of pulling things together, becomings—rather than static formations. Second, whereas network tends to reference hierarchical organization, with certain elements always governing others, assemblage references heterarchical organization, meaning that cause-and-effect relations among elements can and do shift through time and/or across space. The concept of assemblage thus, 'enables us to remain deliberately open as to the form of the unity, its durability, the types of relations [...] involved' (Anderson and McFarlane 2011: 124).

In sum, thinking through assemblage allows us to consider the stability of the Ontake-san resource landscape as a hegemonic formation, while also giving attention to affects across assemblage components, and the ways that '[b]odies, passions and actions [...] get segued together with enunciative statements to carve out both a territory and hint at potential transformative worldings' (Dewsbury 2011: 150).

Thinking through assemblage requires that we contemplate the nature of agency, both as something distributed across components—human and non-human, material and immaterial—and as something enacted by a particular body (i.e., the 'hard work' noted by Li (2007)). As Dewsbury (2011) puts it, within assemblage 'change is not just willed by us humans but comes about equally through the materialities of the world in which we are just a part, and which, through habit, we encompass in the everyday, ever changing, assemblage of thought, intensity and matter' (152). Indeed, a desire for more nuanced accounts of relationships between what in the English-speaking world has long been thought of as 'natural things' and 'social things' has led social scientists and others to question the exceptionalism of human actors and agency and to follow lines of inquiry that extend to non-human entities (see Bateson 1973; Ingold 2002; Haraway 2008; Bennett 2010; Kohn 2013). One such line draws from the philosophical work of Baruch Spinoza, particularly his understanding of bodies and affects. For Spinoza, bodies are not defined by their forms, functions, substance, or subjectivity, but rather by their potential to affect and be affected vis-á-vis other bodies. Here, a body, as Deleuze (1988) notes, 'can be any thing; it can be an animal, a body of sounds, a mind or an idea; it can be a linguistic corpus, a social body, a collectivity' (127).

An affective ecology framework brings together insights from assemblage and affect theories and is premised on the notion that things are held together through interactions, entailing a 'relational ontology that focuses on relations and emergences' (Singh 2015: 59). Within an affective ecology framework, seemingly stable entities are considered as bodies—manifestations of the effects of processes of composition and decomposition across space and through time (Deleuze 1988: 19). In their descriptions of complex systems, many ecologists take a similar tack, speaking of the biosphere as 'perpetually evolving,' so that 'the permanence that we perceive is the structure built by self-organization' (Abel and Stepp 2003: section 3, paragraph 3). An affective ecology framework, therefore, draws us away from a focus on bodies as discrete territories belonging to particular individualised entities, towards analyses of bodies as sets of relations that are 'mapped out' for a particular time across a particular space (Deleuze 1988: 127-128). Put simply, within an affective ecology framework, the world is understood to be composed through active interconnections, which means it is always unsettled, precarious, and in a constant state of becoming.

   Assembling the Resource Landscape Top

Otaki sits at the back of a narrow valley that runs through the mountains comprising the western side of the north-south running Kiso Valley. The region, which covers just under 600 square miles (roughly 1500 square kilometers) in southern Nagano prefecture, boasts a steep topography made up of the volcanic Ontake-san on the western side and the jagged Kiso Range on the eastern. The Kiso River flows south through the middle of the mountain complex, with tributaries—including the Otaki River—branching off perpendicularly to both the east and west.

In part due to its topographic profile, the Kiso Valley region is relatively isolated. In a country known for its extensive transportation networks, the region is very much a backwater. A simple two lane road and a single train line run along the Kiso River for the length of the valley, which means that access to major freeways and rail lines is limited. Up in the mountains, away from the Kiso Valley, there are no trains and mostly narrow roads. Otaki has no train station, nor even a single traffic light. This remoteness contributes to the village's marginal status within the nation and its inability to meaningfully access the economic prosperity of Japan's post-war period of high economic growth.

In contrast to Otaki and other upland communities, in the post-war era many rural areas across Japan enjoyed price supports and other subsidies offered by the national government. These allowed for agriculture—and later industry—to develop as an economic mainstay that could support personal and community livelihoods (McDonald 1997; Jussaume Jr 2003). However, farming at an economically productive scale has never been realized in Otaki. The village's steep terrain, most of which (roughly 99%) is forested, means that there is scant arable land. This, coupled with a cold climatic regime that offers little time for growing, has limited the scale of agriculture. During a group discussion in 2009 one resident stated emphatically that “Whether for tourism or whatever, even if there is a market, you can't do farming [as a business] in Otaki. The scale is too small. There is too little agricultural land.” Most farming is done part-time by elderly residents for personal consumption. Vegetables and other agricultural products are shared widely across personal networks and there always seems to be more than enough to go around. However, I do not know of anyone in Otaki who produces enough to make their living through farming, though attempts to enable this have been made in the past. For example, one lifetime resident previously led the establishment of a factory for cultivating shiitake mushrooms, which are widely popular in Japan. “It worked for a little while,” he told me, “but ultimately it just wasn't profitable.” For communities like Otaki, where farming is not economically viable, tourism has been the received wisdom for economic livelihood in the post-war period. However, tourism too has been only mildly successful for most communities, and is often accompanied by unexpected and undesirable social and environmental effects (see Creighton 1997; Knight 2000; Moon 2002; Cunningham 2016).

Before tourism, however, natural resource extraction was the main livelihood pathway in Otaki. The first natural resource development project of significant scale in the Ontake-san region was forestry, which emerged at the end of the sixteenth century, enabling elites to procure materials for monumental building (Totman 1983). Forestry was industrialised in the later half of the nineteenth century under the direction of the Japanese state and its imperial household, with timber helping to fuel colonial and militarist projects. By the end of World War II an incredible amount of forestland had been clear-cut, not only around Ontake-san, but across Japan, leading one US official writing in 1951 to label the situation a 'forest emergency' (quoted in Tsutsui 2003: 300).

Alongside trees, state forestry projects also incorporated masses of human labour. For most of the twentieth century, the forestry industry boomed in Otaki. Jobs were plentiful and wages were sufficient to sustain livelihoods. By the end of WWII, Otaki's population had swelled to nearly 5,000 from its pre-war size of around 1,500. A number of residents I spoke with referred to this time of intensive timber extraction as the 'good old days' (furuki yoki) because the village seemed to have more vitality. However, the social and ecological effects of industrialised forestry, with its transformations of forestland and human labour into resources and energy, continue to reverberate through the ecological landscape. Monoculture conifer forests that were planted, but never harvested due to an influx of foreign wood beginning in the 1960s, now dominate large swaths of land, reducing the overall diversity of life. Elsewhere, treeless hillsides expose soils to the erosive effects of Japan's often torrential rains. Meanwhile, generous governmental pensions for former forestry workers have allowed a generation of residents to send their children to college in metropolitan areas, the majority of whom have not returned to the village. Thus, an unexpected effect of this limited economic prosperity is that it has contributed to depopulation trends in the region. Indeed, the absence of young people in Otaki is a persistent and widespread anxiety and topic of conversation among residents.

The development and extraction of water resources was another project that took off in the early twentieth century, with transformative implications for the Kiso Valley region. At the turn of the century, water was a sought after commodity for the production of electricity. Japan's first water-powered electricity generating station was completed in 1911 in the town of Yaotsu, just south of the Kiso Valley. The waters of the Kiso River were used to power turbines to produce electricity that was then conveyed to the city of Nagoya. The station was built by Nagoya-denryoku (Nagoya Electric) and was the brainchild of its president, Fukuzawa Momosuke. This was followed by the building of Japan's first dam-linked electric power station, Ōi Dam, located in the town of Ena, just upriver from Yaotsu, and also built under the direction of Fukuzawa (though with another company, Daidō denryoku (Daidō Electric)). Fukuzawa, who is now referred to as Japan's “king of electricity,” had developed a working philosophy that he called ikkasen hitokaisha-- literally meaning “one river, one company,” or “one river for one company.” Under this ideological banner, Fukuzawa, who was also active in the government, worked his way up the Kiso River, completing dams and electricity generating stations one after another (Komatsu 2011). Today, Kansai denryoku (Kansai Electric), the last company founded by Fukuzawa, owns and operates a dozen dams and a dozen more electric generating stations along the Kiso River and its tributaries. Among these, four are located on the Otaki River, in or near Otaki Village.

The social and political ground for developing water resources in the Kiso Valley was prepared through a long history of forest resource use in the region. A fundamental shift came after 1868, when the Meiji government claimed forestlands in the valley as the property of the imperial family. What had been peasant landscapes rooted in local sets of human relations were ideologically transformed into unified swaths of resources and spatially reconfigured as parts of the new Japanese nation. Institutional frameworks of management established by the imperial government, along with infrastructural investments and material incursions into physical environments, solidified these transformations; an imagined landscape of resources was bit by bit crafted into a tangible reality. Water resource development in the Kiso Valley also occurred within this emergent reality of the resource landscape. The construction of dams, acts that drew meaning at a national scale, were said to be for the benefit of the national citizenry and thus took precedence over the concerns of local people. Waters and forests had become national resources and were conceptually linked to a newly imagined national citizenry.

This history of hydroelectric development in Otaki and the rest of the Kiso Valley begins to reveal the linkages between resource (shigen) concepts, capitalism, and the nation, as well as the power of this assemblage to envision landscapes and to physically transform material environments. Electricity was, and remains today, a valued commodity in Japan, one that is often equated with modernism and progress. In early twentieth century Japan, modernization was very much a national project, one that Sato (2007) notes gave rise to the resource concept, which was accompanied, 'by awareness of the 'finiteness' and shortage of means [i.e. resources], notions that were both attached to national, not local, interests' (156). Within the ideological thrusts of this assemblage, conscripting forest and water resources to produce electricity were noble undertakings. And, at a national scale, the loss of forestlands in a peripheral community like Otaki was justified.

The conceptualization of Otaki as a resource landscape further solidified in the post-war period when forestlands held by the imperial household were transferred to the reconfigured national government to be managed by the Forestry Agency, part of the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries. In the 1960s, as domestic timber markets flailed in the face of cheap imports of foreign timber, conservation and management emerged as the Forestry Agency's institutional ideology and practice. In Otaki this new institutional mandate fomented around the building of Makio Dam. The dam was the capstone of the Aichi Yōsui project, which was funded by the World Bank and modeled on the Tennessee Valley Authority as a way to foster 'river basin democratization' (ryūiki minshuka) by bringing water to communities south of the Kiso Valley (Takazaki 2010).

In Otaki and the rest of the Kiso Valley, water development projects like Aichi Yōsui marked a further deployment of the resource landscape, in which forestlands were reconceptualised as source-water land (suigenchi). Since the seventeenth century, if not earlier, there had been an understanding among downstream residents that the forests of the Kiso Valley were vital for maintaining slope stability and flood prevention. However, with the development of water resources for use in downstream communities, a landscape emerged in which waters, forests, and human communities were assembled together under the banners of development, modernization, and democracy. Within the assemblage of this resource landscape, conservation has emerged as a mechanism whereby the state can maintain control over local environments through an existing network of national forests.

During a 2009 interview, the head of the local Forestry Agency office in Otaki described the office's mandate regarding the management of the roughly 24,000 hectares (approximately 59,000 acres) of national forest that blanket most of Otaki's hillsides as follows:

Now, perhaps the most important points laid out are what we call functions for the public good; what we might call the foundations that allow national citizens to live safely. Things like headwaters--protecting the land around headwaters. If there is runoff, if soil and sand flow into the rivers, dams will become filled in and they will lose their function; then there will be a loss of water that is used for drinking and growing rice. The function of the dam itself will be lost. So we do our jobs in line with this most important point--maintaining forests so that sand and soil doesn't flow down--forest maintenance to create those kinds of forests.

In this official's assessment, which mimicked agency policies, it is made clear that the role of forests is to protect dams so that they can provide water for the public good and the safety of national citizens. Not surprisingly, today in Otaki the majority of forestlands are categorized as water and soil conservation forests (suido hozen rin), which, according to a pamphlet published by a local branch office of the Forestry Agency, function to 'provide abundant water and purify the air, which we cannot live without' (kiso shinrin kanri sho (Kiso Forest Management Office)). Here, 'we' references an imagined national citizenry that is said to benefit from these local level resource development projects.

Assemblage of a resource landscape in Otaki and the greater Ontake-san area is one in which value is premised on conversions that 'sever objects, people, and resources from their contexts' (Bear et al. 2015: section 5) to enable state-making projects and capital accumulations. The making of this resource landscape has entailed incorporations of heterogeneous forms—relations, materials, and energies—for projects that take shape beyond the local scale. As forms and elements are converted to resources, extracted, and used, the ecologies from which they are wrested change, leaving the various bodies that remain to labour for livability within transformed environments and ecologies. For the humans who dwell in Ontake-san's resource landscape, tourism has emerged—often with the urging and support of the national government—as the primary livelihood pathway.

As part of the Aichi Yōsui project and the building of Makio Dam, in 1961 the Otaki village government received a compensation payment of 210 million yen (about 583,000 USD 2), an amount ten times its operating budget at the time. Village officials used these compensation funds to develop tourism infrastructures focused on skiing, which at the time was an increasingly popular recreational pursuit across much of the nation. By 1963 a ski hill had been built using converted pasturelands on Ontake-san's southeastern slope. Though the initial investment was a modest 7.5 million yen (USD 20,833), as governmental entities continued to push rural tourism, the Otaki village government expanded the ski hill throughout the latter half of the 1960s and by the end of the decade had invested roughly 13 billion yen (USD 36,111,111). These investments initially produced positive results in the form of increased tourist numbers. Labour in the village shifted away from industrial forestry to service sectors and a number of guesthouses, inns, and restaurants appeared, allowing some residents access to modest pieces of Japan's post-war economic prosperity. However, with the bursting of Japan's economic 'bubble' (baburu hōkai) in the early 1990s, tourism began to falter. Visitor numbers peaked in 1993 and Otaki's ski hill has since become increasingly unprofitable. Though still in operation during the winter months, it has ultimately proved a financial liability resulting in a large amount of village debt.

Still, today tourism related to skiing and mountain sports remains the most visible livelihood pathways on and around Ontake-san. At the village level, tourist industries entail livelihood strategies that have emerged in response to the social and ecological effects of state and capital conversions of materials, energies, and relations. These strategies, however, reveal the precarious nature of life within the Otaki village community. With the decline of state-sponsored industries like forestry, tourism has become one of only a few viable economic projects. However, tourism too is in a state of decline and village residents now find themselves vulnerable to larger economic trends, with few livelihood options to choose from. Ontake-san had been the central focus of tourism activities in Otaki, so its eruption has been particularly devastating to the economic vitality of Otaki and other communities in the region. Since there is no clear sense as to when the mountain will again open for climbing, the future of tourism is uncertain. Assemblage of a resource landscape around Ontake-san has increased the precarity of communities like Otaki, 'cornering' them within a broader political economy in which state making and capital accumulation are central forces of assemblage practices.

   Interruption Top

Ontake-san's unexpected eruption on the morning of September 27, 2014 created a disturbance felt at multiple scales, but most acutely at the local. Interestingly, the event was at first little noticed among community members who were not on the mountain at the time. The eruption apparently made little sound, and the enormous plume it produced was not readily visible from many parts of the village. One resident told me that she first heard of the eruption through a phone call from an acquaintance, a professor in Tokyo who had previously stayed at her home. Others spoke of learning about the disaster through Facebook, Twitter, and other social media. Those on the mountain, of course, knew of the eruption right away. Several mountain lodges owned, managed, and staffed by community members are located near the craters from which volcanic material began to flow at around 11:52 am. Clouds of volcanic material quickly consumed these lodges, which were then rained down upon by a barrage of ballistic rocks that punctured roofs and pounded the earth (Oikawa et al. 2016). Staff members made frantic calls to the village office to report on what was happening. Local rescue efforts were thus able to get underway almost immediately, but the loss of human life was ultimately still staggering.

In the days, weeks, and months after Ontake-san's eruption, the precarity of life in Otaki came into relief. Given the turbulent financial history of Otaki's ski hill, the village's most intensive and extensive tourism project, residents worry about the (im)possibilities of making a living in the wake of the eruption. In a December 26, 2014 greeting posted to Otaki's official website, the village mayor conveyed his thoughts on the challenge of the moment, saying “Depending on conditions, it can be assumed that this eruption will be a prolonged natural disaster. My thinking is that all residents together should seize this opportunity to convert our ways of thinking, and rise to this critical moment where we must consolidate our wisdom and aim towards new initiatives” (Seto 2014).

This eruption occurred within an ecology assembled as resource landscape and dominated by market ideologies, resource commoditisation and exploitation, as well as a conservation regime premised on eco-service logics. However, embedded within the assemblage--marginalized, but enduring--is an affective ecology and accompanying landscape enlivened through sets of relations among human and non-human entities, as well as subjectivities premised on the value of common life. Ontake-san's eruption is an interruption that has destabilised ways of being, troubled souls, and posed problems, thus opening social and ecological spaces within which to recognise and reaffirm, as well as to envision and enact, ways of living that are premised less on the logics of capital accumulation, and more on attentiveness to the interconnections that make life possible, as well as joyful. Human labour and subjectivities informed by affective qualities did not begin with this eruption; rather, they have long been part of life in Otaki. However, within the interruptive moment of the eruption, such labours and ways of envisioning the world are being noticed and attended to as human residents engage with 'precarious living' (Tsing 2015: 163).

Labour related to Otaki's tourist industry takes place at the heart of Ontake-san's tensioned ecologies. It is labour that has connections to the mountain's status as a sacred landscape, but that also provides income and is valued according to capitalist logics. Indeed, many, if not most, village residents recognise that tourism related to Ontake-san is key to maintaining their current livelihood patterns. Yet, given the precarious state of Otaki today, with its limited economic potentials and declining population, maintaining the status quo is likely not a sustainable way forward. The question of how to successfully do tourism has come to the front and center. This, however, is not a new question, but rather one that marks the experiences of many upland communities amidst the economic stagnation of Japan's 'lost decades.' The question is one that came into sharp focus in 2004 when it came to light that Otaki's village government was heavily in debt and that the village-managed ski resort was the primary cause (Tojo 2006). At that time, there were many who debated the logics of expending labour and using land in the service of recreation, but the desperate need for jobs trumped any potential alternative approaches. With Ontake-san's eruption, which caused the ski resort to open late in the 2014-2015 season, these debates have again arisen and there seems to be a clearer recognition of the precarious ties that bind village livelihoods to tourist trends. In the destabilizing moment opened by Ontake-san's eruption, the future is increasingly uncertain for those who dwell within the mountain's landscapes.

   Enduring Life Top

Imagining and enacting a livable world that is not fully dependent on the whims of tourist populations is a difficult project in Otaki, given that labour and livelihoods are wrapped up in tourism projects. However, Ontake-san's eruption may offer an interruption and destabilising moment in which alternative projects might be imagined and brought into being. The affections that inform social and ecological relations, as well as forms of labour in the Ontake-san landscape provide ground from which these imaginaries may spring and be cultivated. Labour poured into rituals to maintain linkages between communities of beings—human, non-human, and spiritual; care that continues to be invested in raising agricultural products and gathering wild edibles despite environmental and ecological changes that threaten these projects; and new forms of tourism practice attuned to the affective dimensions of emergent ecological assemblages, are examples of the affect-laden practices that continue to enliven the Ontake-san landscape in the wake of eruption. I argue that from these practices and the subjectivities and relations they engender emerge forms of life, livability, and livelihood that, though not completely divorced from the workings of the resource landscape, offer enduring ways of being that constitute and reconstitute a vibrant lifeworld that allows for common life. Thus, even as the disturbance of Ontake-san's eruption appears to threaten life across the landscape, creating uncertainties and precarity, lines are being composed from which may emerge novel forms of livability and enlivenment.

Spiritual Relations

In July 2008 I joined with other people on the summit of Ontake-san to participate in a mountain opening ceremony, known as kaizanshiki. Among those who gathered for the ceremony were the mayor of Otaki, members of the village council, inn operators, tour guides, and officials from Japan's Forestry Agency. Mountain opening ceremonies were performed every year on the summit of Ontake-san until its eruption. Since that time ceremonies directed at the souls of those who perished in the eruption take place at a lower elevation. Mountain opening ceremonies entail a set of rituals performed by priests belonging to the Shinto tradition, Japan's indigenous animistic religion. During the rituals the priests say prayers and give offerings to god-spirits (kami) that reside in the mountain. The offerings include rice wine (sake), fish, vegetables, and pounded rice cakes (mochi). Once these initial prayers and offerings have been made, representatives from various groups take turns offering branches of sakaki (Japanese cleyera, Cleyera japonica) while clapping and then clasping their hands in prayer and bowing.

During a lunch party after the ceremony in 2008 one of the Shinto priests explained to me that the purpose of the rituals was to maintain good relationships with the mountain god-spirits. This was important, he noted, because people in Otaki depend on Ontake-san for their livelihoods and well-being. The mountain provides water and soil, spaces for recreation and religious practice, as well as spiritual sustenance. I heard similar sentiments from residents at other times as well. For example, at the beginning of an October 2008 meeting focused on village revitalisation, the head of a local mura-zukuri (village making) group stated that, “Otaki is a village that has walked hand in hand with the history of the sacred mountain Ontake-san.”

The annual mountain opening ceremonies and comments by village residents point to a local-level reality, in which Ontake-san and its surrounding landscape are rooted in a relational ontology premised on reciprocal relations among human, non-human, and spiritual bodies. Prominent within this network of spiritual relations is a pantheon of god-spirits that inhabit and enliven the landscape. Human actors rely on god-spirits to enable livability and to prevent calamities, as well as to maintain the order of nature (shizen) itself. Thus, gifts in the form of offerings and ritual activity allow humans to reciprocate. Unlike in the statist and capitalist projects that have shaped the area's ecological assemblage as a resource landscape wherein value is produced largely through material and conceptual transactions that disconnect bodies (both human and non-human) from one another so that they can be plugged into exchange networks and consumed as commodities, within this ecology of reciprocal relations value arises through the affective capacities of bodies to connect with and be influenced by other bodies so as to increase the scope of their existence. I suggest, in other words, that within this affective ecology, the potential value of any body rests in its capacities to affect and be affected, and is thus realised through its interactions with other bodies, which in turn increases the integrity and vibrancy of the ecology as a whole. Both sets of projects, whether premised on resources or relationships, include forms of conservation. What differs is the scope and scale of what it is that human actors intend to conserve.

Considering what should be conserved, as well as how, in the wake of Ontake-san's eruption calls for consideration of the nature of ecological disturbances. As described in the previous section, the ecological assemblage that encompasses Ontake-san is one that has been shaped through a history of disturbances, often human induced, including dam building and deforestation. Regimes of conservation like the one embodied in the current national forest complex that dominates Ontake-san's physical environment are often concerned with protecting what is seen as having yet to be disturbed, or with managing disturbance in an ecologically sound way. However, for both human and non-human dwellers in the landscape, disturbance is a pervasive and ongoing reality. Indeed, governmental projects of conservation too have had disturbing social and ecological effects. Anna Tsing (2015) points out that disturbances occur at various scales, causing changes in ecosystems and creating patches, which 'open the terrain for transformative encounter, making new landscape assemblages possible' (160). She goes on to suggest that, '[h]umanists, not used to thinking with disturbance, connect the term with damage' (160). In the case of Otaki and the broader Ontake-san landscape, damage has most definitely occurred, but Tsing encourages us to remain attentive to possibilities of livability within disturbed ecologies with an eye towards unexpected connections and emergences. Mountain opening ceremonies and other forms of reciprocal action among human, non-human, and spiritual elements of the Ontake-san environment can be viewed as practices of attentiveness. Human actors are giving attention to what endures and what may emerge amidst disturbed landscapes and ecologies, with an eye to how livability and common life can be maintained. In the destabilising moment opened by eruption, this ongoing attentiveness offers insights and lines of articulation in which alternative world-making projects may take flight.

Enduring Wildlife Relations

In the late summer of 2008, I sat in the living room of Takeuchi-san, an avid hunter in his sixties who, at the time, had lived in Otaki for over 40 years and had long been an active part of the village's hunting association. He is, according to several village residents, widely considered Otaki's top hunter, and one of the best in Nagano prefecture. As we chatted over tea and snacks, he lived up to his reputation, exhibiting a detailed and nuanced understanding of wildlife in Otaki, the Kiso region, and Japan as a whole. During our conversation, Takeuchi-san spoke with disdain about the National Forest Agency's projects of intensive tree cutting in the Kiso Valley region, and Otaki in particular. He considered it a waste that trees, which had been nurtured some hundreds of years, were felled with little thought. “Now,” he lamented, “it's just kumazasa,” referring to Sasa veitchii, a hearty, fast growing bamboo variety that thrives in the open spaces created by clear-cutting and now comprises a good portion of the groundcover in Otaki.

In the post-war period, the Forest Agency engaged in clear-cutting projects, advancing further and further into the mountains around Otaki. Conversion of older, mixed forests, to younger, plantation-style forests reduced the overall area of suitable wildlife habitat. With less and less habitat in the oku--or 'back'--of the forests, wildlife have been forced into smaller and smaller ranges, which has pushed them up against and into human communities. As Agetsuma (2007), Izumiyama, et al (2003), and others have demonstrated, a result of environmental changes caused by intensive and extensive timber felling and monoculture planting--namely reductions in edible biomass for mammalian species—is increased encroachment on cultivated lands by macaques and other species that employ alternative foraging strategies. In Otaki, wildlife encounters and pestilence have become the norm and human residents have had to alter agricultural, foraging, and other practices accordingly.

Troops of Japanese macaques (Macaca fuscata), in particular, are ubiquitous across Otaki. The situation has reached the point where residents often joke about there being more macaques than humans and suggesting that a macaque will likely be the next village mayor. Asian black bears (Ursus thibetanus), though not nearly as visible, also remain a constant threat, particularly in the spring and fall. Each year school children in the village are issued bear bells for their walks to and from home. On numerous occasions during my time in Otaki residents recounted with amusement an incident in 2007 when a cub bear somehow wandered into the village office at night and was discovered by employees the next morning. Due to encroachments by these and other species, such as serow (Capricornis crispus) and wild boar (Sus scrofa leucomystax), farming in Otaki has become a rather defensive affair. Today the agricultural landscape is marked by electric fences, nets, bells and other noisemakers, and even full cages meant to keep wildlife out of cultivation fields. Though they are effective to an extent, the area's hungry animals are also deft at workarounds and so feasting on crops and destruction remain critical issues that take serious emotional and financial toll. After macaques got into a field and destroyed over one hundred stalks of corn, the farmer who had tended them over the summer recounted to me how upon seeing the destruction she had fallen to her knees and cried.

In his lengthy study of human-wildlife relations in Japan, John Knight (2003) suggests that the increased proximity of wildlife to human settlements has been interpreted in various ways in Japan. Perceptions of this changing relationship tend to differ according to cultural beliefs, occupation and proximity to natural land. For example, he argues that hunters often take the side of farmers in helping to cull 'pests,' but often express ambivalence about their role. Meanwhile, while local populations lament changes in land-use patterns that result in greater amounts of forested area, these shifts are often perceived nationally as positive signs of a return of nature. While such perceptions have increased the number of tourists visiting rural areas, the disconnect between tourist imaginaries of nature and local ecological realities is a source of frustration to many upland residents.

Like in other upland communities, Otaki residents are entangled in a post-industrial ecology assembled in large part through the policies and practices of a historical political economy premised on resource development, extraction, and conservation. Despite the ongoing conflicts among different components of this ecological assemblage—including wildlife, tourism, farming, and forestry—Otaki's human residents have found ways to live without profoundly impinging the ability of non-human dwellers to do the same. They have done so with an intimate knowledge of their environment and how to procure food from it through hunting, gathering, and farming, as well as a widespread appreciation for their relations with non-human entities and the importance of these for maintaining common life.

Anna Tsing (2015: 28) tells us that every species requires collaborations to stay alive, and that collaboration 'means working across difference, which leads to contamination.' Contamination, she goes on to explain, is 'transformation through encounter.' Tsing is describing the affective dimensions of interactions, wherein bodies are continually changed through meetings with other bodies. While Takeuchi-san and other hunters in Otaki kill non-human animals, they do so with understandings of the health of their populations, as well as a deep respect for their connection to the lives being taken. Rituals are performed by members of the village's hunting association as reciprocation to the souls of hunted animals and meat is shared widely across the human community.

At the same time, despite the ongoing destruction of agricultural fields and products in Otaki, 'pest' animals are not culled with an eye for extermination as, for example, wolves were at the turn of the century as part of governmental sponsored agricultural projects on Japan's northern island of Hokkaido (see Walker 2005). Rather, there is an understanding that, as one resident put it, “if people think they are going to make nature the way they themselves want it, there's no way.” Referring to the Forestry Agency project of intensive timber production in the Otaki valley, this same resident suggested that “[t]he trees that bear fruits that animals eat steadily went away. They made nature only for humans. So it became harder and harder for animals to live. There's no food so they start coming into the village.” This widespread idea in Otaki--that nature is not only for humans--also speaks to an understanding of a relational ontology in which affective relations among human and non-human bodies contribute to common life that enlivens the ecology as a whole.

Emergence and Affect

On September 14th, 1984 another unexpected disaster struck Ontake-san when a magnitude 6.8 earthquake shook the mountain, dislodging an enormous slab of earth and rock from its southeastern slope. The ensuing landslide tore its way to the bottom of the Otaki Valley at an incredible speed. Debris covered a portion of the Otaki River up-valley from the village, forming a natural dam. The pooling water created a lake, which was later dubbed Shizen-ko, meaning 'nature lake,' in reference to what was seen as its natural formation. Local officials of the Forestry Agency quickly felled a stand of large hinoki cypress (Chamaecyparis obtusa) trees that were by then partially submerged, so that they could be salvaged for timber. The stumps of these trees now protrude from the surface of the lake, many covered in moss and low bushes.

Shizen-ko exists as an emergent ecology, a rapidly developing ecosystem nested in an older, established one. On the near shore of the lake is a young forest comprised mostly of fast-growing broadleaf varieties, while on the far side there stands a much more mature mixed forest where cypress and cedar trees tower majestically above a lower storey of deciduous varieties and a host of different shrubs. The younger forest sprouts from a flow of dirt and debris left after the earthquake, and so mixed in with the trees are twisted strands of metal from a guard rail that had once lined a road traversing the upper part of the valley through which the Otaki River had flowed. There's also a concrete tunnel that sits adjacent to the lake, slowly being consumed by the forest. A hot spring inn that sat in a canyon leading up the face of Ontake-san was also washed away in the landslide, and so the bodies of several individuals also remain a part of the ecological landscape, buried somewhere in the debris.

For years after its formation, Shizen-ko was little thought about among village residents and almost entirely unknown outside of Otaki. Occasionally, an adventurous photographer would drive the long, winding road that offers access to the lake in order to take pictures, but for the most part it was ignored. This began to change in 2004 when Ninomiya-san, a man then in his thirties who had moved to Otaki from the city of Nagoya to work at the village ski hill, took an opportunity to begin leading kayak tours on the lake. Sometime earlier the village government had used grant funds meant for tourism development to purchase kayaks, but the project had never really taken off. An avid outdoorsman with a sense for peoples' desires to encounter environments in close and intimate ways, Ninomiya-san immediately began exploring and gaining an intimate knowledge of the Shizen-ko landscape.

Some landscapes lend themselves to the aloof gazing of observers. California's Yosemite Valley with its enormous walls of granite, or Japan's Kamikochi highlands, which offer sweeping views of some of the Hida Range's finest alpine cirques, come to mind. Shizen-ko, however, is not such a landscape. Rather, its beauty and grandeur come only from patient exploration and observation. The lake invites intimacy and refuses to welcome those who are unwilling to engage it, both physically and mentally. There is no overlook; no viewing from afar. In fact, much of the lake is hidden behind bends of trees or within vertical canyon walls. The landscape is defiant of the insouciant looks of passers-by. Ninomiya-san understood that in order to gain any sense of Shizen-ko, one must enter the lake and sit directly upon its waters. Before taking me on a tour in 2009, he explained that kayaks are tools well suited to such an undertaking, as they allow interaction with the land-waterscape in a way that is deeper, and perhaps more 'even,' than a distant gaze can ever be.

With this philosophy in mind, Ninomiya-san started offering kayak tours. Business was slow at first. “People get nervous as they start driving out of the village and into the narrow part of the valley out here,” Ninomiya-san told me in 2009. “I had to put up signs so that guests knew that they were in the right place.” As word began to spread about the Shizen-ko tours with the help of Ninomiya-san's active online presence on a website and blog, customer numbers increased. Within a couple of years Ninomiya-san was able to quit his winter job at the village ski hill and work only summers at the lake.

Shizen-ko's aquatic ecosystem is also an active emergence. During his multi-year relationship with the lake, Ninomiya-san has observed this emergence diligently, crafting a subtle knowledge of the ecosystem. During my tour, when I asked about an aquatic plant occupying considerable portions of the lake's southern end, he told me that it is known as hiru-mushiro (Nymphaea tetragona) and is a perennial that grows well in stagnant waters. He surmises that the plant will continue to thrive and occupy more of the Shizen-ko ecosystem, helping to create habitat for fish. Ninomiya-san's careful analysis was impressive, I noted at the time; those with a shallower understanding of the lake's ecology might try to eradicate the seemingly noxious weed. During his tours Ninomiya-san speaks on various aspects of the lake and its ecosystem, though not in an overt way; he tends, rather, to speak as objects come into view or as questions arise. He explained to me that he also values the lake's silence and the physical sensations if offers guests. “It's important for guests to have time for personal exploration and interaction with the lake too.”

Ninomiya-san's kayak tours of Shizen-ko are made meaningful through the affective labours of both he and his guests. Neera Singh (2013) describes affective labour as that which 'brings together the mind and the body and involves reason and passion simultaneously' (192). Affective labour, she continues, 'builds community, and produces sociality and subjectivity,' (192) and thus gives rise to, and is in turn informed by, a relational ontology within which abundance, caring, and cooperation are made meaningful and valuable.

Shizen-ko is an ecology that is emerging from within the varied assemblage components of the larger Ontake-san ecosystem, which includes vegetation regimes shaped by human activities, water flows modified by dams and other infrastructures, and movements of animals through habitats shaped through forestry practices. Tsing (2015: 23) describes assemblages as 'open-ended gatherings,' stating that they 'don't just gather lifeways; they make them.' Such open-ended gatherings become happenings, she further notes, through collaborations that create contaminations. Ninomiya-san's affective labours upon the waters of Shizen-ko help to bring humans into the open-ended gathering of the lake as an emergent ecology. His guests, many of whom return season after season, are affected—contaminated—through their encounters with the ecology. Ninomiya-san himself has been contaminated as well, emerging as a sort of Shizen-ko subject, from which the other ecosystem components of the lake cannot be separated without disturbance.

Returning to the question of how to successfully do tourism, which has arisen within the destabilizing moment of Ontake-san's eruption, it seems to me that Ninomiya-san's model of what might be called 'affective tourism' offers one possible answer. Rather than engaging with the precarities of tourism by 'scaling up' to increase tourist numbers, which can create ecological and economic vulnerabilities, it operates within the precarity, giving attention to and providing spaces for collaboration in which values of abundance and caring are fostered through affective relations. In this way it aligns with the reciprocal actions of humans and god-spirits on Ontake-san and the efforts to create common life among human and non-human organisms in Otaki's fields and forests.

In 2015, Ninomiya-san told me about new projects he was working on to introduce guests to local environments. Since Ontake-san's eruption he has started snowshoeing tours at night in forests located at the back of the Otaki Valley. The tours conclude, he said emphatically, with a campfire among trees and forest dwellers. “A lot of people in Japan have never experienced the quiet of the woods in winter, so I want to give them that opportunity.” Having tried the tour a few times, he said that many guests were ambivalent and maybe a bit scared, but ultimately came out of the experience with feelings of amazement.

   Conclusion Top

The length and scope of the destabilising moment brought about by the unexpected eruption of Ontake-san is uncertain. It is also uncertain what life projects may or may not emerge from the moment, and when. What is certain, however, is that Ontake-san's eruption occurred within a tensioned landscape in which divergent life projects are at play. Tsing (2013: abstract) notes that '(f)ar from being a self-enclosed system, capitalism is unable to create most of the skills, relations, and resources it needs to function. Capitalist accumulation depends on converting stuff created in varied ways, including photosynthesis and animal metabolism, into capitalist commodities.' Within the Ontake-san environment, projects of capital accumulation—alongside state-making projects—have worked to assemble ecological components in a way that enables their exploitation on a large scale. As I have argued, the resource landscape is a cumulative effect of these assemblage practices, one rendered through the 'continuous work of pulling disparate elements together' (Li 2007: 264) while forging a narrowed terrain of nature, nature-politics, and governmentality that compels human actors to narrow the affective scopes of their labours as well (attempting tourism at the margins of larger resource projects, for example).

However, though the resource landscape and its accompanying modes of assemblage dominate the Ontake-san environment, these projects are never fully established as a singular way of being in the world. Tsing (2015) suggests that a challenge of our times is to keep an eye not only on projects that have been expanded to a scale where they transform landscapes and societies, but to also examine 'where scalability fails—and where nonscalable ecological and economic relations erupt' (42).

In this paper, I have argued that Ontake-san's unexpected eruption has opened spaces within which to recognise, imagine, and enact alternative ways of being in and valuing the world to those of the resource landscape. The death, destruction, and uncertainty caused by eruption have created a destabilising moment in which the terrain of nature and politics has widened, making room for alternative imaginings and actions. In the wake of eruption, human residents of Otaki have an opportunity to engage with the qualities of the relations that enliven ecologies and enable collaborations with one another, the myriad organic and inorganic components of their environments, and the god-spirits of Ontake-san. Through this affective labour, residents have the capacity to further develop ideas and understandings capable of producing practices and actions that open new horizons of possibility and give flight to lines of composition that may produce affective bodies capable of crafting alternative worlds. Given the enduring affective relations that I have described in this essay, the hope is that the future lifeworlds of Ontake-san will be more and more enlivened through values of abundance, sharing, care, and love, fostering ways of being that resist the commodification, alienation, and marginalisation that have marked the precarious nature of livelihood and life in the Ontake-san landscape.

   Notes Top

  1. All translations from Japanese are the author's, unless otherwise noted.
  2. Based on 1953-1970 exchange rate of USD 1 = JPY 360: http://fx.sauder.ubc.ca/etc/USDpages.pdf (accessed September 25, 2013). This exchange rate is used throughout this essay, unless otherwise noted.

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