Graduate Student Forum

Making the Coast Capitalist: Seaweed and sea labor in the development of Japanese capitalism

Tuesday 4 July 2023 | 9:00-9:45 (JST)
  • Charlotte Ciavarella History & East Asian Languages, Harvard University
  • Kenneth Mori McElwain Professor, Institute of Social Science, The University of Tokyo
Event Description

Despite its absence from historical accounts of Japanese industrialization, one of Japan’s earliest and most important export items were the chemical byproducts of the seaweeds that grow abundantly on its coasts. The centrality of these items to both global scientific research and daily life encouraged overseas companies to attempt to break Japan’s almost total monopoly on these products by mechanizing and rationalizing their production. In spite of this outside pressure Japan was able to hold onto their dominance in the trade of these goods, not by modernizing their production but by appropriating the traditional labor and community structures of formerly nomadic fishers in Japan and Jeju island in Korea. By examining the connection between these laborers and the trade in seaweed-based chemicals, this talk examines the ways in which diverse ecosystem cultures are integrated into global systems of exploitation in the process of capitalist development. Challenging the idea that technological advancement and modernization necessarily accompany industrial capitalist development, this talk argues that capitalist transformations rely on hybrid modes of production and exploitation as well as the appropriation of social structures that exist outside of the logic of capitalist production.

About the Speaker

Charlotte Ciavarella is a PhD candidate in History and East Asian Languages (HEAL) at Harvard University, focusing on the social and environmental history of nineteenth- and twentieth-century Japan and Jeju island. Her research interests include the history of capitalism, political economy, political ecology, gender and community structures, nomadic groups, and the history of rural lifeways.