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Creating the White City: The Coal Smoke Abatement Campaign of Interwar Osaka

Sat, April 13, 8:30 to 10:00am, Hyatt Regency Columbus, Union D


Japan’s capital of industrialization, Osaka, also known as the Manchester of the Orient, had experienced low air quality since the 1880s. Led by such light industry as cotton mills, and later by heavy industry like metalworking and machine manufacturing, Osaka had prospered as an industrial metropolis and consumed tons of coal. Osaka’s business leaders had proudly called the city the “Capital of Smoke” and regarded thick coal smoke as the symbol of progress and prosperity. The Osaka Prefecture had promulgated environmental regulations since the mid-1880s, but Osaka’s anti-smoke campaign did not gain momentum until the late 1920s. In 1927, the progressive mayor Seki Hajime and his colleagues established the Coal Smoke Abatement Research Committee (BBCI). The BBCI members called for making Osaka a White City, like the “smoke-free” cities of Paris, Berlin, and New York, and embraced the Progressive Era values that drove air pollution abatement campaigns in the West. For example, like their counterparts in other industrial cities, the BBCI members used the Ringelmann Chart to scientifically measure Osaka’s air quality. The BBCI also took a lead in educating people with the latest stoking and combusting technologies, as well as proposing anti-smoke regulations to the national government. These efforts were aided by the committee members who were well-versed in the contemporary development of industrial science in the West.

This paper examines the anti-smoke campaign of interwar Osaka. The goals and activities of the BBCI show new insights into Japanese society during the 1930s, the decade characterized by the rise of ultra-nationalism and Japan’s abrupt alienation from the international community in pursuit of autarkic empire. The experience of Osaka’s middle-class technocrats also brings a new perspective into the Atlantic exchange of Progressive ideals. This paper uses the monthly magazine Dai Osaka (Greater Osaka, 1925-1944) as the main primary source.