Land of the Rising Toxins

Japan Struggles on the Environment

Japan has long been criticized for lagging behind other nations in its commitment to environmental issues. These days, the environment is getting more attention than ever in the Land of the Rising Sun. But a weighty question remains: How much is actually being accomplished?

PHOTO: © David Ladd Nelson/All-Japan Stock PhotographyDavid Ladd Nelson/All-Japan Stock Photography

The Law to Control Packaging Waste is a case in point. It’s garnered a lot of attention, and on the surface, it appears Japan is taking great strides. Yet critics say that enormous problems remain. Record low prices for waste paper made 1997 yet another crisis year for the recycling industry, which operates on the brink of collapse despite high recycling rates. Stacks of old newspapers and magazines still adorn curbside pickup points on “burnable trash” days, and paper accounts for about 20 percent of Japan’s municipal waste. At least half of all aluminum and steel cans are recycled, but the introduction of smaller PET plastic bottles by beverage companies has hindered efforts.

Shocking revelations about Japan’s environmental problems seem to make the headlines every week. Endocrine disruptors, or “environmental hormones” as they’re known in Japan, have churned public debate, as more and more illegal toxic waste dumps and dioxin-spewing incinerators become public knowledge. Extremely high dioxin levels, for example, were discovered in soil near an incinerator in Osaka.

Meanwhile, the Ministry of Education found that 83 percent of schools use small incinerators which release dioxin. Only this year was dioxin declared a hazardous material in Japan.

“After World War II, the obvious priority for the country was to develop economically,” says Richard Forrest, an expert in Japanese environmental issues with the Environmental Diplomacy Institute in Seattle. “Japan was very successful by concentrating on developing infrastructure and creating an environment that would help business. But now this high-growth machine is an anachronism. It also causes other problems, environmental problems in particular. And there’s no real political will to change.”

Consider wetlands protection. The United States established its “no net loss of wetlands” policy a decade ago, but Japan has no official position—and there’s none in sight. Government public works projects, in fact, are the main cause of wetland destruction in Japan. Last year, for instance, a Ministry of Agriculture project strangled Japan’s largest tidal flat wetland at Isahaya Bay in Nagasaki Prefecture.

Hirofumi Yamashita was awarded the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize in San Francisco for his wetland conservation work last April, but the government continues with projects throughout the country that, over the next few years, will destroy most of Japan’s tidal flat wetlands. Recently, a group of scholars, journalists and other environmental leaders selected 100 of the worst public works projects in Japan. More than half, and all of the “Worst Ten,” affect wetlands.

“Each country has its strengths and weaknesses,” says Forrest. “Certainly the weakness in Japan is a lack of appreciation and effort to preserve intact ecosystems and habitat. A lot of the development that people see as destructive is a reflection of that. There are dams that are harming the biodiversity of rivers, and virtually all of the coastal wetlands are either developed or planned for development.”

Japan also remains behind much of the world in matters of wildlife conservation. The Mammalogical Society of Japan announced last year that about half of the 174 mammal species in and around Japan are in danger of extinction. Ruling Liberal Democratic Party members, in the meantime, want to revise legislation to make it easier to kill wild animals and birds, supposedly in the interest of controlling nuisance wildlife. Species such as the crescent-moon bear and the Japanese macaque are routinely killed as “pests,” despite their regionally endangered status. Under the proposed revision, responsibility for managing wildlife would be decentralized to the local level, where many feel regulating powers would fall into the hands of the would-be destroyers. “There’s an interest in preserving wildlife in Japan,” says Forrest. “But the system doesn’t work.”

Which is not to say all is gloom for the environment in Japan. Truth be told, Japan is ahead of even the U.S. in certain areas. Energy efficiency, for one, says Forrest. “They’re also much more responsible in how they’re accepting the reality of climate change and the need to deal with it,” he explains. “If it’s a question of technology or use of resources, Japan can be very efficient and innovative.” The country, in fact, is among the world leaders in shipments of photovoltaic cells for solar homes, largely because of government support in the form of subsidies and tax incentives. “Last year, the growth of the solar-cell industry jumped 40 percent and it was largely due to demand from Japan,” says Molly O’Meara, of the Worldwatch Institute.

And Japanese auto companies, especially Toyota, are leading environmental innovators. Toyota, which has committed itself (along with other companies) to reducing the threat of global warming, has also introduced the world’s first fuel-efficient “hybrid” car (combining electric and internal-combustion motors) and will soon introduce a low-polluting fuel cell automobile. Additionally, Honda has pledged to share its environmental technology with other companies.

In June, the Japanese government approved an update to the “Long-Term Energy Supply and Demand Outlook,” Japan’s blueprint for future energy use. The Outlook calls for more co-generation energy and less dependence on coal. But its relentless drive toward increasing nuclear power is unchanged, calling for an increase of 35 to 45 percent of nuclear-generating capacity by 2010.

As with much of Japan’s environmental policy, however, the government marches on with its plans. “A decision was made that this was the path they were going to take,” says Forrest, “and they’re very reluctant to change.”