Japan was once as polluted as China is today. Now it is among the world’s cleanest advanced economies. How did it do it?
About five decades ago, people of Japan were concerned that if their country is capable of successfully implementing poverty alleviation programmes, then why is it not able to implement measures to control pollution and develop a clean city for habitation. Even as the world applauded Japan for its 10% annual growth rate, alarm was growing over air pollution in several cities. Emissions of nitrogen dioxide, carbon monoxide and sulfur dioxide gases tripled during the 1960s. Japan became known for pollution-related illnesses – Yokkaichi Asthma and Minamata Disease (mercury poisoning) — both named after the cities where they first appeared — and cadmium poisoning.
Over the years, Japan has improved in this context and today, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO), Japanese cities are among the world’s least polluted cities. The country rightly prides itself on blue skies, Prius taxis and mandatory recycling.
However, achieving this was not an easy task. The Liberal Democratic Party, which governed Japan almost continuously from 1955 to 2009 and returned to power in December 2012, was not proactive in cleaning up the country’s air and water.
It is important to mention that Japan has managed to clean up without sacrificing growth by investing in pollution-control technologies and giving local governments the freedom to tighten standards beyond national requirements.
It was only when the citizens’ movements, which grew out of protests against the 1960 U.S.-Japan Security Treaty and the Vietnam War, got the attention of opposition parties in the 1960s and early 1970s that the government was forced to confront pollution. The first consequence of this was passing of 14 laws at once, in what became known as the Pollution Diet of 1970. Air pollution fell dramatically in the years that followed.
But obstacles obviously remained. It was in 1968, a dozen years after Minamata disease was discovered, that the government acknowledged that it was caused by toxic waste dumping by the chemical company Chisso. As late as the 1990s also, Japan did not fully comply with some of its own standards. Regulations on the emissions of dioxin, a carcinogen produced during incineration, were also inadequate, particularly for a country that burns most of its trash. And the courts, under political pressure to protect business interests, have taken too long to process pollution cases.
Another major problem has been Japan’s focus on infrastructure development (to build support from voters), which causes ecological destruction. Even today, as the population shrinks, politicians spend enthusiastically on building dams, paving hillsides and fortifying shorelines.
And yet Japan is a much healthier place to live today than in the 1960s. A part of it has been possible by convincing the academia and business that potential profits lay in resolving environmental problems.
For instance, Kitakyushu — a city in northern Kyushu where chemical and heavy industries contaminated a local bay so badly it became known as the Sea of Death – is now a pioneer in the use of hydrogen as a source of power.
Another example is of Kawasaki which has rebranded itself as an eco-city, building Japan’s largest solar power plant on landfill and turning recycling waste into a business. Furthermore, Chisso, once known for dumping toxic waste in the sea, has developed innovative wastewater-treatment technology.
Following Japan’s initiative in its move towards clean sustainable environment, China has also started taking steps. Already, thousands of citizens’ groups around China have organised to protest against polluting projects, like chemical and copper plants and wastewater pipelines, sometimes even filing lawsuits. The Chinese media are covering these issues more aggressively than in the past. And the government is responding.
Last month, it ordered the temporary closure of more than 100 polluting factories and the removal of 30% of government vehicles from the streets of Beijing. However, with the health of a nation of more than one billion people at stake, it will have to do much more to give a clean living environment to its population.