Japan at cross roads

If there is one country that has done quite well for itself in managing the natural environment throughout its history, it is Japan. But the run up to modernisation has changed things. Success has its cost -- too much of it can be too costly. A Down To Earth critique of some not-so-well-known aspects of Japan Inc, the archipelago of beautiful trees and carcinogenic dioxins

Published: Wednesday 31 May 2000

Japan at cross roads

-- Japan is a country with a long history and an intricate culture. It has done its best to maintain its own cultural identity despite immense economic globalisation and material Westernisation. Even today less than one per cent Japanese speak English.

Intrigued by the extraordinary complexity that is Japan, I took the opportunity to find out during a 15-day fellowship, kindly provided to me by the Japan Foundation, what were Japan's traditions in environment management -- the Japanese have always been nature-lovers and have had large and organised settlements for centuries -- and how were those traditions coping with the modern world. I was helped in this task by various friends like Ui Jun, the doyen of Japanese environmentalists whose environmental activism goes back to the 1960s when Japan shocked the world with the Minamata disease, the Japan Ecology Foundation and several others who were introduced to me by Ui Jun, and professor of education Masafumi Nagao. In addition, I visited numerous scientific research centres.

If there is any message that came across sharply, it is that it is best to live with the cycles of nature. More than any civilisation, this is precisely what the Japanese did traditionally. They recycled human excreta back to the land unlike other civilisations which put it into water. The result: it had adequate and clean water even for million-plus cities like Edo, as compared to Rome, which had to bring water from far even though it sat on the Tiber. And as Japanese cities grew, they became major sources of manure and this manure, in turn, became fertiliser for increasing agricultural productivity in rural areas to feed the growing urban population.

But all this was going to change in the 20th century. Chemical fertilisers started the reduction in demand for human manure. Human waste then started getting into urban waterbodies, increasing human disease. The growing popularity of flush toilets led to a further decline in the recycling of human waste. But, recognising the fact that many people in small towns and villages will not have access to sewage systems, Japan went ahead, in its typical hi-tech fashion, to develop the world's most extensive and sophisticated non-sewage human waste disposal system. But, as of now, it is sad that no human waste is recycled.

Adopting this new attitude has led the country into a major environmental problem and, like most of such problems, they have crept upon the country unexpectedly. Extremely short of land, Japan decided to incinerate all its urban garbage. The result: widespread contamination by one of the most poisonous substances known to humankind, dioxin. Catching up with the West may not have affected Japanese culture. But the toxicity inherent in the Western economic model is definitely having an impact.

But the hardworking and extremely disciplined Japanese will definitely find their own solutions. If you have any comments on this issue, do write because our friends in Japan would also love to know.
-- The Editor

For a tiny 377,000-sq km country, Japan provides a lot to read and write about -- it has had more written about it than numerous other nations several times its size. Typically, foreigners discussing the Japanese are likely to build up the conversation around two themes: their traditions and their rise to the summit of modern industrial success. Bonsai, haiku, the picturesque Japanese landscape, the tea ceremony, automobiles, consumer electronics, robots, new-age management principles... the list is endless.

These discussions, however, often miss out on several core issues. Very few people outside Japan get the full picture -- the country that redefined industrialisation is confronting some serious environmental and public health problems, which are becoming more noticeable by the day.

While the general view is that the Japanese are 'nature lovers' -- Japan has more forest in terms of percentage of land than any other country -- the inhabitants of this archipelago overexploited their forests at two stages in history. So much so that they almost caused an "environmental catastrophe", as Conrad Totman, historian from Yale University in the us , puts it in his book The Green Archipelago: Forestry in Pre-industrial Japan . The thickly forested landscape now shows no sign of catastrophe that the country faced centuries back. The increase in its forest cover is phenomenal.

But how long can nature remain healthy? The beautiful scenery is now giving way to golf courses, says Takada Hiroshi, a famous award winning Japanese author. "Mountain villages are being standardised with eighteen holes," he comments. Being an industrialised country, there is no dearth of pollution. This increasing menace has provoked the civil society to become the main catalyst in campaigns against pollution.

The country has a record of a strong governance institution and even stronger private enterprise sector. So, "developing a dynamic non-governmental, non-profit sector" that will be capable of succeeding the former two will be the biggest challenge for the next century, says Masafumi Nagao of the Centre for the Study of International Cooperation in Education at Hiroshima University.

Nagao explains why the civil society was not as active before World War- ii as it should have been: "The civil element in the Japanese society, rooted in community organisations (that is, neighbourhood mutual help), was not allowed to develop autonomously. It was exploited to serve the 'national cause'. The end result was that the whole country became militaristic and ran up to World War- ii ." The war subsequently led to the emergence of the private commercial sector, "which worked in tandem with the State when convenient," says Nagao. "All this, was for 'catching up with the West'." But the civil society is gradually emerging as one of the most active elements in the Japanese society, particularly in the post-modern era, after the country had achieved economic prosperity through rapid industrialisation.

Economic growth and pollution
Japan's economic growth peaked between the 1950s and the 1970s with annual growth rate of approximately 11 per cent and a 4.4 times increase in the gross national product, according to the Global Environment Conservation Proposals for the Earth Summit , a 1992 publication of the Japan Federation of Bar Associations ( jfba ). This was characterised by the coming up of many heavy industries and chemicals industries. These resource-intensive industries lead to widespread environmental degradation. One clear example is waste management.

Industrial wastes increased by about 25 per cent between 1975 and 1985. According to a report in The Nikkei Weekly , Japan has to deal with 400 million tonnes of industrial wastes each year. Building and scraping materials in Japan are mostly short-lived -- very few pre-World War- ii buildings remain. According to an estimate by Atsuhiro Honda of the Clean Japan Centre, construction waste in residential areas of Japan is believed to be 1,100 tonnes per sq km. This is ten times the amount in the us and more than double compared to Germany.

Waste management: forgetting a legacy
The country has had some extraordinary ways to manage waste. The Japanese have traditionally used excreta as organic fertiliser. Even now, with the advent of flush toilets and sewage systems, about half of Japan's population uses toilets that are serviced by night-soil treatment plants. But sewage systems are covering a constantly increasing percentage of Japan's population. Although the archipelago treats all its sewage, the fact remains that the Japanese are turning away from the sustainable practice of using night soil as fertiliser and following unsustainable practices of the West. This is especially sad as Japan can actually provide leadership to the rest of the world in how to handle excreta.

On the atmospheric pollution front, one result of industrial growth has been the country's significant contribution to global warming due to large-scale emissions of greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide ( co 2 ). Japan has become one of the most polluting nations, with its per capita co 2 emissions ranking seventh in the world after the us , Canada, the former Soviet Union, Poland, post reunification Germany and the uk . In 1988, it accounted for 4.7 per cent of the world's total co 2 emissions of 5.8 billion tonnes. Its per capita co 2 emissions are about twice that of the world average, according to jfba . Under the Kyoto Protocol, Japan is supposed to cut emissions by six per cent from the 1990 levels.

To combat domestic air pollution, Japan started enforcing strict, target-oriented measures due to the threat pollution poses to human health. Some have proved effective. Stricter emission standards for vehicles were enforced. Japanese manufactured vehicles running across the world account for 30 per cent of global co 2 emissions. New regulations include development of desulphurisation systems.

Japan has also introduced vehicles that run on electricity or methanol, which makes them zero-emission vehicles. The technology is still being developed for greater efficiency. It is worth mentioning that the city of Tokyo is one of the leaders in the world in the fight against urban air pollution from diesel-powered vehicles. In August 1999, the metropolitan government under Shintaro Ishihara, the city's governor, launched a campaign against diesel vehicles (see p42: "Say No! to Diesel Vehicles" ).

But the most talked about pollution problem in Japan is that of cancer-causing dioxins, which are formed when wastes, particularly plastics, are burnt at low temperature. As it industrialised, Japan started producing a lot of wastes. With low land availability, the easiest and cleanest way to get rid of the wastes was thought to be incineration. But then the dioxin menace began to be noticed. Today, the country incinerates more of its wastes that any other country in terms of percentage. And dioxin concentrations are quite high near incinerators. Small wonder the greatest cause of death in Japan is cancer (see graph: Cause of death: cancer ). A study conducted within one km of Ryugasaki, a city in north-eastern Japan, revealed that 42 per cent of deaths in a ten-year span up to 1995 were from cancer. Till December 1998, there were no emission norms for dioxin in Japan, one of the highest dioxin emitting countries of the world.

Despite their reputation of being extremely disciplined and industrious, the Japanese are struggling to deal with the fallout of industrialisation. This only makes the situation very dangerous for developing countries which, invariably, are following the same industrial development model as Japan. If a country as small, regulated, developed and disciplined as Japan cannot find answer to environmental problems like emissions of dioxin, what chances do countries like India have of giving its people a clean future? After having made the most of industrialisation, it will be Japan's ability to cope with environmental challenges that will determine not only the quality of life of its citizens but also its reputation around the world.

This is Japan today. But even the country's past, though well documented, is not understood very well outside the crescent-shaped archipelago, especially the lessons that modern society can learn from its centuries-old traditions of environmental management. Traditions that emerged during the early days of the Japanese civilisation and sustained it right up to the mid-20th century. Some of these are still practised, even if it is in a new context. In the following pages, Down To Earth captures glimpses of Japan's past and present, and their relevance to the future.

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