As Japan changed from an agricultural society to an urbanized industrial power, much of its natural beauty was destroyed and defaced by overcrowding and industrial development. However, as the world's leading importer of both exhaustible and renewable natural resources and the second largest consumer of fossil fuels, Japan came to realize that it had a major international responsibility to conserve and protect the environment. By 1990 Japan had some of the world's strictest environmental protection regulations.
These regulations were the consequence of a number of wellpublicized environmental disasters. Cadmium poisoning from industrial waste in Toyama Prefecture was discovered to be the cause of the extremely painful itai-itai disease (itai-itai means ouch-ouch), which causes severe pain in the back and joints, contributes to brittle bones that fracture easily, and brings about degeneration of the kidneys. Recovery of cadmium effluent halted the spread of the disease, and no new cases have been recorded since 1946. In the 1960s, hundreds of inhabitants of Minamata City in Kumamoto Prefecture contracted "Minamata disease," a degeneration of the central nervous system caused by eating mercury-poisoned seafood from Minamata Bay (nearly 1,300 cases of Minamata disease had been diagnosed by 1979). In Yokkaichi, a port in Mie Prefecture, air pollution caused by sulfur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide emissions led to a rapid increase in the number of people suffering from asthma and bronchitis. In urban areas, photochemical smog from automotive and industrial exhaust fumes also contributed to the rise in respiratory problems. In the early 1970s, chronic arsenic poisoning attributed to dust from local arsenic mines (since shut down) was experienced in Shimane and Miyazaki prefectures. The incidence of polychlorobiphenyl (PCB) poisoning, caused by polluted cooking oil and food, particularly seafood, was also problematic.
Grass-roots pressure groups were formed in the 1960s and 1970s as a response to increasing environmental problems. These groups were independent of formal political parties and focused on single, usually local, environmental issues. Such citizens' movements were reminiscent of earlier citizen protests in the 1890s. As a result of this pressure, Japan began in the early 1970s to combat pollution on an official governmental level, with the establishment of the Environmental Agency. Although the agency lacked strong public influence and political power, it established effective regulations to curb pollution from photochemical smog through strict automotive emissions standards. It also worked to reduce noise from trains and airplanes, to remove mining, forestry, and tourist debris left on mountainsides and in national forests, and to monitor noise and air pollutant levels in major cities.
Groups also pressured the government and industry for a system of compensation for pollution victims. A series of lawsuits in the early 1970s established that corporations were responsible for damage cause by their products or activities. The Pollution Health Damage Compensation Law of 1973 provides industry funds for victims. Compensation, however, was slow, and awards were small, but the establishment of a government fund helped industry diffuse public outrage. In 1984 it was reported that Japan had more than 85,000 recognized victims of environmental pollution, with an estimated rate of increase of 6 percent a year. The regulations aimed at business were not enough to solve Japan's environmental problems, according to the Environment Agency's 1989 White Paper on the Environment, although public awareness and interest had grown and a number of civic and public interest groups had been established to combat pollution. Fewer public interest groups were engaged in the environmental debate than in antinuclear issues, and the peak of public interest in the environment occurred in the 1970s and early 1980s.
Japan had still not addressed worldwide environmental issues adequately. Japanese whaling continued in the early 1990s to be the object of international protest, and Japanese corporate involvement in the deforestation of Southeast Asia created concern among domestic and international groups.
The late 1980s saw the beginnings of change. In a 1984 public opinion poll conducted by the government, Japanese citizens had indicated less concern for environmental problems than their European counterparts. In the same year, the Environmental Agency had issued its first white paper calling for greater participation by Japan's public and private sectors in protecting the global environment. That challenge was repeated in the 1989 study. When citizens were asked in 1989 if they thought environmental problems had improved compared with the past, nearly 41 percent thought things had improved, 31 percent thought that they had stayed the same, and nearly 21 percent thought that they had worsened. Some 75 percent of those surveyed expressed concern about endangered species, shrinkage of rain forests, expansion of deserts, destruction of the ozone layer, acid rain, and increased water and air pollution in developing countries. Most believed that Japan, alone or in cooperation with other industrialized countries, had the responsibility to solve environmental problems. Although environmental public interest groups were not as numerous or active as they had been in the 1970s, the increased awareness of global environmental issues is likely to result in increased grass-roots activism.
Since the 1960s, Japan has made slow but significant progress in combating environmental problems. Efforts made in the late 1980s created a base of technology and concern that was expected to help the Japanese face the environmental issues of the 1990s.
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