Japan and the Environment in 1983

Japan’s problems with population control, pollution-related public health problems, and resource usage position it in a warning role for other developed nations.
By Paul Ehrlich and Anne Ehrlich
September/October 1983

Japan's historically excellent, productive, and sustainable agricultural system is being destroyed by deforestation, development, contamination, and mismanagement.
PHOTO: FOTOLIA/JULES KITANO


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Paul Ehrlich (Bing Professoof Population Studies and Professor of Biological Sciences, Stanford University) and Anne Ehrlich (Senior Research Associate, Department of Biological Sciences, Stanford) are familiar names to ecologists and environmentalists everywhere. But while most folks are aware of the Ehrlichs' popular writing in the areas of ecology and overpopulation (most of us, for instance, have read Paul's book The Population Bomb), few people have any idea of how deeply the Ehrlichs are involved in ecological research (the type that tends to be published only in technical journals and college texts). That's why we're pleased to present "Ecoscience," a regular semi-technical column by these well-known authors/ecologists/educators. 

The population, resource, and environmental situations in Japan provides a stunning contrast to that in China. (See China's Population Crisis and China’s Ecological Outlook in 1983.) After all, the latter nation has a population about nine times greater than that of Japan, but has 22 times the arable land, or, roughly two and a half times as much cropland per person. China is also resource-rich, while Japan is resource-poor, yet China's per capita income is around $250 per year, while Japan's is about $9,000.

A Bit of Japanese History

In the middle of the last century, at the point at which Japan restored the Emperor and began its rapid Westernization and industrialization, it had a population of 25 to 30 million. Then infanticide and abortion were forbidden, hygiene was improved, andas a resultthe population grew to 44 million by the turn of the century.

Japan was militaristic from the beginning of that "Meiji" restoration. At first, not wishing to suffer Western invasions as China had, military buildup was primarily defensive in character. However, by the 1890's, Japan turned expansionist, fighting and defeating China and then winning the Russo-Japanese War.

The start of the Great Depression delivered a stunning blow to the Japanese. The overseas markets that the country depended upon were no longer buying, and, since Japan's economy was based on imported raw materials and markets outside of its own borders, there was a new surge of military expansionism, and the armed forces' resulting "need" for manpower led to strong pro-natalist policies. By 1935, Japan's small birth control movement was forced to disband.

The nation's first move, once again, was against China. Then, with the defeat of France by the Germans in 1940, Japan moved into French Indochina. The goal was to gain secure status as a world power by creating what was termed the "Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere." The theory was that, by conquering much of China and Southeast Asia, Japan would gain both raw materials and protected markets.

The United States reacted to the conquest of Indochina by cutting off shipments of steel and oil in mid-1941. That move led to the attack on Pearl Harbor, andeventuallyto Japan's defeat in World War II. The nation was forced back to its islands, its industrial system was in ruin, and about 6.5 million Japanese who had been living in conquered territories were repatriated, swelling the population to almost 70 million.

In addition, the influx of returning servicemen led to a baby boom in 1947 and 1948, during which the birthrate reached 34 per thousand. The increasing population pressure was widely recognized, and led to the 1948 "Eugenic Protection Law" (which made abortion more readily obtainable) and to—in essence—abortion on demand by 1960. By 1966, the birthrate had dropped to 13.7 per thousand. Clearly, the Japanese had control of the problem.

The nation's population is now about 120 million, and—if family sizes remain around the replacement level—Japan should reach zero population growth before 2025, with a population of 130 to 140 million. The additional 10 to 20 million people will greatly worsen today's extreme overpopulation, but at least the end is in sight.

Unfortunately, the Japanese government doesn't grasp the extreme peril in which the nation has placed itself. Prior to the 1982–83 recession, it periodically attempted to restrict abortions or take other steps to increase births, because Japanese industry was worried about future labor shortages.

A Growing Dependency on Imports

The precarious nature of Japan's future can be grasped with the help of a brief study of its resource situation. For example, the nation must import more than 60% of its food, and this level of dependency is steadily increasing. The Land of the Rising Sun must also import all of its oil, most of its coal, and over 90% of its iron ore, bauxite, chromium, manganese, nickel, and tin!

Japan's food-supply problem is, in part, the result of a deliberate government policy of supporting industries based on imported oil more strongly than those involved with agriculture and fisheries. There's actually a government program to reduce rice cultivation. Worse still, Japan's historically excellent, productive, and sustainable agricultural system is being destroyed by deforestation, development, contamination, mismanagement of waters, and an increasing dependency on the use of pesticides and inorganic fertilizers.

In fact, many of Japan's current troubles can be blamed on the extremely close ties between its industry and government. This deadly link can be traced to the early days of the Meiji restoration, when the government divested itself of losing enterprises, "entrusting" them to relatives and close friends of those in power.

And nowhere are the deleterious results of this close government/industry relationship more obvious than in the government's reluctance to come to grips with Japan's pollution problems, which are among the most severe in the world. It's been estimated, for example, that over one million Japanese suffer from pollution-related diseases. Indeed, in 1978, there were some 64,000 officially recognized victims, and a series of severe pollution syndromes in Japan has captured world attention.

One such well-publicized illness is Yokkaichi asthma, which affects people around a petrochemical complex near Nagoya. It's a response to sulfur dioxide poisoning, and children are extremely susceptible to the malady. Death rates from respiratory diseases have risen in the Yokkaichi area, and the local hospital has had to establish a "pollution-free room," in which victims can spend nights breathing filtered air.

Another syndrome is called Itai-Itai ("It hurts, It hurts") disease, which we know as cadmium poisoning. It's caused by eating rice from fields irrigated with water contaminated by runoff from mines. The illness causes the bones to become very fragile and to splinter and break. Its name, of course, comes from the cries of the victims.

Hundreds of individuals have already been afflicted with Itai-Itai, and perhaps 100 have actually died.

The most notorious of these disease syndromes, however, is Minimata disease. In the early 1950's some strange things began to happen at Minimata, situated on the west coast of Japan's southernmost island, Kyushu. Birds seemed to be losing their sense of coordination, often falling from their perches or flying into buildings and trees. Cats, too, were acting oddly. They walked with a strange, rolling gait, often stumbling over their own legs. Many suddenly went mad, running in circles and foaming at the mouth until they fell—or were thrown—into the sea and drowned.

Soon several local fishermen and their families contracted the "disease of the dancing cats" from eating fish that contained mercury that had been dumped into Minimata Bay by Chisso Corporation. By 1974, 107 of the 798 then-officially-recognized victims of Minimata disease had died horrible deaths, and roughly a quarter of the children born in heavily contaminated areas between 1955 and 1959 were found to be mentally defective. Current estimates are that perhaps 10,000 people in Minimata and elsewhere have suffered from the illness.

In the early 1970's, Japanese courts began to award compensation to victims of these and other pollution disasters. But the government, with its close ties to industry, has taken little effective action against polluters. Indeed, it has—by various techniques—attempted to weaken the environmental movement.

At this time, that movement is still fragmented and consists mostly of local groups. Some of these are pollution victims' associations, others are concerned with the regulation of development, and still others are oriented toward consumers' rights and alternative lifestyles. There is no national environmental group in this Eastern land.

The Canary Role

Japan is increasingly finding itself in the position of being only a clever "middleman," taking in food, energy, and raw materials from all over the globe and spewing out manufactured goods. Unfortunately, it's paying a high priceboth in direct health costs and in deteriorated ecosystem servicesfor this role.

It remains to be seen how long Japan can survive before its suppliers decide they need the resources themselves and its markets become saturated. In the meantime, other overdeveloped nations should keep a close eye on this extremely vulnerable country, just as coal miners used to watch their caged canary for the first deadly sign of the gases that could destroy them. 


 

An excellent overview of Japan's environmental crisis can be found in Norie Huddle's and Michael Reich's Island of Dreams (which is out of print, but may be available at your library). Also see Toshio Hase's “Japan's Growing Environmental Movement" (Environment, March 1981). 

The Ehrlichs' work is supported in part by a grant from the Koret Foundation of San Francisco. 


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