The following news summaries are by Jeff Durbin. They are based mainly on information taken from The Asahi Evening News (AEN), The Daily Yomiuri (DY), and The Japan Times (JT).
The Labor Ministry announced it will study the effects of low-frequency electromagnetic waves on humans. The public is becoming more concerned about health risks, especially to women and fetuses. Protective aprons are now a big seller, worker's compensation claims blamed on electromagnetic waves are increasing, and cellular phone companies are finding it harder to build relay stations near residential areas. The study will consider waves under 300 hertz, and take three years. To date, study results have been somewhat contradictory, but the World Health Organization is now in the midst of a comprehensive 5-year study. (DY 11 Jan)
The Environment Agency, capitalizing on a recent trend among local governments, has published a handy gauge of a household's impact on the environment. When families keep track of everything they purchase and consume, built-in calculations show the resulting carbon dioxide emissions. The "Household Eco-account Book" also stresses the money that can be saved by cutting down on electricity or hot water use, and the cumulative benefit of small daily actions. The agency has distributed copies to local governments, consumers' groups, and other organizations. Eco-account books are also printed by local governments in Otsu in Shiga Prefecture, Kumamoto in Kumamoto Prefecture, and Itabashi Ward in Tokyo. But Morioka Toru, an Osaka University professor who pioneered eco-accounting books 15 years ago, warns that Japan's social system must change also to make individual contributions meaningful. (DY 11 Jan)
Japan earned praise from the stingy Worldwatch Institute in its annual state of the world report. The report said that although carbon dioxide emissions have exceeded U.N. climate agreement targets, Japan is making more progress than many other countries, and its per capita emissions are less than half the U.S.'s. Japan has also reduced sulfur and nitrogen oxide output. The Institute commended Japan for increasing international aid for population programs after U.S. funding dropped with the Republican takeover of Congress in early 1995. On the downside, Japan "has so far failed, however, to assert itself as a global environmental leader and in fact is known for its resistance to international limits on whaling and on imports of tropical timber from old-growth forests." The Worldwatch report says that since the 1992 Rio de Janeiro "Earth Summit," the global environment has deteriorated. (JT 13/14 Jan)
The town assembly of Mitake, Gifu Prefecture has voted 12-5 to hold a referendum to vote on the sale of town property for a waste disposal site. Opponents fear the site, near the Kiso River, could contaminate river water, which is used by millions of people in the Chubu region. The site would collect rubber, plastic, wood scraps, and other manufacturing debris. Events leading to the Mitake plebescite are dramatic. Since his election in April 1995, the mayor, Yanagawa Yoshiro, had openly questioned the environmental safety of the site, and the previous mayor's behind-doors approval of the project. The issue dominated a recent election campaign, and 12 new assembly members opposed to the project were voted in. Then last October 30 Yanagawa was attacked at his apartment by two men with baseball bats, and hospitalized for 40 days. Within a week citizens collected three times the number of signatures required for a referendum. Police suspect an attack by gangs that would benefit from the disposal site, but no arrests have been made. Yanagawa has been criticized in rightwing newsletters and had his phone wiretapped, and gang members appeared at residents' meetings. No date has been set for the plebescite, but it must be held by June. (JT 20/31 Dec; 15 Jan)
Sometime in mid-March another shipment of reprocessed nuclear waste will arrive at the Rokkasho storage facility in Aomori Prefecture. The British-owned "Pacific Teal" left Cherbourg, France on January 13. It carries 20 tons of radioactive waste in 40 stainless steel containers filled with solidified glass and waste. The waste originally came from Japanese reactors and has been processed in La Hague by COGEMA, a state-run French company. According to a French government document leaked to Greenpeace, the ship will go around the southern tip of Africa, head south of Australia and circle up through the Tasman Sea between Australia and New Zealand. The route is similar to that of last April's waste shipment to Rokkasho. New Zealand, a declared nuclear-free nation, has approached Japan with its concerns, though the ship may legally pass through the Tasman Sea as long as it stays outside New Zealand's 12-mile wide territorial waters. Greenpeace is alerting other countries along the route and asking them to protest the ship's passage. (JT 15/16 Jan)
The Environment Agency has set stricter dioxin standards than its fellow ministry, Health and Welfare. Last June the Health and Welfare Ministry announced intake guidelines for dioxin at 10 picograms per day per kilogram of body weight. But the Environment Agency upped the ante with a limit of 5 picograms per day. The average daily intake in Japan is estimated to be between 0.3 and 3.5 picograms, but for people living near incinerators, intakes can be as high as 5.1 picograms (one picogram equals a trillionth of a gram). Dioxin, a chlorine-based chemical, has been discovered in fish and human breast milk in Japan. It can cause cancer and birth defects (JT 21 Dec; DY 24 Dec). In related news, the Health and Welfare Ministry has developed a strategy to reduce dioxin discharges from garbage incinerators, which release 80 to 90 percent of Japan's dioxin total. Because most dioxin escapes at the time incinerators are turned off, operators will have to run them 24 hours a day, with a maximum allowable density of 0.1 nanograms per square meter (a nanogram is a billionth of a gram). The Ministry says that if the measures are followed, in 20 years discharges will be less than one percent of current levels (JT 25 Jan).