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).
Due to strong lobbying by business, the new Air Pollution Control Law will depend on companies to voluntarily cut back on chemical emissions. Motorcycle exhaust is specifically regulated, along with the release of asbestos when building are torn down. However, no new chemicals were added to the regulations, which include six pollutants. For comparison, the U.S. Clean Air Act covers 189 pollutants. The Environment Agency says the next to be listed will be benzene, trichloroethylene and tetrachloroethylene. Industries, though, claim that health studies for these and other pollutants are insufficient. They also say voluntary reduction of emissions is more effective than enforced compliance because, with their reputations at stake, companies must continually improve anti-pollution measures. After three years the Law will be reviewed. (JT 4 May)
Three hundred thousand climbers trudging up Mt. Fuji each summer leave their share of garbage, and the Forestry Agency is considering how to clean it up. Between the summit and the 5th station, the traditional starting point, there are places to put garbage, but nighttime climbers especially do not always throw away their trash at designated spots. The agency has suggested a climbers' fund to pay for facilities for garbage and human waste. Now, part-time workers must be hired for clean-up. Any solution will have to take into account political boundaries on Fuji. Ownership of the mountain is split among Yamanashi and Shizuoka prefectures, the national government, and Sengen Shrine. (DY 5 May)
The Nuclear Safety Commission is debating whether iodine is safe to take in the event of a radiation leak, and the Science and Technology Agency will soon take up the question. A week's supply of iodine is stored around 14 prefectures in Japan for all residents living within 10 kilometers of a nuclear reactor. Non-radioactive iodine in the body is thought to prevent radioactive iodine from being absorbed in the thyroid gland, but some commission members worry about iodine's side effects. Iodine gas can be released in large quantities after a nuclear accident. In the aftermath of the 1986 Chernobyl accident, many children were found to have thyroid cancer. (DY 5 May)
In line with APEC's drive for cooperation in the Asia-Pacific region, a new council in the Kansai area will promote environmental protection technology. The council was formed by businesses, environmental groups, and local governments. In August an Internet home page, the APEC virtual environmental technology exchange center, will be launched to help spread information, and link with similar home pages in other countries. (JT 9 May)
The whaling fleet that returned to Japan last month with its winter catch of 440 Antarctic minke whales has brought more than whalemeat. Scientists onboard took sperm and eggs from some whales, and now are trying to fertilize the eggs in test tubes. Results of the first-ever experiment will be announced next month. For the moment there are no plans to implant a female minke whale with eggs, even if the eggs are successfully fertilized. That will come later, according to the Institute of Cetacean Research. (JT 15 May)
Japan still has work to do before determining its 200-mile economic sea zone in accordance with the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. South Korea has started dredging for construction of a wharf on the disputed island of Takeshima/Tokdo. Once in place, ships up to 500 tons will be able to berth. Korea hopes to thus strengthen its sovereignty claims, but Japan's Foreign Minister Ikeda says the wharf construction will have no bearing on political recognition of the island group. Meanwhile, Japan and South Korea opened fishing negotiations on May 9 in Tokyo. The territorial issue will be kept separate from the talks. (DY 30 Apr, 2/18 May)
New radiation exposure standards for Japanese nuclear plant workers will go into effect later this year. Current recommended limits are based on a 1977 international standard, though a new international standard was released in 1990. The update takes better account of the cancer risk caused by low-level radiation exposure. Over a 5-year period, acceptable exposure is now considered to be 20 millisieverts per year, compared to 50 per year under the current Japanese standard. Pregnant workers should receive a maximum of 2 millisieverts per year, instead of 10. A 1995 white paper on nuclear safety says Japanese plant workers are dosed with 1 millisievert per year on average. (AEN 21 May)
Japan has offered to host next year's global warming conference, which will set carbon dioxide levels beyond the turn of the century. The international convention, first agreed to at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, calls for 2000 emissions to match 1990 outputs. The 1997 conference is significant because it will be the first to definitively set post-2000 emission targets. Negotiations in the past have split between industrialized and developing nations, and Environment Agency chief Iwatare Sukio says Japan should bridge this gap. This year's meeting will be in Geneva in July, and nations attending are expected to accept Japan's offer (JT 5/18 May). In 1994 the government said reaching the Earth Summit pledge would not be possible, but the Environment Agency now says Japan has the technical ability to hold 2000 emissions at 1990 levels, "although serious efforts on the policy front are needed." More efficient power generators and houses, and greater nuclear power production will make the targets possible, the agency said (JT 22 May).
After 16 years in the courts, the largest group of Minamata victims held a signing ceremony in Minamata, Kumamoto Prefecture after settling with Chisso Corp. The government helped to broker the compromise. The nearly 2000 victims are not officially recognized as Minamata disease patients, but medical examinations earlier this year showed over 95% of the plaintiffs were eligible for payments of 2.6 million yen each, plus 22,000 yen per month in medical expenses. The other 88 victims were voted funds by the group out of a separate legal settlement. In return for accepting the compensation, victims in Kumamoto, Fukuoka, Osaka, Kyoto, and Tokyo dropped lawsuits against the national government and Kumamoto Prefecture. A law professor observing the case commented that the result is ultimately unsatisfactory because the plaintiffs were not officially recognized as Minamata disease victims, and the government took no responsibility. A leader of the plaintiffs' group, however, said victims were "hoping to receive compensation while we're still alive." About 3000 people have been certified as Minamata sufferers, and were compensated in 1973. The only remaining lawsuit involves 58 people in Osaka District Court. In the 1950's and 1960's, Chisso Corp. discharged mercury-contaminated wastewater into Minamata Bay in Kyushu; hundreds of residents died, and thousands became disabled from eating seafood. (JT/DY 23 May)
The Kitakyushu city government and 60 local companies are using their pollution-fighting expertise to benefit businesses and clean up the environment. In the 1960's, steel, chemical, and other heavy industries in Kitakyushu caused severe pollution, and the city passed some of the first clean-air measures in Japan. Now Kitakyushu is subsidizing a study group which will promote anti-pollution technologies, and focus on cleaner manufacturing practices. Other local governments, including the cities of Nagasaki and Nagoya, and Yamaguchi and Niigata Prefectures are following suit. Soon a national network of city and prefectural governments may be formed to exchange clean technology on a wider scale. (JT 24 May)
Solar and wind power, as well as "biogas," are being tried out around Japan, but represent only a negligible fraction of the nation's electricity supply. Companies that deal in alternative energy equipment are seeing more inquiries and sales. Windmills for home use sell for 100,000 yen, and small solar panels cost as little as 60,000 yen. A Chiba Prefecture man says, "producing energy from sunlight is a lot more fun than playing golf." Farmers are interested in biogas power from methane-containing animal waste. Overall, solar and wind power facilities add up to 4500 kilowatts, about .5% of an average nuclear plant's output. (AEN 13/24 May)
The organization Taiyoh no Kai (Society of the Sun) will host a children's conference to discuss global environmental protection. The 120 children, 9 to 15 years old, will recommend solutions and try to publish their views for adult readers, in the form of either a newspaper or Internet site. A number of world leaders have supported Taiyoh no Kai. The conference will take place at the United Nations University in Tokyo. (JT 25 May)
Kondo Toshiyuki, a former director of Tokyo Electric Power Co., has been named by Prime Minister Hashimoto to be the new head of Donen, the semi-governmental body that operates Monju, the fast-breeder prototype reactor in Fukui Prefecture. Oishi Hiroshi resigned to take responsibility for the December 8 sodium leak, and the subsequent attempt to cover up the severity of the accident. In addition, three top officials of the Science and Technology Agency were reprimanded. Monju is shut down indefinitely (JT 25 May). A Fukui Prefectural official serving on a panel at a Monju symposium said, "This accident has not been taken seriously by experts in Tokyo. But it has affirmed our doubts about the safety of the fast-breeder reactor. I demand a revision of the safety measures and the information disclosure system" (JT 22 Apr).
An APEC forum opening in late May in Chile will consider restricting the use of chemicals in fishing. Large fish popular for eating, such as the Napoleon fish, are captured alive with cyanide compounds and sent to restaurants in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and China. In addition, tropical fish for aquariums are caught by chemicals, which kill small fish and damage coral. As many as 25,000 tons per year of such fish are traded. Regulations that cover chemical fishing exist, but they are often ignored because there is little enforcement by governments. (JT 26 May)
At a symposium in Tokyo, citizens' groups criticized the Construction Ministry for setting up dam review panels that are ineffectual. After the Nagara Dam controversy, the ministry instituted the panel system to give local people a voice before dams are approved. Groups complain that because the panels are made up of the prefectural governor and local politicians, who almost always support development, as well as experts selected by the governor, opinion is heavily weighted toward approval of dam construction. The recently completed Nibutani Dam in Hokkaido, for example, had no Ainu people or experts on its review panel, even though it drowned an Ainu ceremonial site (see April JEM). Citizens' groups also complain that panel discussions are closed, and do not make records of their meetings. At present 13 Ministry panels have convened around the country to review dam projects. (JT 28 May)