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).
In fiscal 1994 Japan was 46 percent self-sufficient in food staples, higher than last year's 37 percent due to an excellent rice harvest. The general trend, however, is steadily down. Japanese eat less rice and more imported meat and produce than before. (DY 27 Jan)
The Transport Ministry will decide on a proposal by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government to build an airport on Ani Island, 1000 km south of Tokyo. The Environment Agency argues that the project will damage important flora and fauna, including coral, and in January sent a letter of opposition to the Tokyo government. Tokyo, however, says almost one year passed between its airport announcement and receipt of the letter. The 30-island Ogasawara chain is under Tokyo jurisdiction, and according to the Metropolitan Government, island residents want an airport to replace the 29-hour ferry trip to Honshu. (JT 3 Feb)
The U.N.'s International Environmental Technology Center in Osaka has debuted a site on the World Wide Web. It provides assistance in environmentally sound technologies in order to help developing countries with their urban and water quality problems. The address is <http://www.unep.or.jp/>. The phone number of the Center is (06) 915-4580. (JT 3 Feb)
Shiga Prefecture has proposed two bylaws that could take effect this summer, but the prefectural assembly must first vote to enact them. One would give the public a voice if it objects to a public works project for environmental reasons. A committee of experts would examine the project and advise the governor. No such system currently exists in Japan. The other bylaw would tighten a previous one by requiring companies that discharge more than 10 tons of waste per day to meet stricter standards. If passed, this would be the strongest regulation in Japan. (DY 27 Feb)
The Green Purchase Network, a creation of the Environment Agency, local governments, citizens' groups, and major companies, will publish a consumer guide next spring to help people make environmentally friendly purchases. The guide will cover, among other products, office paper, copiers, air conditioners, refrigerators, detergents, building materials, and cars. Under an Environment Agency plan, the national government has started to buy green products, and Shiga Prefecture has a similar policy. (DY 23 Mar)
A fund has been established to give advice and defray the legal costs of individuals and organizations filing lawsuits to protect the environment. The Fund for the Rights of Nature was formed by lawyers, academics, and NGOs. The head of the secretariat, Takaaki Kagohashi, said that, "because legal frameworks to protect nature have failed to prevent development, filing lawsuits is an unconventional way to protect nature." Takaaki pointed out that a February 1995 lawsuit in Kagoshima Prefecture successfully halted golf course development. (JT 12 Apr)
The International Ski Federation (FIS) and the Nagano Olympic Committee still disagree over the Hakuba course for the 1998 Olympic downhill ski race. The Nagano committee has set the start for 1680 meters, but FIS argues that the course is too short, and wants an 1800-meter starting gate. Above 1680 meters is a national park, and Nagano officials say construction of a higher starting area and related facilities would harm wildlife, and bring opposition from environmental groups. Nagano has proposed combining two runs for the competition, or making more turns to lengthen the course, but FIS rejects both alternatives. Nagano's position is complicated by the fact that a public ski course already exists on the contested site, with a lift taking skiers to 1800 meters. The May Congress of the FIS may settle the matter. (DY 9/14/18 Apr)
An Environment Agency survey asking a wide range of questions about the environment was released last month. Ninety percent of Japanese said they were concerned about the environment, and were willing to alter their lifestyles; 66% say stores may charge deposits for recyclable cans; and 60% are willing to pay more taxes for environmental protection. Numbers are lower, however, when it comes to real action: 54% usually or frequently buy recycled products, and 7% help out the environment in civic activities. Only 7% know what the Environment Agency does to protect the environment. Of the 3000 people surveyed, 1003 responded. (DY 23 Apr)
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 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)
An Environment Agency report calls for a law that requires environmental impact studies (EIS) prior to development. In 1984, following an earlier attempt by the Agency, the government enacted a law requiring EIS only for large-scale government projects of certain kinds. The report says Japan has fallen behind other developed countries, where the priority is reducing environmental impact rather than following the needs of business, and where people living outside the affected area may register their opinions. The Agency study also points out that EIS should be carried out at an early stage so that construction plans can be changed, and that Japan needs a strong law to comply with international agreements. The Central Environment Council, an influential Cabinet advisory group, is expected to examine the report, and a bill may be submitted to the Diet next year. (DY 1 June)
A private panel advising the Environment Agency has recommended a greater focus on environment-related aid to China, including joint projects to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The panel also said Japan must be a leader in Asia because of its experience dealing with pollution. Besides government aid, private industry should play a key role with wise investments and technology transfer. The panel will make its final proposals this summer; these will influence Japan's stance at international forums, such as next year's U.N. special environment assembly (JT 23 May). The Eco-Asia '96 conference in Japan in May brought out the mutual interests of neighboring countries. China now releases about 20 million tons of sulphur dioxide into the atmosphere per year, and west winds carry some of it over Japan where it falls as acid rain. China's burgeoning economy needs more and more electricity, and high-sulphur coal plants are a major source. Government officials foresee Japan becoming a provider of waste-cutting technology to Asia (DY 12 June).
The Japan Environment Corporation, a non-profit organization affiliated with the Environment Agency, will give out 670 million yen to environmental groups in fiscal 1996. The money comes from a fund set up by public and business contributions. In all, 187 groups working on projects in and out of Japan will receive money. (JT 21 June)
The 1991 Antartic environmental protocol has been ratified by all 26 nations involved, except for Russia, Finland, and Japan. According to Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth, Japan is behind in getting the bill ready for passage. The Environment Agency says preparations have been time-consuming. The protocol will ban mining for 50 years and regulate waste disposal, marine pollution, and plant and animal conservation. It does not take effect, however, until every nation signs it. (JT 5 Oct)
In talks with Namibian President Sam Nujoma, Prime Minister Hashimoto Ryutaro said he supports lifting the worldwide ban on the ivory trade. Nujoma told Hashimoto that the number of African elephants is increasing. In February of this year, government and business representatives from Zimbabwe, Botswana, and Malawi came to Japan to gain support for their position before an international meeting next year. Visiting officials of the Ministry of International Trade and Industry, the Environment Agency, and Japanese ivory dealers, they said that proceeds from ivory sales will be used to protect elephants. The director of an elephant protection fund in Japan, Obara Hideo, argues that the ivory trade encourages poaching. If the ban were lifted, Japan would probably be the world's largest importer. Ivory is commonly used to make personal seals. Japanese dealers say their current stock of ivory, 160 tons, will be gone in five years. Next spring the U.N. Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) meets in Zimbabwe. (AEN 30 Oct, JT 22 Feb)
A proposed model city in Okinawa Prefecture will show off environmentally-friendly technology, in a plan put forward by the Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI). Wind and solar generators outside the city, and low-emission public transportation, such as electric buses, will be featured. MITI also wants to set up an international research center to act as a go-between with Asian countries in transferring clean-energy technologies. The proposal is part of a package to help the prefectural economy. In the wake of the military base issue in Okinawa, the national government has agreed to provide more economic support. (DY 10 Nov)
After the October general elections, Prime Minister Hashimoto has revamped his cabinet. Out as Environment Agency chief is Iwatare Sukio; the new director is Ishii Michiko, 63, representing a Saitama district and serving her third term in the Upper House of the Diet. She was vice minister of the Agency in 1988. She is already pointing toward the U.N. Climate Change conference in Kyoto in December 1997, and says "Japan is lagging behind its industrialized counterparts" in reducing fuel emissions. Ishii believes the Agency must serve as a watchdog for a safe environment in order to avoid disasters like the Minamata mercury poisoning. She also supports environmental assessments for public works projects. Critics say she lacks boldness. (DY 8 Nov, JT 16 Nov)
A growing number of cases of sick house syndrome and the more serious multiple chemical sensitivity syndrome (MCS) are leading two government ministries to develop healthy construction materials for new buildings. Some people, especially those with allergies, skin disorders, or asthma, become sick when they move into new buildings, and the syndrome can be traced to a variety of chemicals. Formaldehyde in adhesives, volatile organic compounds in paints and wood preservatives, anti-mildew carpet treatments, and petrochemicals in building materials can all contaminate indoor air. Furthermore, many buildings are constructed of airtight ferroconcrete. The presence of household insecticides, formalin in mothballs, plant fertilizers, and cigarette smoke can also aggravate the symptoms, which include dizziness, headaches, and eye and skin irritation. The government will analyze harmful chemicals, and give grants to businesses that develop safer materials. (DY 12 Nov, JT 21 Nov)
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 government is taking steps toward an environmental assessment law, which would consider environment impacts before large projects like dams, highways, and airports are begun. Local residents would also have a say during the assessment period. Until now the main obstacle had been the Ministry of International Trade and Industry's (MITI) demand that power stations be exempt. MITI wanted to apply separate legislation to power plants, but has now decided to give up its demand. The Environment Agency is working with MITI to draft a bill, with a vote possible in this spring's Diet session. According to the proposed bill, the Environment Agency could call for review of an assessment if it chooses. Japan is the only industrialized nation without an environmental assessment law. The government has tried seven times to pass one, and if it fails again it could be embarrassed on its home turf at the December 1997 Kyoto meeting of the U.N. Convention on Climate Change, where over 150 nations will set targets for reducing global-warming emissions. (JT 29 Jan/6 Mar; DY 9 Feb)
The Diet is expected to pass a bill this session that would strictly regulate human activity and tourism in Antarctica. The bill is the first step in Japan's obligation to the South Pole Treaty, a 1991 agreement among 26 countries. The treaty goes into effect when all nations have signed it; only Japan and Russia have not yet done so. Under the treaty, plants and animals cannot be collected, nor waste disposed, and tourist trips will be limited. All activities will require publicly-released environmental assessments, and a 90-day period for opinions from other treaty members. There is already an international agreement banning resource extraction in Antarctica (JT 23 Feb). With the treaty expected to go into force soon, Japan's Antarctic Showa Base will be cleaned up. The observation ship Shirase will return to Japan this spring carrying 25 tons of old equipment, with more garbage due to be shipped home later. Old snow tractors, cranes, truck, drums, and other debris from 40 years of use are piled up at the base (DY 22 Feb).
The Education Ministry has decided not to give money for research on human cloning. Some Japanese universities are conducting research to clone cattle and mice; those studies will continue to receive ministry funding. The ministry's Science Council will set up guidelines regarding the ethics of cloning. The Science and Technology Agency will also report on worldwide cloning research to the government. No laws currently govern cloning in Japan, and there are no moves to impose legal restrictions in the near future. In February, a team in Edinburgh, U.K. led by Ian Wilmut successfully cloned a sheep. The team extracted DNA from an udder cell and placed it in an egg cell whose nucleus had been taken out. In effect, the experiment reprogrammed the udder cell not to turn on and off genes that cause cells to specialize. The differentiation between a brain cell and a kidney cell, for example, occurs when particular genes in the cells are selectively switched on or off. Previous clones developed in research or for agriculture came from young embryo cells, a relatively straightforward operation. Wilmut's experiment showed that differentiation can be reversed and cells' identities changed, and has opened the door to a variety of powerful applications. The enormous ramifications have provoked debate worldwide, and some countries are considering laws against human cloning experiments. (JT 9 Mar)