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).
An advisory council of the Environment Agency has devised a standard to reduce pollution in Tokyo and Ise Bays and the Inland Sea. The standard is based on measurements of chemical oxygen demand, or COD; higher readings signify greater pollution. By June, prefectural governments will make plans to reduce discharges of pollutants. (DY 27 Jan)
The International Coral Reefs Initiative has pegged Japan to lead the way in managing coral reefs in the Asia region. Later this year the region will plan a conservation program. Already Japan's Marine Parks Center is working with the Philippines on the Tubbataha Reefs, a world heritage site. The Center says that tourism, including limited development, must co-exist with conservation. Most of the world's reefs are threatened by water pollution and land development. Australia has been chosen to oversee conservation in the Oceania, while the U.S. will take charge of the Caribbean region. (DY 27 Jan)
The third driest autumn of the century in the Tone River watershed and increased water consumption have lowered reservoirs that supply Tokyo. Other dry areas of the country face possible water shortages. Snowmelt usually doesn't fill the Tone reservoirs until late March. Households nationally use more water than ten years ago, and in a 1994 government survey, 35 percent responded that they use "an abundant amount of water." (DY 1 Feb)
Beginning in April, water from Lake Kasumigaura, the second largest lake in Japan, will supply residents of Tokyo, Ibaraki, and Chiba prefectures. Formerly a saltwater-freshwater mix, the lake has been cut off from ocean tides entering the Tone River since the Hitachi locks shut in 1974. The locks were supposed to be closed only during flooding, and Iijima Hiroshi of the Citizens for the Improvement of Lake Kasumigaura claims, "It is obvious that the Construction Ministry closed the gates in order to make the lake a huge reservoir." Concrete embankments built between 1971 and 1994 have eliminated most of the lakeside aquatic vegetation. The lake level can now be raised or lowered by as much as 1.3 meters; since the average lake depth is only 4 meters, shore wetlands where birds and fish lay eggs may be left high and dry. The greatest discharges are slated for April and May, during breeding seasons. Already fish numbers are declining due to eutrophication (less oxygen in the water) and shrinking lakeshore habitat. Currently the lake supports 94 species of birds, 50 species of fish, and over 450 species of plants. Because the project was designed in 1968, before regulations were in place, there has never been an environmental impact study. The Construction Ministry says "we will regularly monitor the lake's environment." (DY 3/10 Feb)
More than 30 years after an arsenic mine in Takachiho was closed, samples from water originating at the mine show arsenic levels as high as 8 times the acceptable limit. Local authorities hope to seal the source of contamination. Farmers are still permitted to use the water, as there are no standards for arsenic in farm products. The Toroku mine opened in 1920 and produced arsenic acid for poison gas. It later compensated victims of chronic arsenic poisoning. Eighty people have died. (JT 14 Feb)
Japan has run into opposition from South Korea and China over its plans to enforce a 200-mile exclusive economic zone surrounding its territory. Under the 1994 U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, nations of the world must delineate their coastal waters with a 12-mile wide territorial boundary, and a 200-mile wide zone in which they shall have rights over the natural resources, both living and non-living. South Korea claims that a small island group (Takeshima to Japan, Tokdo to Korea) in the Sea of Japan is Korean, while Japan says it belongs to Japan. At stake is not the tiny islands themselves, but the fishing and other privileges within the economic zone surrounding them. Japan and China have a similar dispute over the Senkaku-Daioyu islands. Those islands lie closer to Japan, but China claims them under a provision of the U.N. Convention that allows a nation the right to its continental shelf. The dispute with Korea has escalated into a major political issue. (JT 15 Feb)
Environment Minister Iwatare Sukio turned down an invitation to judge for himself the situation at the 7-month old Nagara River dam. A group opposed to the dam contends that the dam has already degraded water quality. The group, composed of environmental activists and Diet members, says that eutrophication has begun, a process which depletes the oxygen available in the water, and that an endangered fish species, "satsuki masu," is having trouble entering the river. The river is being monitored by a panel set up by the Construction Ministry. Minister Iwatare says he will first study the panel's report before acting. (JT 23/24 Feb)
The Environment Agency will revise the Water Pollution Control Law to cover oil spills that occur in rivers and lakes. In case of an oil spill, emergency measures, such as stopping the spill and reporting it to the prefectural governor, would be required under the new law. Until now only ocean spills have been covered. The revised law also would allow prefectural governors to force businesses to clean up their own pollution, and doubles the maximum fine for polluters to one million yen. The bill must now pass the Diet. (JT 1 Mar)
Just one week after imposing a 5% cut, Kanagawa water authorities stepped that up to a 10% reduction in water supplies for the prefecture. The cuts are planned until at least the end of March. Reservoirs of the Sagami, Tsukui, and Tanzawa dams stood at one-third capacity as of March 3. Little rain has fallen since last August. This was the first reduction of water supplies in 29 years. (JT 27 Feb/5 Mar)
Controversy continues over the establishment of a 200-mile wide economic zone around Japan based on the International Law of the Sea. The fishing industry is urging the Japanese government to draw the zone boundary in order to prevent South Korean and Chinese fishing vessels from violating fishing regulations. Meanwhile, South Korea and China claim ownership of two island groups that Japan considers its own. Japan would like to negotiate this island-ownership issue separately because it promises to be a political flashpoint. Possible solutions include some form of joint use such as Japan and Russia have in their adjacent waters (DY 5 Mar). In a related story, Japan has begun negotiations with Russia over fishing rights in their respective waters. Japan is seeking to pay a lower fee for catching North Pacific salmon, saying the decrease in domestic prices for salmon merits a reduction. The salmon are considered to belong to Russia because they spawn in Russian rivers (JT 13 Mar).
The U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea has set up an international body to develop deep-sea resources. At the opening meeting in Jamaica, Japan was one of 36 nations elected to the board of directors. Since the Law of the Sea prohibits ownership of the sea bottom, the organization will oversee development projects and encourage cooperation. The sea floor contains valuable metals such as nickel, manganese, and cobalt, but mining them is beyond the capabilities of most nations. The Japanese Diet must ratify the Law of the Sea before November to keep its seat on the board. (DY 20 Mar)
A Science and Technology Agency research ship off the coast of Peru and Ecuador has observed a cold-water ocean current moving west and reaching the Gilbert Islands beyond the International Date line. The current is known as La Nina, and is thought to affect weather in the western Pacific, and in particular to cause very hot summers in Japan. La Nina's counterpart, El Nino, is a warm equatorial current that has been blamed for severe weather in many places. With the help of a U.S. weather satellite, the research ship observed temperatures 2 to 4 degrees lower than normal, the first occurrence of La Nina since 1988. (JT 7 Apr)
The Cabinet has sent a bill to the Diet to ratify the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, and expects enactment by July 1. Two hurdles remain, however. The first, the territorial dispute over the Takeshima/Tokdo and Senkaku/Diaoyu island groups will be put aside for now. The other hurdle is resolving fishing rights with China and Korea. Japanese negotiators began unofficial meetings with China in early April, and were expected to open talks with Korea soon after its April 11 general election. The Japanese fishing industry is urging the government to crack down on foreign boats fishing in Japanese waters (DY 27 Mar; JT 8/10 Apr). In the midst of the territorial dispute with Japan, South Korea has made a survey in preparation for building a prefabricated wharf on Takeshima/Tokdo that will be large enough to berth a 500-ton ship. Tokyo protested the action, and claimed its own sovereignty over the islands in the Sea of Japan (DY 19 Mar). Finally, a Chinese minister says that because China, Japan, Russia, North Korea, and South Korea have overlapping claims in northeast Asia, all five countries should hold multilateral talks in order to define their sea zone borders (DY 17 Apr).
Despite opposition from the Environment Agency and many citizens, the governor of Shimane Prefecture has given the go-ahead to reclaim agricultural land from Lake Nakaumi, the fifth largest lake in Japan. With the consent of the prefectural assembly and three local municipalities, work could begin in fiscal 1997. The project would reclaim 1700 hectares (17 sq. km.) from the lake. The Environment Agency says that a previous water quality study "is not adequate." About 800 hectares were reclaimed between 1968 and 1988, but work stopped because of opposition from residents. Many worry that the project will pollute the water, as well as threaten a important aquifer situated under an island in the lake. Over 60,000 residents signed a petition requesting a referendum to decide the fate of the project, but the petition was rejected in February. Cost overruns beyond the current 27 billion yen price tag are also feared. Although Lake Nakaumi is subject to pollution laws, the Environment Agency has no power to halt the project. (JT 20/24/29 Apr)
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)
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. 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)
One year after its installation, the Nagara River estuary dam is living up to expectations of both its critics and the Construction Ministry. Divisiveness has been with the project throughout its history, so the contradictory verdicts are no surprise. One contentious issue is the status of fish species such as ayu (sweetfish, Plecoglossus altivelis) and satsukimasu (May trout). The dam has passages for fish to pass through, and the Ministry says 1.7 million ayu have been counted so far. Unfortunately a lack of pre-dam data makes it difficult to draw conclusions. Many anglers say fish numbers are well down. Nakamura Mikio, with 30 years' experience on the Nagara fishing for yamato shijimi (corbicula shellfish), says, "I don't know much about figures and statistics, but the river will be dead if it continues to be like this." At least, he says, the dam floodgates should be opened regularly to normalize conditions somewhat. An unnamed member of a fishing cooperative in Mie Prefecture says recent comparisons are worthless because the shijimi catch began dropping as long ago as 1988, when dredging began. A Gifu University researcher says the formerly sandy riverbed is now like sludge. In addition, the Construction Ministry has released statistics for eutrophication, a standard measure of water quality, that fit within its projections. But a Nagoya professor claims Ministry projections were scaled up, and that in any case the readings indicate eutrophication worse than that of Lake Biwa, which has low water quality. The Construction Ministry's 17-member panel will monitor the Nagara for 5 years. (JT 19 June)
The Shiraho reef off the southeast coast of Ishigaki island in Okinawa Prefecture will be preserved as a piece of Iriomote National Park, the Environment Agency announced. Shiraho has the world's largest colony of blue coral, in addition to over 100 other coral species. Until 1992 there were plans to construct an offshore airport over the reef, but they collapsed due to pressure from environmentalists in Japan and abroad. Recent studies also show soil runoff from farms harming the reef. (DY/JT 6 Sep)
The World Wide Fund for Nature has picked the Nansei islands as one of 200 areas in the world that need to be preserved. The islands stretch 1200 kilometers from Kyushu to Taiwan. The WWF said the island chain's coral and subtropical forests are threatened by agricultural and coastal development and deforestation. The Japanese WWF branch wants to set up a research center for coral protection on Ishigaki island, 400 kilometers southwest of Okinawa. (JT 3 Oct)
Poison gas shells left over from World War II have been recovered by the Self-Defense Forces from the bottom of Lake Kussharo in eastern Hokkaido. One of the 26 shells, which was corroding, contained a mixture of yperite (mustard gas) and lewisite, which has arsenic. The gas irritates the skin and attacks respiratory and digestive organs, and is usually lethal. The other 25 shells were not tested, but are assumed to be identical. Hokkaido Prefecture has buried the shells in a sealed concrete container, but the Prefecture hopes the national government will dispose of them permanently. Water tests in the lake show no abnormalities. Lake Kussharo, in Akan National Park, is a major tourist draw in Hokkaido (JT 21 Oct). Japan will have to dispose of chemical weapons abandoned by the Imperial Army in China during World War II. China is demanding that they be removed from China. Since no local government in Japan will take them, Tokyo is considering a floating offshore factory for disposal. The government has been meeting unofficially with several companies, including Mitsubishi Heavy Industries (JT 25 Sep).
Since the U.N. Law of the Sea took effect in July, the Maritime Safety Agency has introduced a system by which foreign violators of the pollution law may pay bail money and continue sailing. Violators must then return to Japan later for criminal investigation. Five out of 11 crews have returned after paying collateral, up to 2 million yen per ship. Of the remaining 6 ships, however, only one crew member has appeared; he faced charges of spilling 4800 liters of waste oil in Oita Bay. None of the other crews has been heard from. The U.S., the U.K., New Zealand, and Singapore have enacted similar bail policies for pollution violators. (DY 25 Oct)
Japan continues to dump large amounts of waste into the sea, over 43 million tons last year. Almost three-quarters of it came from harbor-dredging. Industrial waste, some toxic, counted for 15 percent of the total. Non-industrial waste, including raw sewage, represented about 10 percent. Of the major industrialized countries, only Japan dumps raw sewage into the sea, because of a shortage of treatment plants. The London treaty on waste disposal advocates a ban on dumping. (JT 2 Nov)
The Environment Agency has found that the overall quality of the nation's waters was 72.1 percent of the agency's target. The results were gathered from oxygen demand figures. Tokyo Bay showed no change; Ise Bay is slightly cleaner. The Kanto region also had the nation's dirtiest river and lake, thanks to the Sekiyama River in Ibaraki Prefecture, with a BOD (biochemical oxygen demand) of 46 mg per liter, and Lake Teganuma in Chiba, with a COD (chemical oxygen demand) of 25 mg per liter. Hokkaido took the clean honors with Lake Shikotsu and the Hiroo River (BOD of 0.5 mg per liter). Last year, 68.9 percent of the target was achieved. The Agency said fertilizers and household waste water need to be restricted. (JT 1 Dec)
Despite spending over five billion yen already, the Construction Ministry has decided to halt construction of four dams on the advice of local review councils. With less demand for water and the national economy in a recession, the Ministry saw no use for the Mizuhara and Hibashi River dams in Fukushima Prefecture, and the Ikurugawa River Dam in Ishikawa. Such a late call to suspend a dam project is unprecedented, and environmentalists applauded the decision. In all, 13 dams came under review. The panels have been criticized for rubberstamping Ministry projects (see May 28, 1996). (DY/JT 19 Dec)
A plan for an offshore port facility on reclaimed land in Osaka Bay has emerged from a closed-door session of an Osaka municipal committee. The 300 billion yen ($2.5 billion) project includes four 15-meter deep berths. With businesses in Osaka going global, supporters say, container ships need more places to dock. Critics say the city has not released enough information about the plan to evaluate its impact on navigation safety and the environment; a public report in January was largely censored. The island would be constructed near Yumeshima from waste, plus sand and earth from rivermouths around Osaka Bay. (JT 12 Feb)
The Environment Agency has changed its mind, and will back a plan to build an airport on reclaimed land in Kobe Port, three kilometers off Port Island. The Agency says the airport would be important in case of a natural disaster. After an environmental assessment, reclamation work could begin by late fiscal 1997 if the Transport Ministry gives the go-ahead. Opponents of the airport plan claim that a law preserving the Seto Naikai (Inland Sea) is designed to limit land reclamation. The airport will cost an estimated 310 billion yen ($2.6 billion), and some Kobe residents feel money should first be spent on victims of the Great Hanshin Earthquake. According to the plan, the artificial island will cover 272 hectares and have one 2500-meter runway, which will serve 10 domestic routes. If construction starts on schedule, the airport could open in 2004. The Osaka-Kobe area already has two major airports, the Kansai International Airport and Osaka Airport in Itami. (JT 2/4 Mar)
A proposed drainage canal in western Hokkaido has been a center of controversy for 15 years and is likely to continue that way for some time. The canal would lead from the Chitose River to the Pacific Ocean via the Bibi River. Promoters say it would alleviate the constant flooding on the Chitose; land along the river lies only seven meters about sea level. That sounds like a typical public works project in Japan, except for the scale: the planned canal is 40 kilometers long, and the Chitose actually flows into the Sea of Japan. In effect, the canal would reroute part of the Chitose into a watershed draining in the opposite direction. The fishing industry worries that water from the canal will endanger salmon and scallops in the Pacific; environmentalists are concerned about the effect on Lake Utonai, a Ramsar Convention wetland on the Bibi River. The project was proposed in 1982 by the Construction Ministry, and is priced at 480 billion yen ($4 billion). If construction ever begins, it could take up to 20 years. The Hokkaido prefectural government says it will follow the Ministry's plan only if citizens agree with it. A Hokkaido Shinbun poll in January found 35 percent of Hokkaido residents against the canal, and 22 percent in favor. (JT 4 Mar)