Environmental Policy in Japan

Two decades following the formation of the Environment Agency in 1971, the Japanese environmental situation has gone through considerable changes both at the national and international levels (Ministry of the Environment Government of Japan 1). Being the leading importer of renewable and exhaustible natural resources in the world, as well as, the second chief consumer of fossil fuels, the government of Japan has taken global responsibility to protect and conserve the environment. For instance, remarkable achievements have been made at the national level to combat pollution during the high economic growth period. Nonetheless, air pollution caused by nitrogen oxides in mainly urban areas, as well as water pollution caused by waste and household effluent disposal continuously cause great problems (Ministry of the Environment Government of Japan 1).

Conversely, concerns over international environmental issues like global warming, biodiversity loss, deforestation, ozone layer depletion etc. are continuing to grow worldwide. Global warming, for example, became a fundamental, environmental problem during the 1990s. Japan has been very active both in the domestic and international front with regard to mitigation of greenhouse gas emissions via dissemination of technologies on energy conservation and renewable energy, as well as hosting the Kyoto Protocol conference. Following the Earth Summit, several countries were urged to execute concrete measures and actions to enable the realization of sustainable development that was decided on during the Summit (Ministry of the Environment Government of Japan 1). In response, Japan enacted the Basic Environment Law in November 1993. The law explains the fundamental directions and principles with regard to the formulation of environmental policies. In December 1993, Japan submitted the “National Action Plan for Agenda 21” to the United Nations. In December 1994 Japan adopted “the Basic Environment Plan”, which was considered as the most significant measure to be launched under the Basic Environment Law (Ministry of the Environment Government of Japan 1). The plan methodically sheds light on the measures and actions to be taken by the local and national governments, businesses, private organizations and citizens in the 21st century with regards to environment protection and conservation. It also defines the functions of the parties involved, as well as the means and ways for successfully pursuing environmental policies (Ministry of the Environment Government of Japan 1).


It is crucial to note that environmental problems remain a common challenge for everybody in Japan and other parts of the world today. Owing to the significant impacts that environmental problems have on the Earth, which is our survival base, it is vital that all stakeholders from central and local governments, individuals and businesses at the domestic and international levels collaborate and coordinate measures that will effectively combat environmental problems. This paper presents an overview of the environmental policy in Japan, including past and present environmental problems and policies, especially with regard to policy decisions, why they were made, and who made them.

History of the environmental problems in Japan

Following the transformation of Japan from an agricultural society into an urbanized, industrial nation, most of its natural magnificent features were defaced and destroyed due to industrial development and overcrowding (Imura, and Schreurs 15-30). Being the leading international importer of the renewable and exhaustible natural resources and the second chief consumer of fossil fuels, the government of Japan realized that it had a key worldwide responsibility to protect and conserve the environment. In 1990, Japan enacted some of the strictest environmental policies in the world. Take note that the policies were the result of numerous well-known environmental calamities, which took place in Japan in the 1950s and 1960s.

There was an increase in water pollution in the 1960s, for example, the cadmium poisoning, which emanated from industrial waste in Toyama Prefecture was found to be the cause of itai-itai (meaning ouch-ouch) disease (Imura, and Schreurs 15-30). This is an extremely painful disease that causes back and joints` pains, contributes to weak bones that are likely to break easily and causes kidney degeneration. The recovery of the cadmium effluent helped to stop the disease from spreading to a huge extent, and there have not been any new cases since 1946. In 1956, numerous residents of Minamata, a city situated in Kumamoto Prefecture, were affected by an outbreak of Minamata disease; the deterioration of the central nervous system, which is caused by the consumption of food poisoned by mercury (National Institute for Minamata Disease, Ministry of Environment). Methyl mercury drained from chemical factories found their way to the Minamata Bay, leading to fish in the Bay ingesting the accumulated chemicals. Because Japan is a chief consumer of fish, a considerable number of its people were affected following the consumption of contaminated fish, i.e. the number of casualties was 2006 as of November 2006 (National Institute for Minamata Disease, Ministry of Environment). Besides, an increase in organic matter led to a decrease in oxygen level in most of the rivers, lakes and bays, adversely affecting the local people via pungent odors, decreased fish populations etc.

In Yokkaichi port within Mie prefecture, nitrogen and sulfur dioxide emissions caused air pollution leading to a speedy increase in the number of persons suffering from bronchitis and asthma. In addition, photochemical smog emanating from industrial and automotive exhaust fumes in urban areas of Japan also led to the increase in respiratory problems (Imura, and Schreurs 15-30). At the beginning of the 1970s, persistent arsenic poisoning, caused by dust from home arsenic mines, was experienced in Miyazaki and Shimane prefectures.

In response to the growing environmental problems in Japan, grass-root pressure groups were established during the 1960s and 1970s. The groups were independent and focused on lone, typically local environmental issues. Following the pressure exerted by the group on the government of Japan, Japan established the Environmental Agency in the early 1970s, as a first step towards combating environmental pollution (Imura, and Schreurs 15-30). Though the agency did not have strong political power and public influence, it managed to establish effective regulations for curbing pollution. For instance, it set stringent automotive emissions standards in an effort to curb air pollution from photochemical smog. In addition, the agency also worked to decrease the amount of noise from airplanes and trains, remove forestry, tourist and mining debris dumped in national forests and on mountainsides, as well as to monitor the levels of air and noise pollutants in main cities (Imura, and Schreurs 15-30).

The groups also put pressure on the industries and the government for a compensation system for pollution victims. Numerous lawsuits at the beginning of the 1970s established that firms were to blame for the harm caused by their activities and products. In 1973, the Pollution Health Damage Compensation Law was passed to provide victims with industry funds. Though the compensation process was slow and the reward was small, the institution of the government fund was significant in helping industries diffuse the rage of the public. It was reported that by 1984, there were over 85,000 recognized environmental pollution victims in Japan, with an approximate increase rate of six percent per year (Imura, and Schreurs 15-30). According to the Environmental Agency, the regulations aimed at businesses were not adequate in solving environmental problems in Japan, despite the increase in the public interest and awareness, and the establishment of public and civic interest groups to combat pollution. Japanese whaling persisted to be the object of global protest during the early 1990s, and the involvement of the Japanese corporate in the Southeast Asia’s deforestation generated concern amongst domestic and international groups (Imura, and Schreurs 15-30). It is important to mention that Japan has made sluggish, but noteworthy progress to combat environmental problems since the 1960s.

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Current environmental problems in Japan

Air pollution

Air pollution remains a serious environmental challenge in Japan, specifically in the urban areas. Toxic pollutants being emitted from power plants have resulted in the formation of acid rain all over the country. During the mid-1990s, Japan was the world’s fourth leading emitter of industrial carbon dioxide, with a yearly emission of 1.09 billion metric tons. The Air Pollution Control Law was enacted in 1968 to regulate air quality (Imura, and Schreurs 15-30). As at 1984, around 91, 118 victims of air pollution suffering from bronchial asthma, bronchitis, as well as other related diseases had been compensated. It is, however, important to state that there was a significant weakening of the principle of “the polluter pays” in 1987 following the period of business opposition. Countrywide smog alerts, which were issued when the levels of oxidant density reached or superseded 0.12 ppm and  hit the highest point in 1973 at 328, but declined to 85 by 1986 after the strict automobile standards of emission were imposed (Imura, and Schreurs 15-30).

Water pollution

Water pollution is another environmental area of concern in Japan. Japan has 430 cu kilometer of renewable water resources, 64% of which is utilized in farming, while 17% is used in industries. Water pollution has a very long history in Japan. For instance, during the 19th century, local inhabitants within the downstream part of Watarase River were affected by pollution from Ashio Copper Mine upstream (Imura, and Schreurs 18). In 1956, there was also methyl mercury poisoning, in which numerous people suffered from Minamata disease after consuming fish, which had ingested methyl mercury discharged in Minamata Bay by chemical factories (National Institute for Minamata disease). Increased acid levels as a result of industrial pollutants have had an effect on rivers, lakes and other waters surrounding Japan, and consequently, affecting the lives of Japanese people in a negative manner.

Global warming

Global warming remains a key environmental challenge in Japan currently. Japan is the fifth leading emission emitter in the world (Makino). In 1997, it hosted the convention on climate change in which the Kyoto Protocol was agreed and signed. The Kyoto Protocol laid down numerical targets for reducing emissions for individual nations between 2008 and 2012, as compared to the 1990 levels. Being a signatory of the protocol, Japan is under the Kyoto treaty obligations to reduce its emissions of greenhouse gases by 6 percent.

Fishery and whaling

Fish and its products are very prominent in Japanese diets compared to other types of meat. Due to ocean stocks’ depletion during the late 20th century, there has been a rapid reduction in Japan’s total fish catch per year (“Unprecedented Summit in Japan Aims to Tackle Overfishing of Dwindling Tuna Stock”). Japan together with the European Union and the United States is a key player in international fish trade. In 2000, for instance, Japanese fish catches became the third worldwide, after China and Peru. Other major countries included the United States, Indonesia, Chile, India etc. By 2004, the population of mature Atlantic blue fin tuna able to spawn dropped to about 19% of the 1975 level within the ocean’s western half. According to “Unprecedented Summit in Japan Aims to Tackle Overfishing of Dwindling Tuna Stock”, Japan’s fish constitute a quarter of the global supply of the 5 big species such as the blue fin, big eye, albacore, southern blue fin and yellow fin. Following the 1986 moratorium on commercial whaling, the Japanese government began claiming that its whaling is for the purposes of the research. However, the whaling program has been heavily criticized by anti-whaling countries and environmental protection groups, who maintain that the whaling program is not used for the scientific research as the Japan claims (“Unprecedented Summit in Japan Aims to Tackle Overfishing of Dwindling Tuna Stock”)

Waste management

In the recent past, Japan has taken a proactive approach to waste management. Specifically, the prefectural authorities and the Japanese city have put emphasis on reducing solid waste entering landfills. This is a reaction to the unavailability of affordable space for landfill sites. The Japanese approach to waste management depends mainly on such factors as technological developments in incineration and plastics recycling, as well as wide household involvement in waste material separation and recycling etc.

Other pollution sources in Japan include BMC, mercury and DDT. It is crucial to state that environmental damage by industrial effluents has decreased since the promulgation of the 1971 Water Pollution Control Law. However, there is still extensive pollution of rivers and lakes from household sources, particularly by phosphate-rich detergents and untreated sewage.

Japan’s environmental policy

Policy measures to mitigate greenhouse gases

According to Lindsay (15-20), Japan enacted the Law Concerning the Promotion of Measures to Cope with Global Warming in 1998. The law explains the duties of the central and local governments, citizens and businesses in coping with global warming. The law compels the central government to lay down a fundamental policy on measures aimed at managing global warming. Japan’s Ministry of Environment has been conducting nationwide campaigns to increase global warming awareness amongst the public. According to the Ministry of the Environment (n. pag.), a campaign dubbed “Team Minus 6%” was launched in 2005 in Japan with the aim of encouraging a lifestyle to diminish CO2 emissions. The campaign called for measures such as reducing the use of air-conditioners, as well as the promotion of eco-driving.

The 2008 Annual Report on Japan’s Environment and Sound Material-Cycle Society gives an instance of environmentally sustainable transport like Traffic Demand Management (Ministry of the Environment 43-50). It also puts emphasis on dissemination and development of low carbon technology, for instance, raising power plants’ thermal efficiency. It is worth noting that Japan’s thermal efficiency of power plants is beyond 40%, a value that is considerably high when compared to the levels in a majority of developing nations, which is approximately 30% (Ministry of the Environment 43-50).

Water pollution control

Following the numerous cases of water pollution, the Japanese government enacted the Water Pollution Control Law and the Interim Law for Conservation of the Environment of the Seto Inland Sea in 1970 and 1973 respectively. The Seto Inland Sea refers to the body of water situated between Honshu Island and the islands of Kyushu and Shikoku, which requires special actions to limit the overall amount of pollutants. In 1978, the Interim Law was made permanent. In addition, the Law Concerning Special Measures for the Preservation of Lake Water Quality was passed in 1984 in order to lessen pollution in lakes like Lake Biwa that provides water for many persons, including those residing in Osaka and Kyoto.

Regulation of effluents

The central and local governments of Japan collaborate closely to protect the quality of water according to three laws: the Law Concerning Special Measures for Conservation of Lake Water Quality, the Law Concerning Special Measures for Conservation of the Environment of the Seto Inland Sea and the Water Pollution Control Law. According to the Ministry of Environment (1), the laws contain numerous provisions amongst which are regulations dealing with pollutants’ levels in effluents. The laws oblige managers of factories, as well as other commercial facilities that discharge effluents, to measure the level of pollution of effluents, and to document the measurements according to the order issued by the Ministry of the Environment. In the Water Pollution Control Law, for instance, the Ministry of the Environment has laid down standards for chemical plants and other commercial amenities that discharge wastewater in public waters like lakes, rivers and seas. A violation of those standards results in punishment.


Japan’s policy measures for household wastewater

Wastewaters from household activities like laundry, cooking, bathing etc. has been a main cause of pollution of public waters in Japan. In an effort to treat wastewater from households, the Japanese government has been encouraging the construction of sewerage systems, a move that increased the population with access to sewerage up to 71.7% in 2007. However, for regions with no sewerage systems, particularly low population density areas, or mountainous areas, the Japanese government, with the help of subsidies, has constructed treatment facilities for household wastewater and rural community wastewater, increasing the percentage of the population who can access wastewater treatment facilities up to 83.7% in 2007 (Ministry of the Environment 151).

In addition, the Japanese government has made efforts to disseminate information with regards to water quality in order to increase public awareness. Several homepages and publications have been created by the local governments and the Ministry of Environment in order to call for an environmentally sound utilization of water. Besides, Japanese manufacturers of detergents have shifted from producing products which are damaging to the environment to those that are relatively less destructive to the environment. For instance, in the late 1970s, Japan started to produce detergents with no phosphorus. This practice has continued up to date which is evident by the majority of phosphorus-free detergents being sold in Japan nowadays.

Air pollution control measures

In the 1960s, there was an increase in the number of asthmatic patients in some areas near big petrochemical factories. It was revealed that sulphur dioxide was responsible for polluting the air within the neighborhood. In response to the escalating air pollution problems, Japan passed the Air Pollution Control Law in 1968. The law provides for the protection of air quality via measures like the regulation of smoke, soot and particulate matter emitted from industrial activities in factories, as well as setting maximum allowable limits for automobile exhaust.

Regulation of emission from sources

Pollutants are generated majorly from facilities like factories and movable sources, such as motor vehicles. The Air Pollution Control Law has provisions of implementing regulations. With regards to factories, it is the Minister of Environment, who sets the national emission standards. However, governors of prefectures can set stricter standards within regions under their jurisdiction. Every person who plans to establish a smoke or soot emitting facility has to provide information about the type of proposed facility to the governor. In case the governor realizes that the approximated concentration and volume of smoke and soot fails to meet the standards of emission, he may request the plan to be modified.

In addition, managers of facilities that emit smoke and soot are under the obligation to measure and keep records of concentration and volume of smoke and soot generated in line with the technical standards set by the Ministry of Environment. In case the governor finds that the emissions supersede the standards, he may request the operation method to be improved. The Electricity Business Act is among the other laws aimed at protecting air quality. It has provisions for the regulation of power plants and its goal is to make certain that emissions from fossil fuel burning in power plants do not go beyond certain limits.

The Japanese environmental situation has gone through considerable changes both at the national and international levels after the formation of the Environment Agency in 1971. Being the leading importer of renewable and exhaustible natural resources in the world, as well as, the second chief consumer of fossil fuels, the government of Japan realized that it had a key worldwide responsibility to protect and conserve the environment (Imura, and Schreurs 15-30). In 1990, Japan enacted some of the sternest environmental policies worldwide. The policies were the result of numerous well-known air and water pollution cases, which took place in Japan in the 1950s and 1960s, for instance, the cadmium contamination from industrial waste in Toyama Prefecture, which caused the itai-itai disease outbreak in 1956. Other than air and water pollution, Japan has been faced with other environmental problems like global warming, whaling, wastewater management etc. (Imura, and Schreurs 15-30). In response, it has enacted several laws to control its various environmental issues. While setting up laws and appropriate standards is a step in the right direction, it is vital to mention that the laws can only be effective after the proper enforcement. Everybody in Japan should cooperate in the fight against environmental problems since their impacts are severe and all-encompassing.