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Land and Resources, Environmental Issues

Tokaimura, mounting problem, Minamata disease, itai-itai, Toyama Prefecture

Japan experienced severe environmental pollution during its push to industrialize in the late 19th century and again during the rush to rebuild the economy after World War II. Some of the worst pollution incidents caused great human suffering. One of the first episodes began in the late 19th century, when copper mining operations released effluents that contaminated rivers and rice fields in the mountains of central Honshu, sickening much of the local population. Crusading legislator Tanaka Shozo led citizen protests that represented an important first step in the creation of a Japanese environmental movement. Nevertheless, more environmental disasters followed. In the early 20th century cadmium poisoning caused an outbreak of a painful bone disease, called itai-itai, in Toyama Prefecture. From the 1950s to the 1970s, mercury contamination in fishing waters caused Minamata disease, an affliction of the central nervous system named after the town in Kyushu where thousands became ill and hundreds died. Smog, arsenic poisoning, and polychlorobiphenyl (PCB) poisoning produced by industry in the 1970s caused other health problems.

Since that time, Japan has enacted some of the world’s strictest legislation for environmental protection. The government took important steps to improve environmental quality in the late 1960s and early 1970s in response to pressure by citizens’ groups. It passed successive laws to combat pollution and compensate victims of pollution. In 1971 it established the Environmental Agency to monitor and regulate pollution. The Nature Conservation Law of 1972 requires that all natural ecosystems be inventoried every five years.

Significant environmental problems remain, however. Pollution of bays and other coastal waters is a continuing threat to the fishing and aquaculture industries. Emissions by power plants and heavy industry have resulted in acid rain (a type of air pollution) and increasing acidity of freshwater lakes. Smog continues to plague traffic-choked urban areas. Despite successes in promoting recycling and reuse, the total amount of garbage produced per person has increased sharply since the mid-1980s. Waste disposal is a mounting problem in Japan’s urban areas, and the country faces a severe shortage of landfill sites. In addition, the country’s high reliance on nuclear energy poses some environmental hazards. Risks are involved with nuclear waste storage, importation of nuclear fuel, and export of spent fuel for reprocessing. In September 1999 Japan’s worst nuclear accident occurred at a uranium processing plant in Tokaimura when human error caused an uncontrolled nuclear chain reaction and leak, exposing nearly 70 workers to high doses of radiation. The United Nations International Atomic Energy Agency reported that the incident did not cause any lasting harm to the surrounding population and environment.

The Japanese are passionate about their country’s natural heritage. Per capita domestic visits to national parks are among the highest in the world. Japan has 28 major national parks and more than 350 lesser parks, covering more than 14 percent of the country. An extensive series of wildlife preserves and special wildlife sanctuaries covers more than 8 percent of the land. At least 28 marine parks have also been established.



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