Nagase discusses polution, prevention in Main Hall forum

Jen Cox

Assistant Professor Yoko Nagase of the economics department delivered a stirring and informative lecture Tuesday titled “A History of Environmental Issues in Japan.”
Nagase’s lecture traced five consequential pollution cases from the beginning of the modernization of Japan through the late 1970s. She began by summarizing how the Japanese currently assess their overall environmental situation. In the areas of air and water, considerable improvements have been made. Substantial work still does need to be done; marine industries are still dealing with red tide, there are pollution problems in closed-water areas such as lakes and bays, soil quality in urban areas is sub-par, and a concentrated natural environment increases problems of threatened species. Japan is doing fairly well in being energy efficient, improving air quality, actively recycling, and producing less waste per capita than the U.S., but it took the country a long time to reach its current level of environmental awareness, Nagase explained.
Japan has been working since the 1970s to reverse many pollution disasters that occurred throughout the history of the country, the earliest dating back to 1867. From 1867 to 1897, industrial production changed from mainly silk, tea, and seafood to textiles, coal, and copper. Nagase stated that, due to the involvement in military exploits, Japan was eager for foreign currency and paid little attention to the regulation of pollutants.
Nagase discussed how in 1890, the first case of major pollution in the history of modern Japan occurred due to the Ashio Copper Mine. The pollution from the mine washed cadmium, lead, and arsenic into the Watarase River, causing the death of thousands of fish, ruining rice production, and affecting over 50 villages of socially weak farmers. The second event Nagase outlined occurred in the mid-1950s in the Jinzu River Basin in Toyama. Known as the Itai-Itai disease, the problems were caused by cadmium waste from the Kamioka Mine being dumped into the Jinzu River. At first thought to be endemic, the Ministry of Heath and Welfare finally recognized as cadmium poisoning the disease that caused over 100 deaths.
A better-known disease called Minamata came from mercury emissions from the Chisso Corp. chemical complex. Fatal central nervous system problems plagued over 2,900 people and went unknown by the government until 1971. During the second outbreak of Minamata disease, a family named Miike sued, marking the first environmental lawsuit in Japanese history. The court decided in favor of the victims and Chisso paid 22,000,000 to each victim. The most recent event occurred in the 1960s, which marked the first instance of frequently occurring pollution causing respiratory diseases such as asthma, bronchitis, and emphysema. Yokkaichi Petrochemical was a huge producer for Japan’s industry and went unchecked for years. In 1965, citizens organized a grass roots group to support patients with respiratory diseases and eventually got the local government to pay for their medical costs. By 1972, over 1,700 patients had been treated.
It was not until the 1970s that any pollution regulation occurred, said Nagase. With more production came more economic growth, and of course increased pollution, but that was not among the companies’ concerns. In 1969, Nagase pointed out, the Japanese government began to pass laws that regulated pollutants of air, water, and soil. Most of these substances were directly related to one of the five high-profile cases of the era. Many of the laws or amendments that came about in the 1970s are still legitimate in present Japanese law, but many of the effects of the pollution still linger – Japan has a high rate of arsenic in the country’s drinking water.
Elegantly tying past to present in a way that heightened the awareness of the audience, Nagase concluded with the idea that prevention was the best way to keep the environment alive and thriving. “Generally speaking, pollution prevention costs far, far less than victim compensation and restoration of the environment,” she concluded. Extremely informative and interesting, Nagase’s lecture put current environmental debates into perspective.