Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons
Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

I love Japan, and I find that there is so much about it in its people’s culture, traditions and ways of thinking that the rest of the world should consider following, to solve problems and make progress in a world of uncertainty and in a world that needs some change.

The Japan I see to day is a great place that triumphs high fuel efficiency in vehicles, compactness and efficiency, and electrified rail lines as the primary, most affordable and most widely used form of transportation. I actually never knew, however, that it was on the verge of today’s China at one point in the past – encouraging middle-class citizens onto cars and creating wastelands of its natural environments, and creating pollution and illness in cities as a result. So, when I read this, it brought me great surprise to think that today’s Japan could not have been today’s Japan with the presence of leadership and a voice in the opposition parties, even as they never came to power.

From the International Herald Tribune Global Opinion’s Latitude:

Japan’s Pollution Diet

By ALEXANDRA HARNEY

TOKYO — Seeing Beijing wreathed in smog throughout the winter, it has been hard not to worry about the costs of China’s rapid economic growth. As Jon Stewart pointed out on The Daily Show: Can’t a country capable of lifting hundreds of millions of people out of poverty find a way to keep its own capital safe for habitation?

Japan rightly prides itself on blue skies, Prius taxis and mandatory recycling.

Five decades ago, people were asking similar questions about Japan. Even as the world marveled at the country’s 10 percent annual growth, alarm was growing over air pollution in several cities. Emissions of nitrogen dioxide, carbon monoxide and sulfur dioxide tripled during the 1960s. Japan became known for pollution-related illnesses: Yokkaichi asthma, Minamata disease (mercury poisoning) — both named after the cities where they first appeared — and cadmium poisoning, known as itai-itai, or “ouch-ouch,” because of the excruciating bone pain it caused.

Today, Japanese cities are among the world’s least polluted, according to the World Health Organization. Japan’s environmental record is hardly spotless, but the country rightly prides itself on blue skies, Prius taxis and mandatory recycling. What’s more, it managed to clean up without sacrificing growth by investing in pollution-control technologies and giving local governments leeway to tighten standards beyond national requirements.

It wasn’t easy. The Liberal Democratic Party, which governed Japan almost continuously from 1955 to 2009 and returned to power in December, wasn’t proactive in cleaning up the country’s air and water. That’s partly because until the mid-1990s Japan’s electoral system incited politicians to pander to the interests of business. With candidates from the same party required to also run against one another, most politicians stood little chance of distinguishing themselves on policy and so tried to secure votes by courting business and industry associations.

It was only when citizens’ movements, which grew out of protests against the 1960 U.S.-Japan Security Treaty and the Vietnam War, got the attention of opposition parties in the 1960s and early 1970s that the government was forced to confront pollution. “I saw the government and L.D.P. as responding just enough, just in time, when the pressure got strong enough that they could defuse the opposition and stay in power,” said Timothy George, a professor at the University of Rhode Island and the author of a book on Minamata disease.

The first result was a blizzard of laws — 14 passed at once — in what became known as the Pollution Diet of 1970. Air pollution fell dramatically in the years that followed.

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