Japan's Environment Paid a High Price for Its Industrial Growth

by: Edward Hugh

Alex Kerr, in the book "Dogs and Demons," documents how Japan has “only the most primitive regulation of toxic waste” (p. 57), and for comparison describes how “There are more than a thousand controlled hazardous substances in the United States” where as in Japan “only a few dozen substances were subject to government controls” (p. 58).

Further, “Japanese laws do not call for environmental-impact studies before towns or prefectures approve industrial projects. In having no environmental-impact law, Japan is alone among the twenty eight members of the…OECD”. (p. 58)

Kerr goes on to describe how Japan’s “industrial policy factored waste treatment out of the equation. There are few legal or monetary costs for poisoning the environment, and Japanese companies have consequently felt no need to develop techniques for handling wastes”. (p. 65)

A United Nations document backs up this analysis, stating that:

“In the 1970s the production of iron and steel along the shores of the Inland Sea reached 70 million tons, an amount equal to that produced by France and the United Kingdom combined. Daily processing of petroleum reached over 1,600,000 barrels, equal to the production levels of the United Kingdom. Petroleum chemistry brought the production of 1,800,000 tons of ethylene annually, with this also equalling British output. The Inland Sea has an area of about 17,000 square kilometres, which is about the same size as Lake Ontario, the smallest of the five great lakes in the USA. All of this production capacity was concentrated in this area and, in the 1960s, pollution-prevention technologies were very little used; as a result the problems of air and water pollution were serious in the extreme. In the case of Tokyo Bay, an area which is one-tenth the size of the Inland Sea, the production of ethylene from the concentrated petrochemical industries was 1,500,000 tons annually, which is very close to the total production in and around the Inland Sea.”

The UN report continues noting that:

“corporations, local and national governments, and city administrators lacked the wisdom and understanding necessary to prevent serious environmental problems. During the high-economic-growth period, production efficiency was the primary concern in the uncritical and rapid adaptation of new technologies. This stance resulted in unprecedented damage to natural ecosystems and to human health and well-being.”

One aspect of Japan’s rise to industrial competitiveness with the USA can reasonably be said to have been the avoidance of environmental protection costs. It was certainly difficult for American manufacturers required to incorporate the costs of waste handling into their product prices to compete with Japanese equivalents.

China is operating with a model similar to that of Japan; that is to say it is ignoring the costs of rampant environmental and health destruction in order to maintain export levels to the rest of the world.