Japan uses a lot of
natural gas and
imports all of it
Japan has virtually no oil or natural gas, and few other minerals or natural resources that have any value other than timber.

The high cost of resources drained the Japanese treasury in 2008. About ¥18 trillion flowed out of the country, 3.5 percent of Japan’s GNP, for resources. Most of it was for oil, coal and natural gas. Large amounts of iron and other metals were also imported.

Among the few resources that Japan does have are titanium and sheet mica. Titanium is an expensive metal prized for its strength and lightness. It is used mostly in jet engines, air frames, and space and missile applications. It is produced in the Ukraine, Russia, Kazakstan, Japan, the U.S., the United Kingdom and China.

Sheet mica is used in electronic and electrical equipment processes. The main sources are in India, Belgium, Brazil, and Japan. The U.S. doesn't have any.


Good Websites and Sources: Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries ; Natural Resources of Japan ; Treehugger Article on Urban Mining ; Japan’s Urban Mines ; Statistical Handbook of Japan Forestry Section ; 2010 Edition ; News Old Silver Mine inOmori (west of Matsue on the Sea of Japan): UNESCO World Heritage site: UNESCO website : Rare Earths New York Times Article on Chinese Control of Rare Earths ; China Rare Earth Holdings ; Rare Earth Products ; Wikipedia article on Rare Earths Wikipedia ; Energy Sites U.S. Energy Department Report on Japan’s Energy Sector ; Statistical Handbook of Japan Energy Chapter ; 2010 Edition ; News ; Energy Diplomacy ; Japan, China and Russia’s Oil ; Good Photos at Japan-Photo Archive of Filling Stations ; Energy Research Organizations Energy Technology Research Institute ; Institute of Energy Economics eneken.ieej.or ; Japan Institute of Energy ; Petroleum Association of Japan ; Japan Petroleum Institute ;

Energy and Resources in Japan

Japan’s limited domestic energy resources combined with its huge energy demand mean that it must depend on foreign sources for approximately 80 percent of its energy supply. Imports of crude oil account for the largest portion. Except for the periods after the oil crises of 1973 and 1979, energy consumption in Japan has steadily increased. In the decades since the oil crises, consumption of energy by crises, consumption of energy by industry has remained fairly steady while consumption for residential and commercial use and passenger and freight transportation has tended to increase, regardless of economic trends. [Source: Web-Japan, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Japan]

Ssince the end of the 1980s, as oil imports from such Asian countries as Indonesia and China have decreased, Japan has been relying to an ever greater degree on oil from the Middle East, which now provides around 90 percent of Japan’s oil imports. Global energy demand, especially that in Asia, is expected to continue to increase, and oil is likely to remain the world’s principal source of energy. With oil reserves declining in some producing regions, the world is likely to become even more dependent on the huge oil production capacity that still exists in the Middle East.

Given that Japan already relies on the Middle East for around 90 percent of its oil and also depends on imports for most of its non-oil energy resources, it is clear that the country’s energy supply structure is even more fragile than that of other industrial nations. Under these conditions, reducing energy risk by securing stable supplies will continue to be a critical issue for Japan’s energy policy. To reduce energy risks and to prepare for emergency situations, Japan is pursuing measures for stockpiling oil, encouraging independent development of resources, and promoting cooperation with oil producing countries.

In 2002 the government passed the Basic Law on Energy Policy in order to promote comprehensive and integrated energy policies. This law sets forth the basic energy policy principles of “ensuring a stable energy supply,” “harmonization with the environment,” and “utilization of market mechanisms,” and it also mandates the preparation of a “Basic Energy Plan” that promotes a systematic, long-term, comprehensive approach to policies concerning energy supply and demand.

Urban Mining in Japan

“Urban mines” have been set up to extract rare metals such as platinum and tungsten from cell phones and other small household electrical devices as well as from catalytic converters from cars. In some places there are collection boxes for discarded cell phones and digital cameras. One such place collects 210 kilograms of devices a month, and send them to a recycling center which shred them. Ten to 15 tons of platinum is recovered from old cars each year. By contrast, the world production of platinum, mostly from Russia and South Africa, is only 100 tons.

According to survey the Japanese National Institute for Materials Science (NIMS) the total volume of metal resources, including gold and silver, that are used in electrical appliances and electronics in Japan is the world’s largest, surpassing natural metals reserves of many mineral-producing countries.

The survey calculated that in Japan there was about 6,800 tons of gold, worth ¥20 trillion and equivalent of 16 percent of the total reserves in the world’s gold mines; 60,000 tons of silver, or 23 percent of total world reserves; and 1,700 tons of iridium, or 61 percent of the world’s reserves. By these calculations Japan has more gold than South Africa and more silver, lead and iridium than any single nation.

NIMS is researching the best ways to retrieve rare metals from discarded electrical appliances and other products at low cost. As it stands now many of the devices are simply discarded. With recycled electronics, the circuit boards tend to be the most valuable.

Cell phones contain more than 10 kinds of rare materials and metals. A refinery run by Mitsubishi Materials in Naoshima, Kagawa Prefecture, heats cell phone parts to 1,200 C to remove copper. Noncomputer impurities are separated through electrolysis to extract gold and silver and other metals. The metals are turned into metal bars and sold to components dealers that supply materials for electronic parts.

A total of 22 kilograms of gold was recovering from 567,000 cell phones during a government “urban mining” campaign over a three month period in 2009 and 1010. In addition to the gold, 79 kilograms of silver, 5,670 kilograms of copper and two kilograms of palladium were collected. In Japan there are believed to be 200 million used cell phones.

Japan hopes step up its urban mining efforts and raise it self-sufficiency in rare metals to 50 percent by 2030.

According to Japan’s environmental ministry a total of 760,000 tons of 97 types of small household appliances and cell phones are thrown out every year and they contain 280,000 tons of metals that are valuable resources worth $1.2 billion.

Low collection rates are the biggest problem in recycling small electronic products and carrying out recycling pilot projects, according to a survey by the Environment Ministry and the Economy, Trade and Industry Ministry. Even though computer makers are legally obliged to collect and recycle computers the recycling collection rate of personal computers stands at a measly 8.3 percent. The Environment Ministry has said the collection rate needs to be about 20 percent to 30 percent for recycling businesses to break even. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, September 10, 2011]

The cell phone industry also collects used handsets on a voluntary basis. However, 67 percent of users do not hand their old cell phones in for recycling.Some observers say the collection rate for items such as computers and cell phones is so low because many people are worried their personal information may be leaked. Therefore, it is necessary to discuss how such information can be protected when cell phones and computers are recycled.

Dowa has a subsidiary that collects lithium batteries and recovers rare metals like cobaly, nickel and lithium

Metal Thieves in Japan

High metal prices in the mid 2000s encouraged thieves to plunder car barriers, chains, electric cables and stainless steel grating used to cover ditches along the sides of streets and sell them as scrap metal. Large temple bells, fire bells, playground slides and metal water storage basins used by farmers were all targeted by metal thieves. Metal thefts in 2006 resulted in losses of over $20 million.

Among the items that were taken were 52 stainless steel car barriers, worth ¥4.6 mullion, stolen from parking lot entrances in Osaka; a 100-kilogram tide gate taken in Ehime Prefecture; 38 fire-lookout-tower bells valued at ¥4.1 million stolen in 12 cities and 1,027 storm grates worth ¥8.4 million taken in Ibaraki Prefecture. Some rail companies hired guards to prevent thieves from taking tracks.

It is suspected that the metal was sold to small scrap metal dealers and then was exported to China. Sometimes the thieves reprocessed the metal into sheets and bricks so it couldn’t be identified or linked to it original source. Sometimes these chores were done by the scrap dealers.

In November 2006, four men were arrested after stealing 275 metal grates worth $50,000 in Osaka. In 2007, more than 150 metal bridge nameplates were stolen from bridges in Fukushima and Tochigi prefectures. Most of the nameplates were 15 centimeters long, 30 centimeters wide and 1.5 centimeters thick and made bronze, They cost between $250 and $350 to make,

In June 2009, police arrested two men from Saga Prefecture for theft after 398 baseball caps stolen from 20 different high school teams were found in their homes.

Undersea Resources off Japan

Japan is searching seabeds around hydrothermal vents in its exclusive economic zones in search of rare metals such as germanium, used in the production of fiber optics, and gallium, used in the production of integrated circuits, both of which are often found around hydrothermal deposits. Japan is currently reliant of China for these and other rare metals.

In 2009, the Japanese government approved a plan to look undersea for rare resources, including rare earths such as scandium and yttrium. Cobalt -rich deposits are believed to lie in waters around Minami-Torishima Island in the eastern extremes of Japan’s territory. Waters around Okinawa and the Izu and Oghasawara Island are known to have rich hydrothermal deposits. Serious exploration is slated to being in 2018.

In October 2008, as part of an effort to dramatically expand the amount of ocean under its control, Japan applied to the United Nations for the right to claim areas in the Pacific Ocean designated as Japan’s continental shelves. The five areas that Japan is attempting to claim — including waters in the Shikoku Oceanic basin, the Kyushu-Palau ridge and the Ogasawara Oceanic Plateau — lie to the south and southeast of Japan have a combined area almost equal to that of Japan itself and are thought to contain resources that one day might be mined.

In March 2011, the government -backed natural resource exploration agency launched a 6,100-ton ship to search for rare metals, methane hydrate and other resources in the seabed. The 118-foot-long vessel, named the Hakurei, has on-board and seabed-seating drilling equipment.

Volcanic “Black Ore” in the Seas Off Japan

The seafloors around Japan are rich in "kuroko" (black ore). Kuroko, named after its color, was originally created from the activities of seafloor volcanoes when the Japanese archipelago was created. Japanese kuroko is extremely high quality, containing zinc, lead, copper and other metals. It was mined from the Sea of Japan from the latter half of the Edo period (1603-1867) to the Showa era (1926-1989). [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, July 11, 2012]

“This natural resource is peculiar to island arcs--volcanic archipelagoes parallel to and near the boundary of two converging tectonic plates--and is known as kuroko overseas, as well. Although Japan's kuroko mines closed after the resource became largely depleted, seafloor volcanic activity similar to that which formed the Japanese archipelago is still going on under the surrounding sea.

“Looking for a different type of mineral resource, a team of researchers led by Prof. Yasuhiro Kato of the University of Tokyo's School of Engineering analyzed samples of deep-sea mud collected during deep-sea drilling in the Pacific Ocean last year. Their study revealed reserves of rare earth elements in quantities 800 times larger than aboveground stores in the deep seafloor in vast areas of the Pacific Ocean, including the Hawaiian Islands and Tahiti. However, since the mud containing the rare earths is under international waters, mining would require registering the claims with an international organization. The potential cost involved in extracting the rare earths is also unknown.

“Nevertheless, such achievements could be advantageous to Japan, which aims to be an ocean-oriented power. A new and significant rare earth find could put the brakes on the recent surge in prices due to China's dominance in production and its export restrictions. "Japan needs to quickly find out exactly how large the deep-sea rare earth reserves are, figure out how to extract and refine them, and come up with a workable strategy," Kato said.

Efforts to Exploit Japan’s Seafloor Resources

The Japan Agency for Marine-Earth Science and Technology (JAMSTEC) is investigating investigating the possibility of mining one of the world's largest kuroko deposits on the seabed about 1,000 meters deep northwest of Okinawa Prefecture. Strata in the region contain large quantities of hydrothermal water that contains gold, minor metals and other elements that are heated by magma. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, July 11, 2012]

“A JAMSTEC' team, led by senior research fellow Ken Takai, has drilled into the seabed using the deep sea drilling vessel Chikyu and buried metal pipes from which hot water could well up. Metals in the hydrothermal water cooled when they emerged from the pipes and reacted with sea water. The metals slowly settled around the pipes in chimney-shaped kuroko chunks. Natural kuroko deposits take years to form, but the team was able to create 11-meter-tall chunks in only 10 months. The method was a world first, and JAMSTEC has applied for it to be patented.

“Eiji Noyori wrote in the Yomiuri Shimbun: “Last year, deep-sea mud containing rare earth elements was discovered over a wide area in the high seas of the Pacific Ocean. Now similar sediment has been found near Minami-Torishima island inside Japan's exclusive economic zone. To date, Japan's deep-sea resource probes have focused on cobalt and other elements contained in manganese nodules. However, because of the latest finding Japan needs to review its deep-sea resource strategy. [Source: Eiji Noyori, Yomiuri Shimbun, June 30, 2012]

“The seafloor mud containing rare earth elements contains almost no radioactive substances such as uranium and thorium, which would make retrieval difficult. In addition, diluted hydrochloric acid can be added to the sediment, making retrieval easier and faster. Because of this, the government recognizes the potential of deep-sea mud as a resource, saying it will be possible to realize lower development costs than regular deep-sea resources. However, the development of the technology is still in its infancy.

“Hurdles for achieving retrieval of rare earths from the mud are high. For instance, a method of collecting mud from the ocean floor has to be established. To secure a stable supply of rare earths, the government must work quickly on grasping the distribution area of the rare earth-rich sediment and identifying what needs to be done toward the practical mining of the deposits.

Imported Resources and Japan

fuel storage tanks
Japan imports 130 million tons of iron ore a year with 60 percent coming from Australia and 20 percent from Brazil. Japan also gets 63 percent of its coal from Australia.

Japan gets 54 percent of its nickel from Indonesia, 19 percent from the Philippines and 27 percent from New Caledonia. When Indonesia imposed a stiff tariff on nickel the move significantly affected Japan’s steel industry.

In October 2008, a consortium of five Japanese steelmakers — including Nippon Steel — agreed to invests more than $3 billion into Namisa, a Brazilian iron ore mining firm, as part of it effort to secure enough supplies of iron ore to make steel and get around paying high prices demanded by the main iron ore suppliers. The companies will get a 40 percent stake in Namisa, which is a subsidiary of the Brazilian steelmaker Companhia Siderurgica National.

Japan gets much of it phosphates (essential for fertilizer) and pine resin, or rosin (an agent that prevents bleeding in paper and is indispensable in products such as printing ink and tires for motor vehicles) from China. In 2010, China slapped tariffs and export quotas on these products as it has on rare earths. Among other things Japan has purchased a phosphate mine in Peru to reduce its dependance on China for phosphates.

Japan is very much engaged in trying to gain access to minerals and resources in resource-rich Mongolia. Four trading firms, including Sumitomo and Itochu, are preparing to develop the Tavan Tolgai coalfield. Mitsubishi is working with Frances’s Avena to mine uranium in Dornigobi and Sukhbaatat provinces; and JOGMEC is prospecting for rare metals. China, Russia and other country also want these resources.

Silver in Japan

Omori (west of Matsue on the Sea of Japan) is a small town with 500 people built around a group of silver mines that produced silver for more than 500 year after the metal was discovered in the area in 1309. The mines were at the peak of the production in the 16th and 17th century when 200,000 people lived in the town and 38 tons of silver, most of Japan’s supply, was produced. At that time Japan produced one third of the world’s silver and was known in Spain as “Silver Island.” In 1552 Francis Xavier visited the mine.

The silver was of high quality and much of it was exported. The men who worked in mines died young and the tombs on the cemeteries bear witness to that. The quality of the silver began to decline around 1630 and the last mine was officially closed in 1943.

People can visit the Iwami-Ginzan Silver mines, which were in operation from 1526 to 1923 and used to embrace about 600 mining tunnels. A museum and an underground mining tunnel in the Ryungenji drifts is open to the public. The main tunnel here was about 600 meters long in the Edo period. Its height varies between 0.9 and 2.1 meters. Chisel marks are still visible on the walls. The abandoned mine shafts and the surrounding 442- hectare area in Oda were picked as a UNESCO World Heritage Site n 2007

Gold and Platinum in Japan

Edo period gold currency
A gold mine in the Hishikari Hills, near Kagoshima in southern Kyushu, contains some of the world's purest gold. Owned by the Sumitomo Metal Mining Co., this totally mechanized mine contains 80 kilometers of tunnel bored deep in the earth and is worked by 60 men — who operate 130 massive drills, diggers, dumpers and trucks — in two shifts.

The area near the Hishikari Hillas has been worked for more than 250 years but gold in high concentration was not found until 1981. The main gold seam extends 120 meters through the mountain and reaches a depth of 130 meters. The gold was been precipitated a million years ago by superheated volcanic fluids that surged through fissures of rock.

Leading gold consumers (tons in 1997): 1) India (737); 2) the United States (377); 3) China (265); 4) Turkey (202); 5) Saudi Arabia (199); 6) Gulf States (142); 7) Taiwan (142); 8) Japan (130); 9) South Korea (114); 10) Italy (112); Indonesia (93). [Source: World Gold Council]

The world's largest golden object is a solid gold bathtub with the head of a rooster. The hotel where the 313½ pound tub is located used to charges only $2.00 a minute for the pleasure of sitting in it. Each immersion is said to prolong life. It is also possible to buy solid gold putters and 24 carat chopsticks in Japan. Gold flakes are sometimes sprinkled onto food.

White gold sells well these days. It is 20 percent to 40 percent cheaper than platinum. Many jewelry stores have stopped carry platinum except for a few wedding rings.

About 80 percent of the global platinum went to Japan in the early 1990s when the bubble economy was in its last throes.

Diamonds in Japan

The first natural diamond found in Japan was found in September 2007. So small it can not be seen with a conventional microscope , it was found in volcanic rock in Ehime Prefecture.

In December 2010, a team at Ehime University said it had successfully synthesized the world’s hardest diamond. Made with Sumitomo Electric Co, the diamond is a one-centimeter diameter.

The Japanese are the world second largest buyers of diamonds (accounting for19 percent of the diamond market) after the United States (with 48 percent of the diamond market). The Japanese retail diamond market used to be the biggest and valued at $12.6 billion in the 1990s.

Japanese women have traditional preferred subtle jewelry made from coral and shell. After World War II Western fashion and customs became popular and women began craving diamonds In 1992, Japan surpassed the United States as the largest market for diamond jewelry in the world.

De beers has looked towards Asia, particularly Japan, to create demand for diamonds. In Japan they created a market for engagement rings where no none had existed before. When the campaign began, only 6 percent of Japanese brides received any sort of engagement ring and those who did mainly received pearls. By the early 1990s 77 percent received a ring, and three quarters of those got diamonds.

Ehime University Creates a Spherical Diamond

In October 2011, the Yomiuri Shimbun reported: “A team of researchers at Ehime University has created the world's first perfectly spherical diamond, it has been learned. The state-run university's Geodynamics Research Center said it has processed an artificially produced diamond, of a variety the center has named Hime, into a perfect four-carat sphere with a diameter of 7.5 millimeters. The potential applications of the technology used to shape an artificial diamond into a perfect sphere are expected to be vast, center researchers said. Such diamonds are called Hime diamonds. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, October 22, 2011]

Hime diamonds are far harder than naturally formed diamonds. They have a uniform degree of hardness throughout their structure, whereas this changes in different parts of a natural diamond, according to the center. In 2003, the research center synthesized a tiny grain of Hime diamond measuring less than 1 millimeter wide. The center combined carbon atoms by subjecting them to 150,000 times the standard atmospheric pressure and temperatures of 2,300 C. By last year, the research team had become able to create Hime diamonds up to 1 centimeter wide, they said.

Timber and Japan

Ten largest timber importers (1989): 1) Japan; 2) China; 3) Sweden; 4) South Korea; 5) Italy; 6) Finland; 7) Austria; 8) Belgium; 9) Norway; 10) Spain.

Seventy percent of Japan is covered by forests yet it imports 80 percent of its timber. This because much of the timber is in mountainous location and the logging and transportation costs are high. Japan has 7 million hectares of conifer forests with high quality timber that is too expensive to harvest. An estimated 20 percent of Japan's imported timber comes from illegally logged trees.

The Japanese timber industry has been dealt a severe blow by falling prices for domestic timber, labor shortages and cheap imports from abroad. Towns that have traditionally relied timber have died. As of 2002, a third of Japan’s forestry workers were over 65. The industry is making an recruit unemployed youths to work for them. Disposable chopsticks and fertilizer made from cedar barks are key to keeping the forestry industry alive.

See Nature and Science, Environment, Deforestation; See Nature, Animals and Plants, Forests, Plants

Paper and Japan

Oji Paper is the largest paper maker in Japan followed by Nippon Paper. Other large paper makers include Hokuetsu Paper, Mitsubishi Paper, and Daio Paper

Japanese paper firms are buying up forests in Canada, Brazil and other places to make sure they have sufficient wood chips supplies to meet their demands for paper. One of the world’s largest world wood pulp factories was established in 1993 by Oji Paper and Mitsubishi Corp. two hours from Edmonton to process 650,000 tons of pulp from wood taken from an area about the size of South Korea.

Top 5 paper producers (millions of tons per year): 1) USA (71.5); 2) Japan (28); 3) Canada (16.4); 4) China (13.7); 5) Germany (11.8).

Modern Forestry in Japan

The Yomiuri Shimbun reported: “Tsurui in eastern Hokkaido is known as a breeding place for red-crested white cranes. Recently, the village has been turning heads for another reason--its forestry cooperative has introduced a new method of felling trees that could drastically change the domestic forestry industry. Chain saws are used to cut through trunks in the village's forest, which is full of 50-year-old larch trees. The felled trees are dragged along the snow-covered ground, almost as though they are gliding, by a winch system of a German-made tractor. The trunks are trimmed with a high-performance harvester and stacked. The process looks more like the slick operation of a machine than forestry work. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, May 4, 2012]

“The government chose Tsurui in fiscal 2010 as the model area to carry out its forest and forestry industry revitalization plan. The village introduced a European-style system after inspecting the advanced forestry industry of Germany and Austria. Conventionally, a straight road through a forest would be constructed first to enable bulldozers to enter deep inside the woods and transport felled trees. This method places a heavy environmental burden on the forest because heavy machines disturb its soft soil. In the new system, a web of roads is formed, like capillary vessels, which follows the contours of the land. This method has helped the Tsurui forestry cooperative reduce costs and transport time.

“Productivity has been improved. The daily transported volume of timber increasing to 11.2 cubic meters per worker. This is nearly four times the two or three cubic meters transported per worker before the village adopted the new method. Production costs dropped to 3,520 yen per cubic meter, less than a half of the previous cost of 8,000 yen to 10,000 yen.

The forest and forestry industry revitalization plan was compiled by the government in 2009. The plan aims to raise the nation's self-sufficiency rate of timber to 50 percent or more by 2020. The plan includes measures to train forestry technicians, reform forestry cooperatives and put national forests to practical use. National forests are expected to play the role of an engine in the revitalization of Japan's forestry industry. Putting national forests to practical use is considered easier than utilizing those owned by the private sector, which often lack clearly defined property lines and consensus among owners.

See Plants and Forests

Problems Forestry in Japan

The Yomiuri Shimbun reported: “many problems must be immediately dealt with. One problem is clear-cutting. This refers to the practice in which all trees in an area are cut down. There have been many cases in which forest owners cut all of their trees without planting new ones, giving up on reforestation. According to the Forestry Agency, there were 13,600 hectares of "non-afforestated areas" throughout the country as of fiscal 2008. However, this land is decreasing due to the introduction of stricter penalties and other enforcement measures.But reforestation has often been abandoned due to the falling price of domestic timber, which is competing against lower-priced imported wood. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, May 4, 2012]

“At a logging site in Kuma, Kumamoto Prefecture, all the cedars and cypresses on a mountain are being felled. However, Izumi Ringyo, a forestry company in Hitoyoshi of the prefecture, is planting young trees in the logged area at the same time. "The eco-system will be disturbed unless the forest is recycled by planting young trees after clear-cutting," said Tadayoshi Izumi, president of the company.

“Other thorny problems include defoliation, which is increasing in beech tree forests, and overprotected deer that are destroying saplings.

See Nature and Science, Environment, Recycling

Image Sources: 1) Osaka Gas 2) Jun from Goods from Japan 3) Sanyo 4) 5) Wikipedia 6) TEPCO 7) Bank of Japan 8) Greenpeace

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Daily Yomiuri, Times of London, Japan National Tourist Organization (JNTO), National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated October 2012

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