To promote markets in environmentally friendly products, materials, and services, private groups and corporations, local community groups, and the Environment Agency (now the Ministry of the Environment) formed a network in February 1996 to encourage buying of this sort. Guidelines were issued to consumers to give priority to buying products and services that do not harm the environment. The municipalities in each locality are doing their best to encourage regional developments that take the environment into consideration, such as conserving energy and recycling. Yakushima, a Kagoshima Prefecture island that is designated a UNESCO World Heritage site, is trying to preserve the environment through such measures as reducing trash disposal to a minimum by composting kitchen garbage and recycling discarded cooking oils as automobile fuel. [Source: Web-Japan, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Japan]

To aid students in developing independently an awareness of environmental preservation and in carrying out studies about the environment, the Environment Agency in June 1995 called for the participation of elementary and junior high school students in the Junior Eco Club. Independent activities include aquatic life checks, astronomical observation, empty-can recycling, as well as exchanges sponsored by administrative offices throughout the nation. As of 2010 there were 3,000 groups and approximately 170,000 people taking part in these initiatives.

The Japanese government established the Environmental Agency in 1971 to set environmental quality standards for air, water and noise pollution and enforce the "polluter pays" principal. Japan now has an Environmental Ministry. In December 2007, the Japanese government unveiled an economic growth plan that took into consideration environmental matters.

Japan is densely populated and highly industrialized. Environmental policy is hamstrung by strong NIMBY ("Not in My Backyard") sentiments among ordinary people who don't want landfills, incinerators and the like anywhere near them. To encourage people to buy eco-friendly products like energy-saving air conditioners and refrigerators the government rewards buyers with points which can be exchanges for gifts or train tickets or other items.

National Parks in Japan

There are 28 national parks and 55 so-called quasi-national parks. They make up 15 percent of national territory. Some of national park land is privately owned and permission can be granted to develop, dam or drain a specific area.

Japan’s first national parks were created in 1934 not for the benefit of wildlife but to provide recreational areas for visitors and money local people. Today Japan’s national parks and quasi national parks are administered by the Ministry of the Environment whose mandate is to secure “the coexistence f people and nature.” According to ministry literature the management of parks “requires consideration of people’s property rights and various industrial activities in the areas concerned.”

The fact economic concerns generally have precedence over environmental ones has resulted in a shortage of green space. Per capita park space in Tokyo is only 2.2 square meters compared to 50 square meters in Bonn, London and Washington.

Sacred Groves in Japan

Sacred groves are protected trees surrounding Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples. They range in size single trees planted alongside stone statues to large forests preserved behind major shrines and temples. It is thought that original Japanese shrines were simple groves of trees, with kami dwelling in the grove itself. There are also hundreds of sacred mountains and sacred water sites — ponds associated with water deities, wells linked to the Buddhist monk Kukai and waterfalls thought to be inhabited by dragons and deities such as Fudi Moo.

Sacred groves often have very tall, old trees — often cedar trees. If you see a stand of tall trees there is a good chance that it is a sacred spot. Sacred groves are often situated near crossroads or village entrances for local guardian spirits. Some also regard them as portals to Yomi, the land of the dead, which is connected with the myth of creator god Izanagi seeking his wife Izanami in Yomi, after she scorched her genitals and perished after creating the fire kami. In some sacred groves phallic symbols made of stone or wood were raised to honor the union of guardian spirits and fertility gods.

Environmental Groups in Japan

anti-nuclear protesters
Compared to environmental protection groups in Western countries, similar groups in Japan are on a smaller scale and have a short history. The largest group in Japan, said to be the Wild Bird Society of Japan, has a membership of 40,000. The World Wide Fund for Nature Japan also has a membership of 43,000, when corporate members are included, and the Nature Conservation Society of Japan has a membership of 24,000. Japan has more than 5,000 small environmental preservation groups. These groups, instrumental in carrying out grassroots efforts, have a small membership but are expected to make great strides in the future. [Source: Web-Japan, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Japan]

“Environmental NGOs (nongovernmental organizations) are also active overseas. There is also a national trust movement, where a group of people band together to split the cost of a piece of land (in an area that is being environmentally destroyed) to preserve it. Such land can also be donated to the trust. The trend spread nationwide from the initial core movements in Shiretoko, Hokkaido, and Tenjinzaki, Wakayama Prefecture. Preservation is not limited to forests and marshes, but also covers green tracts of land in the cities.

Japanese environmental groups include the Japan Environmental Exchange, Japan Rainforest Protection Group, the Gomi Project, Green English, Stop the Monju and World Talk. Groups have protested the building of nuclear reactors in earthquake prone areas and taken legal action against them. On the tiny island of Teshima in the Inland Sea, local people organized themselves to stop the dumping of shredded automobiles and toxic waste in Japan’s first national park.

Environmental groups have joined with local farmer to oppose the construction of dams. Grassroots environmental groups not only pressure the government to clean up rivers but take an active role in cleaning it up themselves. In recent years environmentalist have won lawsuits against polluters and blocked development plans that threaten sensitive habitants.

Book: “Environmental Politics in Japan: Networld of Power and Protest” by Jeffrey Broadbent (Cambridge University Press, 1999)

Greenpeace and Japan

Greenpeace ship in Okinawa
Greenpeace activists in Japan have staged protest against nuclear power and taken action to help dugongs in Okinawa. Outside Japan their ships have harassed Japanese whaling ships in the Antarctic. Using Zodiac-style rafts released by Greenpeace's 949-ton Arctic Sunrise, they have boarded whaling boats which have a low deck and have tried to climb on the whaler’s mother ship using ropes and grappling hooks. Some activists have been dropped from helicopters into waters in front of whaling ships.

In June 2008, two Greenpeace Japan activists were arrested for breaking into a delivery truck and stealing whale meat which the activists said was stolen by Japanese crew members of a research whaling ship. The activists took a box that contained 23.5 kilograms of whale meat, worth about $500, which was to be delivered to a crew member of a whaling ship, presumably to eat. An investigation in Japan determined the Japanese crew members had done nothing wrong: that the whale meat they took was from a portion set aside for gifts and they had no plans to sell it.

The two Greenpeace activist were held the maximum 23 days without being charged and were subjected to 12-hour interrogations in which they were handcuffed and tied to their chairs. After they were released they were banned from talking to each other or members of Greenpace. They could not travel, leave their homes for extended periods or talk to journalists. Both said they were followed and received anonymous threats.

Japan’s Involvement In Overseas Environmental Issues

Japan’s ODA program covers a range of environmental concerns. Examples include water maintenance, sewer services, trash disposal, and environmental pollution measures such as disaster prevention, forest preservation, and prevention of atmospheric and water pollutants. Energy conservation and new energy technologies are among the focal points of Japan’s environment cooperation. [Source: Web-Japan, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Japan]

“In accordance with the Initiative for Sustainable Development toward the 21st Century, which was announced by the government in 1997, Japan is engaging in many environmental cooperation efforts, one example being the establishment of an acid rain monitoring network in East Asia. To deal with global conservation issues that cannot be solved through bilateral cooperation, Japan is also actively participating as a key contributing nation in various international organizations such as the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), the International Tropical Timber Organization (ITTO), and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO).

Japanese Companies and Overseas Environmental Issues

Concern and interest among Japanese companies in afforestation and recycling both at home and abroad is growing, and this in turn is contributing to a deeper awareness among the general public. Mitsubishi Corporation, a major Japanese trading company, is currently undertaking experimental projects in Malaysia and Brazil aimed at restoring tropical forests. Once a forest is destroyed as a result of clearing, its soil is eroded by heavy rains. Restoring such places to their original state is said to take between 300 to 500 years, but recent research on afforestation techniques based on a concept put forth by Miyawaki Akira, professor emeritus at Yokohama National University, is now making it clear that recovery can be achieved in shorter periods of time. In addition, many trading companies and paper manufacturing companies have actively committed themselves to afforestation abroad. [Source: Web-Japan, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Japan]

Nuclear Power in Japan

See Energy

Image Sources: 1) 3) Ray Kinnane 2) Japan Visitors 4) Doug Mann Photomann 5) 6) 7) 8) Yokohama City, 9) Osaka Gas, 10) 11) Greenpeace, trucks and collectors, Japan Photo japan-photo.de ;

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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