Japan’s environmental nuggets

Japan’s environmental nuggets

Despite a bad environmental reputation, writes SIMON AVENELL, Japan has also been a pioneer in global environmental protection and justice.

Japan’s environmental record over the past half century has been problematic, to put it mildly. The country’s environmental blackspots have included Antarctic whaling, coastal dolphin culling, driftnet fishing, virgin rainforest logging, elephant ivory imports, fetal mercury poisoning and, most recently of course, radiation leakage from the crippled Fukushima nuclear power plant. In fact, so degraded was the Japanese environment by the late 1960s that foreign observers branded the country a polluters paradise and the New York Times even included smog-choked Tokyo in its ‘Seven Polluted Wonders of the World’ in 1971.

Japanese corporations exacerbated this negative image as they expanded into Asia and the rest of the world in the 1970s and 1980s, taking with them a range of environmentally destructive practices such as clear-cut logging in Indonesia and Malaysia, caustic soda production in Thailand, golf course construction in Hawaii, and resort developments in Queensland.

With pockets full of yen and a newfound confidence, these corporations earned their reputation as eco-terrorists and environmental aggressors. The Japanese government’s wait-and-see stance on global environmental issues like stratospheric ozone depletion and global warming did not help either. Eager to shield domestic CFC manufacturers and users, Japan only reluctantly signed on to the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer in 1987 and no government officials attended the landmark 1988 Toronto Conference on ‘Our Changing Atmosphere’, which set the wheels in motion for an international mechanism to deal with anthropogenic climate change.

Bleak imagery

While this bleak imagery has tended to dominate popular perceptions of Japan and the environment, there is a very different and, regrettably, under-recognised side to the Japan–environment nexus.1 This is a more upbeat story in which Japanese people, civic groups, and non-government organisations have made important contributions to the development of contemporary environmentalism on multiple levels: within Japan, in the Asia-Pacific region, and in the wider global environmental movement.

From the 1960s onward, for instance, Japanese activists and pollution victims took their domestic struggles and experiences at Minamata and other polluted sites to the world, using these to assist movements in other countries (e.g. Canada) and to shape the contours of the global environmental activism and politics we know today. Even more interesting is the fact that Japanese activists were deeply involved in transnational initiatives from as early as 1973 and, in fact, some activists like the Tokyo University engineer Ui Jun were spreading the word about organic mercury contamination to people in Europe and North America even in the late 1960s. So Japanese activists were involved in the global environmental movement from its very inception.

Nevertheless, the history of Japanese environmentalism to date has been written primarily as a national one centered on the country’s terrible experience with industrial pollution from around the late 1950s until the early 1970s. During this period Japanese people in villages, rural towns, and crowded urban metropolises waged high-profile and protracted battles against corporations which poisoned their bodies and destroyed their lives. In the course of these struggles they forced legislative and institutional changes nationally and helped elect progressive municipal governments which cleaned up local living environments.

These were heady days in the domestic struggle against pollution and they merit the large volume of scholarship dealing with the period. But, by the same token, this attention to the period of antipollution activism may have blinded us to developments thereafter. Most accounts of the Japanese environmental movement tend to describe the mid-1970s as a moment of decline after which contentious environmental activism dissipated and more mannered local self-help initiatives took centre stage. Only in the 1990s, we are told, do we witness the rise of a new environmentalism in the country led by an array of internationalised environmental NGOs empowered by the burgeoning global environmental movement and the gradual ‘greening’ of governments worldwide.

But I have discovered a fascinating realm of transnational activism in the intervening period (1970–1990) which belies an ‘ice age’ in environmentalism and, on the contrary, shows just how deeply Japanese were entwined in regional and global environmental initiatives that laid the foundation for the global environmentalism of the 1990s and beyond.

Consider just a few examples. At the landmark United Nations Conference on the Human Environment (UNCHE) held in Stockholm in 1972, Japanese pollution victims captured world headlines and the attention of government leaders with their stories of victimisation at the hands of corporate polluters. Prominent economists such as Tsuru Shigeto were involved in landmark symposia on the seeming dilemma of economic growth and environmental protection.

At the Founex Meeting held in Switzerland leading up to UNCHE, Tsuru and colleagues from other nations were among the first to consider the possibility of linking the notions of environment and development—a consideration, of course, which would later evolve into the concept of sustainable development.


Throughout the 1970s and 1980s Japanese activists became involved in transnational movements with activists in South Korea, the Philippines, Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, Palau, Saipan, and numerous other Asia–Pacific nations. In most cases these were movements opposing Japanese corporations which, unable to pollute in Japan because of stricter regulations, had relocated their toxic factories to developing countries in the region.

The Japanese government did its best to ignore these NGOs but by the end of the 1990s they were a force to be reckoned with.

Transnational initiatives also developed around Japanese rainforest logging in Indonesia and Malaysia (primarily Sarawak), as well as in opposition to a Japanese governmental plan to dump radioactive waste into the Pacific Ocean in the early 1980s. This latter mobilisation is particularly interesting because it was really the first time that Japanese activists had joined hands with activists on small Pacific islands such as Palau, Saipan, and Tinian. The anti-radioactive waste dumping movement is also interesting because its success (nothing was ever dumped) helps explain why Japan still has to store so much radioactive waste material today, much of it inside nuclear power plant facilities.

So, by the time of the landmark Earth Summit (the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, or UNCED) held in Rio de Janeiro in mid-1992, Japanese environmental activists had a strong track record in regional and global environmental initiatives. This is not to say they were as well-funded, active, and internationally connected as their US, European, or even Australian counterparts, but they were much more involved than has been assumed to date. Indeed, the Japanese People’s Center at the NGO ‘Global Forum’ run parallel to the main Earth Summit, proved to be among the best attended and influential of all exhibits with its booths on green consumerism, citizen science, pollution victim activism, and initiatives for the environmental and economic rights of people in developing countries.

The Japanese government, of course, did its best to ignore these NGOs but by the end of the 1990s they were a force to be reckoned with. Nowhere was this more obvious than at the Third Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change held in Kyoto city in 1997. As environmental bureaucrats from around the world squabbled over the details of the Kyoto Protocol to control greenhouse gases, Japanese activists led massive rallies outside to pressure world governments to act.

While this history of Japanese involvement in the global environmental movement over the past half century certainly does not undo the country’s negative environmental impacts during this period, it brings a degree of balance. Some Japanese groups and institutions have indeed been eco-aggressors, but others have been eco-pioneers, crossing borders and working for global environmental protection and justice.


Simon Avenell 2013. ‘The borderless archipelago: toward a transnational history of Japanese environmentalism’. Environment and History (19): 397–425.

Peter Buckley/Wikimedia Commons/Flickr

Dr Simon Avenell is Associate Professor in History and ARC Future Fellow at the Australian National University College of Asia and the Pacific.

Share On:

Leave a Comment