16 Nov 2022


Air Pollution in Japan

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Japan is endowed with a lot of natural wonders. After World War2, Japan took advantage of natural resources to become a global economic powerhouse. The drastic industrialization and population growth led to high rates of environmental population. In the 1960s, Japan experienced levels of pollution 3-5 times higher than the normal quality standards. Catastrophic air pollution in the country resulted in acid rain, acidification of lakes, and threatened aquatic life. The high rates of pollution also had negative health implications. Japan came up with quick policies to alleviate the situation in the 1970s. However, pollution in Japan is still a major environmental problem today. Environmental disasters such as the Fukushima nuclear disaster in 2011 and high levels of invisible pollutants in water and soil, for instance, dioxin, show that Japan is yet to solve its pollution problem. This paper explores the issue of environmental pollution in Japan, particularly air pollution. It will also explore the controversies surrounding the issue and the economic implications of air pollution. The paper will conclude with the policies in place to manage air pollution and recommendations for future changes. Environmental pollution is a widespread problem, and it affects various aspects of society. There are different types of pollution emanating from different sources, but they all have a considerable effect on the economy and health of the country. Air pollution and water pollution are the two common forms of pollution often talked about, but soil, noise, and thermal pollution are equally harmful. Developed nations have been experiencing an increase in environmental problems due to rapid industrialization, population increase, and urbanization (McGranahan, 2012). Japan is one of the most populated and developed nations in Asia, known for highly populated urban areas and rapid industrialization. Only 18% of Japan’s land is fit for settlement, thus a bigger portion of the population resides in urban areas. Japan’s economy is thriving and the country is known for the production of motor vehicles, electronics, and metal products. The modest agricultural industry is also a source of income for the country, and also a cause of environmental pollution. Evidently, the level of production and consumption in Japan is very high; hence, the country is vulnerable to different forms of pollution. The history of environmental pollution in Japan can be traced back to the Meiji Period. During the 20th year of the Meiji Period, there was a mineral pollution case in the Ashio Copper Mine (Ministry of Environment). The case became the first, and unfortunately not the last incident of serious cases of pollution in Japan. Japan embarked on rapid industrialization in the 1950s, at that time the government was only interested in economic prosperity at the expense of the environment. Manufacturing factories were constructed all over the country, even in waterfront areas. According to Rosenbluth & Thies (1999), the first phase of environmental pollution in Japan began during the 1950s industrial growth period. After the devastating effects of World War 2, Japan embarked on a serious economic recovery program, and within a few years, serious environmental pollution occurred. The beautiful landscape was destroyed, and the attractive scenic beauty was filled with industrial smoke and other pollutants. During the period of rapid economic growth in the 1950s, the notable form of pollution was air pollution. In the 1950s, the main source of energy was coal; a lot of coal was required to sustain the growing industry. Coal produces a lot of smoke, which is why Japanese cities were covered in smoke and dust, and the situation only got worse until the early 1960s. Big factories were releasing a lot of smoke into the atmosphere, for instance, a major iron and steel factory in Yahata was responsible for up to 27 tons of pollutants in a day (Hoshino, 1992). Along with the black smoke, red smoke was also visible in the sky. Japan’s industries in the 1950s were using oxygen blast furnaces in order to produce high-quality steel, but the reaction generated a great deal of iron oxide particulate, which was scattered far. The reaction also generated red smoke which was visible in Japan’s atmosphere. The intense air pollution in the 1950s had adverse health impacts on the Japanese, especially those who worked in factories and mines. In 1955, the government came up with policies to protect such workers from occupational hazards, and this became the first government policy relating to air pollution. The 1960s came with new problems. Oil became the source of energy in the 1960s, and industries shifted from coal to oil use. The heavy smoke that polluted the nation’s atmosphere was now replaced with invisible gases that were equally harmful. The oil contains sulfur which is transformed into sulphuric acid after combustion and discharged into the atmosphere. Large-scale power plants were capable of producing up to 52,000 tons of sulphuric acid gases into the atmosphere. Oil refineries and power plants were responsible for a large amount of sulphuric acid gases, and within a short period of time, people living next to the factories and power plants started developing respiratory health problems. The Yokkaichi Petroleum complex in particular released a lot of sulphuric acid gas, and within a short period of time community members began suffering from an illness that came to be known as “beach salt disease.” Instead of shutting down the complex or putting in place corrective measures, the central government expanded the complex (Hoshino, 1992). Another notable air pollutant in the late 1960s was the PCB (polychlorinated biphenyl). PCB poisoning was discovered in a certain area in Kitakyushu in 1968 (Rosenbluth & Thies, 1999). PCBs were used in the production of cooking oil as heat transfer, and they like through the heat-transfer pinholes. PCB accumulated in human bones and in the bodies of chickens, which were later consumed by humans. PCB is one of the most dangerous intrusion chemicals that cause unprecedented damage in the human body and in the natural environment. Though air pollution was the most notorious form of pollution in the industrial era, water pollution was also experienced. Factories discharged their waste into the environment, and most of the waste found its way to water sources. Hoshino (1992) gives an example of rayon-from-pulp processing industries that released at least 62% of the pulp into the environment, while only 38% was converted into the final product. About 160,000 tons of tangible waste were produced annually in the 1950s and 1960s. The red and black discharge found its way to natural waterways such as streams, rivers, lakes and oceans. Water pollution became quite visible, and the fish resources were destroyed.

The most deadly case of water pollution was seen in Minamata City after organic mercury was introduced into the aquatic environment. Mercury was used in the production of acetaldehyde as a catalyst, and the waste was discharged to the Shiranui Sea (Hoshino, 1992). Once the aquatic life ingested the organic mercury, it found its way to human beings through interactions in the natural food chain. By the time the food chain reached the level of human consumption, the mercury levels were still high, and it led to Minamata disease. The mercury also invaded the bodies of fishermen and other people working in the sea, eventually, they developed complications with their brains, particularly the central nervous system. Another case of water pollution was witnessed in 1967 in the Jintsu River. The river was polluted with cadmium produced in the nearby Kamioka mine. Kamioka mine released its effluents into the Jintsu River, a river used by the locals as a source of water for cooking, cleaning, drinking, and other domestic purposes. By the time it was discovered in 1967, many people had absorbed cadmium into their bodies. The incident affected families in the affected areas, and the victims started developing bone problems. Japan’s environmental destruction was not limited to water and air pollution in the 1960s, the development of large-scale manufacturing plants on the limited land areas led to the destruction of the natural environment. Industries were located in residential and sensitive environments, for instance along the ocean. The natural land was further destroyed. The coastline was compromised through aggressive land reclamation for industrial purposes. Sea water was drained in large volumes and this compromised aquatic life. Environmental pollution in Japan now is better when compared to the environmental pollution in the 1950s and 1960s. Japan has come a long way after many Japanese died of pollution-related cases in the 1960s, while others had to live with serious life-threatening conditions. The Minamata disease and the PCB incident were responsible for fatalities (Rosenbluth & Thies, 2002). According to Hays (2012), Japan came up with policies and implemented a lot of measures to prevent various forms of environmental pollution as early as the 1970s. However, Japan is yet to get rid of pollution. Common types of air pollutants in today’s Japan include dioxin, vehicle emissions, and high technology pollutants. Given the limited land area in Japan, disposing of trash is a big problem. For lack of a better alternative, Japan burns its trash. The trash incinerators produce dioxin, a compound with the ability to accumulate in human bodies and cause cancer. Japan came up with laws to regulate dioxin levels as early as 1999 to minimize the daily dioxin intake to a tolerable level of daily intake of 4 picograms per kilogram of body weight (Ministry of Environment, 2017). Dioxin is not the only source of air pollution; vehicle emissions are also responsible for at least 80% of the nitrogen oxide in Japan’s atmosphere (Hays, 2012). Japan has a population of approximately 127 million people, and most adults own vehicles. Vehicles that operate with diesel engines produce nitrogen oxide, and unregulated emissions can have catastrophic effects on human health. High technology-related pollution is another issue that Japan has to watch for. In the 1950s, pollutants from the new methods of production had catastrophic effects on society, and the country cannot afford to go through such incidents again. Japan is now using cutting-edge technology in the production of vehicles, electronic products and metallic products. Chemicals such as trichloroethylene used in integrating circuits are known to be carcinogenic; hence the government has to increase its regulatory role to avoid catastrophic cases of environmental pollution. Lastly, natural disasters have played a role in the environmental pollution in Japan. Japan is made up of four islands; its location makes it vulnerable to natural disasters, particularly earthquakes. In 2011, Japan experienced an earthquake that was accompanied by a tsunami. The earthquake destroyed buildings, property, and vehicles and washed them to the shore. Approximately 24 million tons of waste were collected after the earthquake (Hays, 2012). However, the earthquake led to a nuclear incident at Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station. The power plant was knocked out by the tsunami and it began radiating. Approximately 50,000 residents left their homes as attempts to cool the reactor were underway. The risk of radiation was high, and the government is still monitoring the process to ensure that those who were exposed are not harmed. Catastrophic levels of air pollution in Japan were witnessed as early as the 1880s. According to Greenaccess (n.d), air pollution in Osaka in the 1880s inspired public debate on the right levels of air pollution. Osaka citizens were the first people to protest the spread of pollution from factories. They demanded that factories should be shut down, and compensation is offered for the damages of air pollution by the factory owners. Though the local government did not implement much change, the Osaka protests acted as the foundation of public engagement in fighting pollution. However, the 1960s saw the rise of more civic movements and organizations against air pollution. The outbreak of Minamata disease had severe health impacts, and the “Itai-itai” disease caused by cadmium pollution also affected a considerable number of victims. According to Hoshino (1992), at least 200 people died from the Itai-Itai disease while a larger number of citizens lived with serious health complications. The estimated cost of damage for the Itai-Itai disease was around 50 billion yen. The public was disgusted by the government’s negligence and indifference towards the victims of pollution, and it took on the responsibility of fighting for the victims of pollution incidences. The public complained about air pollution as early as the 1950s, but the central government ignored the complaints because the factories were generating a lot of income. Farmers, fishermen, and individuals living next to the factories were the first to complain (Nakata et al., 2015). The mass media popularized the Yokkaichi asthma incident in the 1960s, and people organized movements to educate themselves on the problem. Some movements were quite vocal, and through their actions, the victims of the Yokkaichi asthma incident were paid. Citizen movements were also crucial in stopping the construction of more petroleum plants in fear that they would generate more pollutants into the air. In 1964, the citizen movement managed to stop the construction of two large petroleum complexes in Mishima and Numazu (Hoshino, 1992). Antipollution movements are still very vocal in Japan, and they have managed to keep the topic of pollution a part of daily conversation in Japan. Anti-pollution movement and public debate on pollution made the issue a serious political issue, such that those running for elective positions were judged based on their stands towards pollution. As early as the 1970s, over 149 laws regarding pollution were passed by the government to show its dedication to solving air pollution and other forms of pollution (Terao, 2013). The public debate on the issue of air pollution, and the engagement of people in the anti-pollution movement played an important role in the elimination of air pollution in Japan. The groups helped in the identification of victims of air pollution and other forms of pollution. In 1984, it was estimated that at least 85,000 individuals were victims of environmental pollution. The public movements pressured the central and local governments to compensate the victims of pollution (Hoshino, 1992). Though the debate on air pollution is not as intense as it was between the 1960s-1980s, the Japanese public is educated on environmental issues. Contemporary anti-pollution groups are now campaigning against increasing air pollution in urban areas and global warming. Air pollution has effects on various aspects of society, particularly health and the economy. In the 1950s, the government justified air pollution because of its intention to double the country’s income through rapid industrialization. New factories and plants were constructed, and they indeed propelled the country’s economic growth, but the growth also came at a cost. The rate of pollution in Japan was 5 times more than the required level, and it took a toll on the health of the citizens and the country’s resources.

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After a period of unprecedented air pollution, the Japanese government was forced to implement measures to control air pollution. Before it could implement any regulatory measures, the government had to compensate the victims of the Yokkaichi asthma incident and the PCB incident in Kitakyushu. Many people died, while others had to endure life-threatening conditions caused due to air pollution. The itai-itai disease compromised the bone structure, and the individuals affected could not stand upright or walk properly. Eventually, the government had to pay billions of money as damages due to many legal lawsuits filed against the government for endangering its citizens. The economic burden of disease due to unchecked air pollution was too high in Japan. In 1979, the government came up with many policies and regulations to manage the air pollution crisis (Iwata & Arimura, 2008). A number of regulations targeted factories and manufacturing plants, while others targeted mobile sources such as automobiles. The regulations were responsible for a considerable reduction in sulfur dioxides. However, the policies did not lead to the reduction of nitrogen oxide because the government found it hard to implement the policies on mobile sources, particularly automobiles (Iwata & Arimura, 2008). Japan’s government has spent a lot of financial resources to undo the damage done by air pollution, and it is spending more resources to prevent more pollution from taking place. The regulations have been amended constantly, and the process of amending is costly for the government. The government has to set aside resources to fund the process and the individuals responsible for enforcing new regulations. Another economic implication is that the government now uses economic incentives to encourage compliance with environmental regulations (Iwata & Arimura, 2008). The government uses incentives such as pollution tax to encourage businesses to implement the regulations. The government faces a hard time in implementing its environmental regulations, and some businesses defy government regulations for the sake of increasing their profitability. Businesses that observe all the regulations are given tax incentives, and this has encouraged others to follow suit. Companies that implemented environmentally conscious practices for the sake of maintaining the health of workers were rewarded with tax breaks.

Greenstone (2012) uses the example of the U.S. to explore other economic implications of air pollution. Air pollution led to the creation of strict regulations to restrict emissions as early as the 1970s in Japan. Strict regulations meant that manufacturers had to regulate their production in an effort to comply with air pollution regulations. Greenstone (2012) argues that complying with the regulation has negative effects on productivity, especially in refineries. Petroleum plants do not just comply with the regulations, but they are required to pay a certain percentage because they emit dangerous pollutants to the environment. From the Yokkaichi asthma incident and other catastrophic cases of air pollution, it appears that some air pollutants are more harmful than others. Air pollutants such as dust and exhaust fumes are known to cause respiratory problems in the long run, unlike other pollutants that cause serious health issues immediately. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) notes that different air pollutants have different side effects. EPA has standards to guide the identification of pollutants based on their health effects, and effects on the environment. Air pollutants are classified into the following classes: suspended particulate matter and gaseous matter. The two classes are further classified based on their effects (Gurung & Bell, 2013). According to Kjellstrom et al. (2006), there are two classes of total suspended particles: finer fraction particles (PM10), and a median fraction (PM2.5). Fine fraction particles are the most harmful air pollutants, and they can reach the alveoli while median fraction particles are made up of the condensation of gaseous pollutants such as sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide (Kjellstrom et al., 2006).

Different bodies have come up with a classification of air pollutants, and they are constantly revised to reflect the changes. According to EPA (2017), the different classes of air pollutants are based on an extensive body of scientific evidence on short and long-term exposure to fine particle pollution, or rather fine particulate matter (PM2.5) (EPA, 2017). Extensive scientific research shows that exposure to PM has respiratory effects. As seen in the Yokkaichi incident that led to asthma attacks among the victims. Kjellstrom et al. (2006) state that scientific classification of pollutants is not enough, empirical research on the extent of the health effects of air pollution must be done. The health effects depend on the exposure; both indoor and outdoor exposures attract unique health effects. The classification of air pollutants is not enough as there is a host of factors that affect how those exposed to the pollutant will react. In Japan’s situation, some victims died, while others sustained serious health complications. Other victims had minor problems, while the others did not sustain any injury. A comprehensive scientific inquiry is necessary to explain the different reactions. Most importantly, factories dealing with harmful chemicals must be aware of the effects of pollutants and must make an effort to educate the public on the effects of being exposed to toxic waste so that they can be more careful. Japanese government realized that it had no option but to find a permanent solution to air pollution after the Yokkaichi Air Pollution Lawsuit was filed in 1969. The Yokkaichi Air Pollution Lawsuit was filed alongside other four major pollution lawsuits. Anti-pollution movement and society, in general, blamed the government for the health problems faced by pollution victims (Terao, 2013). The government's reaction was sluggish at the beginning. In 1967, the government enacted the Basic Law for Environmental Pollution. The first piece of legislation affected all forms of pollution, and it lacked specific directions on how industries and other sources of pollutants must operate to minimize pollution. In 1970, Japan passed 14 anti-pollution laws in what came to be known as the Pollution Diet. The Pollution Diet set goals for the different types of pollution that were affecting the environment, and they were responsible for the environmental changes in Japan. The Pollution Diet was still vague, it was incomplete and lacked clear policies. In 1971, Japan established an Environmental Agency. The agency’s main role was to promote environmental protection and prevent all forms of pollution. The agency became the Ministry of Environment in 2001. Japan created policies to specifically address air pollution too. In 1968, The Air Pollution Control Law identified the measures for sulfur dioxide in industries handling fuel (Terao, 2013). As early as 1968, industries began installing heavy desulphurization types of equipment to limit the release of sulfur pollutants into the environment. The Japanese government assisted the industries with research to help them implement measures to reduce pollution drastically. Government assistance came in different forms, and industries that could not afford expensive desulphurization machinery were given loans and financial support by the government (Terao, 2013). The sulfur dioxide reduction law passed in 1970 was crucial in the reduction of sulfur dioxide emissions such that in 1980, Japan’s sulfur dioxide emissions were down by 78%. Air pollution policies did not target industries only, the government also came up with policies to regulate emissions from mobile sources of pollution. Pollution from traffic had reached extreme levels in the 1960s, such that people in Tokyo and other major urban cities wore gas masks as they walked around in towns. There are requirements for different types of diesel-operated automobiles. Tougher measures were created for lorries and buses. Densely populated cities also come up with city-specific rules. For instance, in 2003, the Tokyo government passed a law to limit the amount of nitrogen oxide and particulate emissions from diesel engines due to the high number of vehicles in Tokyo. In 1972, Absolute Liability Law was enacted to hold those responsible for pollution responsible, whether the pollution was intentional or not. The Absolute Liability Law came up with the Polluter Pay Principle (PPP) as a framework for evaluating the cost of pollution, and the appropriate form of compensation. Once the law was enforced, industries started implementing environmental policies because they did not want to be fined.

Japan has come up with many policies to manage air pollution and other forms of pollution. Some policies affect the entire country, while others affect specific cities. Big cities and cities that were affected by serious air pollution cases such as Yokkaichi City tend to have strict anti-pollution policies.


Air pollution in Japan reached its peak in the 1960s during the rapid industrialization era. Japan was no longer inhabitable, and it was common to find people with oxygen masks in the streets. The emission of sulfur and nitrogen oxide had tripled in the 1960s. The Yokkaichi asthma, Minamata disease, and the itai-itai incident showed the worst-case scenario of extreme environmental pollution. The public vehemently protested the destructive air pollution in the 1960s, and eventually; Japan had no choice but to implement robust anti-pollution measures to address the pollution problem. The first anti-pollution policy was passed in 1968, and in 1970, Japan passed a blizzard of laws known as the Pollution Diet. Air pollution was dramatically reduced, and after 10 years, sulfur dioxide emissions dropped by 78%. Japan has come a long way, and it has gotten rid of dangerous air pollutants that cause serious health problems. However, there are notable air pollutants in today’s society, particularly dioxin and vehicle emission. Japan can further reduce pollution from automobiles by limiting the number of diesel-operated vehicles accessing the city. Big cities such as Tokyo should encourage their residents to use trains or energy-serving vehicles. Cities such as Tokyo, Saitama, and Chaba have enforced strict rules on special filters for diesel-powered automobiles, and the other cities should follow suit. Lastly, the government must continue monitoring the dioxin level as per the provision of the Special Measures against Dioxin Law. The government managed to reduce the level of dioxin to an acceptable level, and it must monitor the emission of dioxin to ensure that it does not exceed the required level.


Environmental Protection Agency. (2017). Clean Act Air Overview: Air Pollution: Current and Future Challenges. Retrieved from: https://www.epa.gov/clean-air- act-overview/air-pollution-current-and-future-challenges 

Greenaccess. (n.d). The History of Japan’s Air Pollution. Retrieved from: http://greenaccess.law.osaka-u.ac.jp/wp content/uploads/2013/04/04en_fujie.pdf 

Greenstone, M., List, J. A., & Syverson, C. (2012). The effects of environmental regulation on the competitiveness of US manufacturing (No. w18392). National Bureau of Economic Research.

Gurung, A., & Bell, M. L. (2013). The state of scientific evidence on air pollution and human health in Nepal. Environmental research , 124 , 54-64.

Hoshino, Y. (1992). Japan's Post-Second World War Environmental Problems. Industrial Pollution in Japan , 64-76.

Iwata, K., & Arimura, T. H. (2008). Economic Analysis of a Japanese Air Pollution Regulation: An Optimal Retirement Problem under Vehicle Type Regulation in the NOx-Particulate Matter Law.

Kjellstrom, T., Lodh, M., McMichael, T., Ranmuthugala, G., Shrestha, R., & Kingsland, S. (2006). Air and water pollution: burden and strategies for control. New York: Oxford University Press .

McGranahan, G., & Murray, F. (2012). Air pollution and health in rapidly developing countries . Earthscan.

Ministry of the Environment. (2017). Japanese Environmental Pollution Experience. Retrieved from: https://www.env.go.jp/en/coop/experience.html 

Nakata, M., Sano, I., & Mukai, S. (2015). Air pollutants in Osaka (Japan). Frontiers in Environmental Science , 3 , 18.

Rosenbluth, F. M., & Thies, M. F. (2002). The political economy of Japanese pollution regulation. American Asian Review , 20 (1), 1.

Roy, K. (2007). Water resources in relation to major agro-environmental issues in Japan. Journal of Developments in Sustainable Agriculture , 2 (1), 27-34.

Terao, T., & 寺尾忠能. (2013). Political economy of low sulfurization and air pollution control policy in Japan: SOx emission reduction by fuel conversion. College of Bioresource Sciences, Nihon University.

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