Remarkable Recovery: The Modern History of Japan’s Environment

Mount Fuji and the Sumida River: Japan’s Reviving Environment


The author launched his career as a science journalist at a newspaper just when Japan was entering an era of heavy industrial pollution. His investigations of domestic pollution soon expanded to environmental research in 130 countries. After years of reporting on degradation around the world, the author has turned his attention back to Japan in this new series.

Blue Sky over a Charred Land

I was five years old when World War II ended. I remember seeing a flat, charred Tokyo landscape with not a building left standing. There were also, however, great expanses of blue sky and nothing to get in the way of glorious sunsets. While human beings scrambled to survive in the great devastation, other living creatures were quick to return to the havens provided by parks, cemeteries, temple and shrine grounds. These creatures fascinated me and I spent my youth seeking out plants, birds, and insects of all kinds.

World War II air raids left downtown Tokyo a flattened landscape of charred devastation. (© Mainichi Shimbun/Aflo)

Japan lost 3.1 million people and half of its gross domestic product in World War II, a conflict that left 15 million people homeless. This was the worst and most extensive environmental destruction Japan had ever experienced.

My life spans Japan’s history from its recovery from this devastation through the era of its rapid growth into one of the world’s leading economic powers, with a GDP second only to the United States, all the way to the most recent economic slump. I have watched the country’s changes over time from the perspective of their effect upon the natural environment. As an environmental journalist, as a researcher at universities here and abroad, and as a member of the United Nation’s environmental agency, I count myself as a member of the first—and probably the last—generation in Japan to experience such drastic environmental change.

From the sixties to the seventies, Japan’s natural environment was labeled the worst in the world, a “department store of pollution.” Air, water, and land pollution were rife. Noise and foul odors were a part of daily life, and it seemed that wildlife had almost entirely disappeared. New diseases caused by pollution ravaged communities throughout the country and court battles over who was to blame and who should pay compensation were common. Japan was paying the price for its rapid economic growth.

Somehow, though, we managed to make our way through this wretched period to overcome many of the environmental issues. In fact, while there are still problems to be solved, in terms of the data for air, water, and land pollution, waste volume, and chemical contamination, Japan has seen its environmental quality recover to the point where it can serve as a role model for the rest of the world. The rapidly increasing number of tourists coming to Japan—not just for the food and shopping, but to see scenic areas and participate in nature tours—testifies to this.

Tokyo is a microcosm of the rest of Japan. For someone like myself, born and raised in the capital, my yardsticks for measuring environmental recovery are Mount Fuji and the Sumida River.

The Mountain Reappears

When I was growing up in downtown Tokyo, we could see the tip of Mount Fuji from my house. Up through my high-school days, my route to and from school was along Fujimizaka—“Fuji-View Hill”—in the Gokokuji district of the city of Bunkyō. Just as the name implied, you could see Mount Fuji between the high-rise buildings. On clear winter days, I would be enthralled by the sight of Mount Fuji’s glittering snowcapped peak.

Somewhere around the time I was in high school, however, a haze began to shroud the mountain.

The number of days that Mount Fuji can be seen from Tokyo is a barometer of the degree of air pollution. At Seikei Gakuen, a private school in Musashino in the western Tama district of the Tokyo metropolis, students regularly collect meteorological data as a part of their studies. One of their tasks is to check if Mount Fuji, 83 kilometers away, can be seen by the naked eye from the school rooftop. They have been doing this check every day for over a half-century since 1963.

In 1965, at the peak of Japan’s era of rapid economic growth, Mount Fuji was visible for only 22 days out of the year. After the oil crisis of 1973 and the sudden drop in petroleum consumption that resulted, however, this went up to more than 80 days. Tokyo’s air continued to clear as car and factory emission controls became increasingly stringent. By 2014, thanks to these controls and Tokyo’s increasingly drier climate, the number of days per year on which Mount Fuji was clearly visible had jumped to a record-breaking 138 days.

As Tokyo’s atmosphere cleared, Mount Fuji could be viewed more frequently from downtown. (© Jiji Press/Aero Asahi Corporation)

There were a number of bumps along the way before we got to this point. On July 18, 1970, in the midst of PE class, 43 students on the athletics field of the Tokyo Risshō Junior and Senior High School located near Metropolitan Route 318, the “Kannana expressway,” collapsed from photochemical smog, their throats burning and their eyes stinging. This incident sparked an explosion of anger from Tokyo residents. As it happened, just around that same time, I was participating in the first-ever protest demonstration calling for the protection of the environment. We marched to the slogan, “Give back our beautiful nature!”

Around the time Mount Fuji was disappearing in a haze of smog, air pollution was spreading in the United States and Europe as well. London was enveloped in smog so dense that many people died. In Sweden and Norway, acid rain was killing whole forests, depleting lakes and reservoirs of fish, and causing old buildings to crumble. Photochemical smog warnings were so frequent in Los Angeles that parents were refusing to send their children to school.

Back in Japan, in the city of Yahata on the southwestern island of Kyūshū, an air quality measuring instrument recorded the worst reading since air pollution measurements had begun. Yahata—which merged with four other municipalities in 1963 to form the city Kitakyūshū—was a thriving company town of the Yawata Steel Works, whose chimneys spewed out multicolored plumes of “rainbow smoke.” The dense smoke was hailed as a sign of prosperity, and was even included in the city’s official song, whose second verse went: “Rippling plumes of burning flames / Send billows of smoke to the heavens / Such a glorious view of our steel works / Yahata, Yahata, our city of Yahata / The prosperity of our city is our duty to achieve.”

The city workers and citizens who sang this song saw the emissions as a symbol of affluence and took great pride in the steel works. Local postcards sold back in the day showed cityscapes engulfed in smoke.

The first people to rise up against the pollution were the Yahata mothers who feared for their children’s health. The local women’s association, raising the cry “We want a blue sky,” invited specialists to speak at town meetings, and some women even went to universities to learn how to measure air pollution. They talked with the executive officers of the Yawata Steel Works and finally prevailed upon the city council to enforce tougher regulations.

With local citizens, the company, and the city administration all working together, there soon came about a decided improvement in the city’s environment. By the 1980s, Kitakyūshū was touted throughout Japan and overseas as a “miracle city” that had successfully overcome pollution. In 1990, the individuals and groups that had worked to bring this about were bestowed with the Global 500 Award by the United Nations Environment Program.

Releasing Salmon into the Sumida

Some 3.3 million people live along the Sumida River, an urban river like no other, cutting north-to-south through the downtown area of eastern Tokyo. My memories of the river are inseparably linked to the great summer fireworks. Going to the Sumida River Fireworks Festival was an annual summer event for my family that was not to be missed. Back then, the grand spectacle was called Ryōgoku no Kawabiraki—“Opening the River at Ryōgoku,” a district on the river’s eastern bank.

The fireworks festival dates back to the Edo period (1603–1868), when the Sumida River, with its leisure boats and stalls along its banks selling food and drinks, was a happy playground for the people of Tokyo, then known as Edo, as can be seen in numerous woodblock prints from the period. The Sumida River was also an important avenue for the transport of goods and supplies into the city and served as a focal point of Edo’s economy and life.

Around the same time in history, the urban rivers of Europe were unapproachable, smelly troughs of raw sewage. The odor from the River Thames in London got so bad in the summer of 1858, the year of the “Great Stink,” that the House of Commons and the courthouse on the river bank had to be temporarily closed.

In the early eighteenth century, Edo was a thriving city of more than a million people, ranking along with Paris and London as one of the world’s major cities. Foreign travelers who came to Edo were amazed to see children playing and fish swimming in the Sumida. The river was clean because human waste was collected to be used as fertilizer rather than simply drained into the river.

This practice ended as Japan entered the modern era, though, and the Sumida’s cleanliness also faded. In the second half of the twentieth century the river’s days as a major transport route were over, this function having been replaced by land transport travelling along a network of roads built in the postwar years of Japan’s rapid economic growth. At the same time, sewage and factory effluents draining into the river caused a rapid decline in its water quality. The building of high levees to protect from flooding further set the river apart from the communities it had once served, and as people lost their connection to the river environment, the Sumida River became a byword for polluted waters.

The abandoned river was desolate. By the 1950s, the river was emitting noxious gases and there were no fish or shellfish to be found in its waters. Eventually, pressure from people living along the river forced the creation of a civil liberties commission to investigate the health hazards created by its polluted waters. The stink wafted through the crowds gathered for the annual fireworks; people had to hold their noses while they watched the brilliant displays overhead. By 1961, the odor was so bad the fireworks were cancelled.

The fireworks festival had continued for more than two centuries, with only a brief interruption during the wartime years, and the local people were stricken when it stopped. But the cancellation also became the impetus for local residents, neighborhood organizations, and businesses to start to do something to clean up the river. Portions of the high levees that had separated the people from the water were taken down and the river banks were gradually restored to their original state. By 1988, a sewage system was in place for 90% of Tokyo, reaching effectively 100% six years later. At the same time, tougher regulations on industrial effluents were put in place.

By the turn of the century, the Sumida River’s water quality had improved significantly. The river’s BOD (biochemical oxygen demand) level had fallen to a fraction of what it had been in 1970, and over the three decades to the year 2000, the Sumida River’s BOD levels consistently passed government environmental quality standards. And while still only a few species, some fish and water birds have begun to return to the river, and water plants have started growing again along its banks. Today, the bridges across the Sumida River are lit up at night and have become quite the tourist attraction.

The Sumida River’s water quality has continued to improve since the year 2000. (© Pixta)

To prove that Tokyo’s rivers are once again viable, local groups and elementary school children have been regularly releasing salmon fry into the Nihonbashi River, a tributary of the Sumida River, since 2012. It should not be long before local residents can boast that the salmon have returned and that the Sumida River is truly back to what it once was.

It is not easy to find any other nation that has undergone such a drastic transformation of its environment over just a few decades. The deterioration of the global environment has shifted from the developed to the developing regions. As the countries of Asia, the Middle East, and Africa grapple with environmental problems, they will increasingly look to Japan as a role model.

In this series I will follow the roadmap of Japan’s struggle with environmental issues in the modern era. In the next installments, I will start with the dramatic tale of wild birds brought back from the brink of extinction.

(Originally published in Japanese. Banner photo: Tanchō [red crowned] cranes soar above the Hokkaido skies. Ishi Hiroyuki’s keen insight into environmental issues was fostered by the bird-watching that has captivated his interest since childhood. © Wada Masahiro.)

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