May 31, 2007


The 'Ube Method' of Environmental Policy: From Local Beginnings (Ube City, Yamaguchi Prefecture) to the World

Keywords: Newsletter 

JFS Newsletter No.57 (May 2007)
"Initiatives and Achievements of Local Governments in Japan" Article Series No.16

In the 1950s and 1960s, Japan experienced serious environmental problems, such as contaminated factory effluent and soot dust, due to rapid economic growth after World War II. Four major pollution-related diseases appeared during those years in Japan: "itai-itai" disease, Minamata disease, Niigata Minamata disease, and Yokkaichi asthma. Some people say that had the national and municipal governments taken the proper measures at that time, the damage caused by these diseases could have been reduced.

In those days, however, one local government successfully avoided pollution-caused tragedies by encouraging businesses to disclose information and take voluntary steps to prevent pollution. Ube City in Yamaguchi Prefecture has been praised internationally as a progressive city in terms of pollution measures, thanks to its environmental policies, known as the "Ube Method." The city never produced any officially-recognized victims of a pollution-related disease. This article will provide readers a brief history of Ube City's pollution countermeasures and its unique type of environmental policy.

Development of Coal Industry and History of Soot Dust Contamination

Ube City is located in the southwestern part of Yamaguchi Prefecture, in western Japan. Its population is 179,000 and land area is 287 square kilometers. The city has a mild climate and low annual rainfall. Blessed with abundant coal supplies, the city developed along with the growth of its coal industry since the mid-nineteenth century. In the early twentieth century, cement and chemical-related businesses started to operate in the city, originating from the coal industry. Though most of the city burned during the war, the city was successfully restored by a booming coal economy in the postwar period. In the meantime, as the country shifted from coal to petroleum as the main source of energy, many coal mines in Japan were forced to close. Ube City, however, succeeded in transforming itself to a modern industrial city based on a thriving chemical industry.

Profile of Ube City

In the development of coal industry, soot dust contamination is inevitably a big problem, and Ube City was no exception. The city experienced serious contamination due to the increase of coal use in the business sector. Because coal produced in the city was low in calories, it was difficult to burn without special measures. Instead, coal was ground into small particles, blown with air into incinerators, and burned. This process generated a large amount of fall ash on the city, so bad that citizens could not open their windows or dry laundry outside.

To cope with the situation, the Ube City's Fallen Dust Committee was established in the city council in 1949. The committee started to investigate the causes of contamination, such as the quality and quantity of coal consumed at factories, the kinds of boilers they used, and whether they had dust collecting equipment or not. Along with the investigation, they started to measure the quantity of fallen dust at 10 sites in the city, and to keep statistics on air pollution and health hazards. It was the first attempt in Japan to take such a systematic and organized approach to deal with pollution. Findings, such as the amount of fallen dust and health research data, were released in local papers every month, in order to provide information disclosure to citizens on the situation of soot dust contamination.

How Ube Method Started

In 1951, the Ube City's Dust Fall Committee was formed by a new ordinance when the term of Ube City's Fallen Dust Committee expired. Under this ordinance, which does not set control standards and penalties, the committee members consisted of the mayor as the chairperson, four company representatives, four administrative staff, two scholars and four city council representatives. The main purpose of the committee was to address the sources of contamination through discussions based on scientific data. The Ube Method placed emphasis on information disclosure and mutual trust among the community members. With a spirit of solidarity, four parties in the city--industry, government, academia, and private citizens--united to protect the health of the local community they lived in. The foundations of the Ube Method were established in this way.

Naturally, however, some differences of opinion arose, between profit-seeking businesses and the committee. Against this backdrop, Kanichi Nakayasu, the then-vice-president of Ube Industries, visited Pittsburgh in the United States to learn how it had transformed itself from "smog city" to become a green city. When he returned to Japan, he stated his opinions to Ube City's Dust Fall Committee that the control of dust fall was essential for the development of the city and for business. The committee used this proposal as an opportunity to set targets for dust fall concentrations, and then actively urged local businesses to take measures to reduce dust fall.

To meet the targets, the factories in the city invested heavily to improve or install dust collectors. As a result of these efforts, the monthly dust fall dropped sharply, by about one-third in ten years. It fell from 55.9 tons per square kilometer in 1951 to 16.0 tons per square kilometer in 1961. By 1965 the sky was blue again, and the city received the Prime Minister's Prize for its contribution to the safety of citizens by controlling dust fall.

Ube Methods (In Japanese only)

The most noteworthy feature of the Ube Method is that the parties causing the pollution (the companies) joined the discussions before the pollution impacts were too severe and voluntarily took proactive steps to combat pollution. Nowadays, the general approach to control pollution could be described as vertical control, whereby governments require businesses to comply with emission standards and enforce their compliance. At that time, however, the country was in the middle of a period of high economic growth and people were concerned about the possible substantial economic impacts of pollution controls. Therefore, instead of starting with a vertical control relationship, the Ube Method provided an opportunity to discuss the issue among the key players (industry-government-academia and private citizens) so that realistic pollution control measures could be taken through equal relationships among the concerned parties and through the proper disclosure of information.

UNEP Global 500

The partnership-based spirit of the Ube Method has been adapted to not only dust control but also measures to address global environmental issues, including waste management and global warming abatement, as well as urban pollution problems such as water pollution, noise and vibration. In particular, based on information disclosure and partnerships among citizens, businesses, academics, and the government, with each player fulfilling its respective role, the Ube Method is attracting attention worldwide as an effective approach to tackle global warming, which arises from a complex causes.

In 1997, Ube City was awarded the Global 500 Award of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) for its environmental efforts based on the Ube Method. That same year, the city sent out the "Ube Appeal" to the world, advocating the spirit of the Ube Method as a pioneering concept in establishing an international cooperative framework to tackle global warming.

UNEP Global 500
Ube Appeal (in Japanese only)

Since it received the UNEP Global 500, Ube City has proactively promoted international cooperation in the area of the environment. In 1998, the city established the Ube International Environmental Cooperative Association (Ube IECA). So far, together with the Ube IECA, Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), and other organizations, Ube has received 218 trainees from a total of 39 countries, including China and South Korea, to transfer environmental protection technologies and environmental policy approaches.

Receiving overseas trainees (in Japanese only)

In 2002, a citizens' group called the Ube Network for Climate Change Action (UNCCA) was established, aiming to curb greenhouse gases at the local level. Currently, the UNCCA has 133 support organizations and about 29,000 individual members. Based on the spirit of the Ube Method, the group has been engaged in raising awareness on greenhouse gas emissions and promoting control measures, including promotion of the use of public transport and encouraging citizens to bring their own bags for shopping, through the partnership among industries, the government, academia, and citizens.

Ube Network for Climate Change Action (in Japanese only)

In the past when Japan experienced pollution problems, it might have been possible to prevent damage from spreading if all the people concerned had discussed matters openly, through partnership based on the spirit of the Ube Method, to share ideas and find the best way to solve problems. Now that many people sense that the global environment is changing, it is obvious that our planet could face irreversible destruction if we ignore such changes. Global warming is a problem that must be tackled differently from the approaches taken to control industrial pollution, which could be solved by controlling individual emission sources. Perhaps the world can learn more from the Ube Method today, by sharing our knowledge and taking voluntary actions toward a sustainable society, while having the courage to face the facts.

(By Ichie Tsunoda)