July 21, 2009


A Brief History of the Environmental Movement in Japan (Part I)

Keywords: Newsletter 

JFS Newsletter No.82 (June 2009)

Citizens and the non-governmental organizations (NGOs) representing them have emerged around the world as a significant force driving social change. Although still in the early stages of development compared to European countries, the United States, and so on, NGOs and citizen-driven movements in Japan are evolving in their own unique way, while having taken inspiration from overseas. In this article, Junko Edahiro offers a recent history of the evolution of Japan's citizen movement and her views on future prospects, based on more than a decade as an environmental journalist, writer, interpreter, and advocate for the environment. Her views have been formed by many interactions over the years with persons and organizations in every sector of society. Junko also writes first-hand on NGOs, as one of the original co-founders of Japan for Sustainability.


When I look back over the years, I see three phases of development in the history of citizen movements and NGOs in Japan.

The first phase focused on "fighting industrial pollution." During the period of rapid industrial growth in Japan between the mid-1950s and early 1970s, serious pollution problems began to surface all over the country. Examples include the industrial mercury poisoning that led to an outbreak of Minamata disease, the severe health impacts of air pollution from the giant petrochemical complex in Yokkaichi, and the mining-caused cadmium pollution that made people suffer from the "itai-itai" disease (literally, the "ouch-ouch sickness"). In response, anti-pollution campaigns were launched, mainly by the local residents most affected.

As the movement spread across the country, environmental awareness among the general public continued to grow. People realized they were not alone in being affected by these problems, and that they had the power to influence society; they could get corporations to take responsibility for their actions, and get governments to implement the necessary laws and regulations. Under pressure from this widespread anti-pollution movement, the government began to introduce a variety of pollution control laws and regulations, while corporations started to more seriously tackle environmental problems.

For example, in response to public demands for pollution control measures, an extraordinary session of the Diet was convened (64th Diet, also known as the Pollution Diet), at the end of November in 1970, to deliberate intensively on pollution problems. Recognizing the urgent need for national pollution-related legislation, the government submitted 14 bills to the Diet, which passed them all, including an amendment of the Basic Law for Environmental Pollution Control.

The second phase of the development of Japanese citizen-driven movements was the tackling of "pollution caused by urban lifestyles" -- pollution stemming from the everyday actions of the general public, as opposed to pollution by particular corporations. A symbolic event was the outbreak in 1977 of a red tide in Shiga Prefecture's Lake Biwa, Japan's biggest lake.

Experts discovered that the lake, an important source of drinking water for millions of people in western Japan, including big cities like Osaka and Kyoto, was contaminated with phosphorus from the household use of synthetic detergents. This was cause of the red tides, which are actually algal blooms caused by an excess of nutrients in the water.

The local people were shocked when they learned that they themselves were the cause of the pollution. They began efforts to protect the lake, thinking that it was they who must act. A campaign was organized, mainly by homemakers, which called on households to use natural soap instead of synthetic detergent. As this "soap movement" spread across the country from Lake Biwa, national and local governments implemented a variety of laws and regulations to regulate the water quality of lakes and water bodies.

At this stage, many citizens realized that the way they lived their lives affected nature and the Earth. So they started to rethink and change their lifestyles, instead of simply accusing or protesting against corporations found to be damaging the environment.

This increasing public awareness led to the third phase of the citizens' movement, tackling global environmental issues. Until this point, people generally regarded environmental problems as local issues, such as the local rivers being polluted, or nearby mountains being damaged, or the condition of local seas being threatened. In the 1990s, however, especially after the 1992 Earth Summit, public awareness of global environmental problems started to spread dramatically. Admittedly, this spread was not just a local trend in Japan; it was a global shift in awareness.

Then disaster struck Japan: the Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake in 1995.

It was devastating. Over 6,000 people died in and around the city of Kobe, and most city functions ground to a halt. Students and other members of the public converged from all over Japan into the Hanshin area near the quake's epicenter as volunteers came to help the earthquake victims and help get the city back up and running.

This is regarded by many as Year One for Volunteers in Japan. The incident affected the public psyche and helped promote the idea of volunteerism in modern times among the Japanese people. It made many people think about not just their own wellbeing, but also the importance of helping others, and doing what is necessary for the good of society, even if it meant no financial compensation.

Another landmark was in 1997, when an international conference of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change was held in Kyoto to negotiate and adopt the Kyoto Protocol. Many Japanese citizens worked together in the hopes of making this meeting a success. To this point, most NGOs in Japan were still small and worked locally. Inspired by the examples of previous climate change conferences overseas, however, where many NGOs in host country had formed a network to speak with a common voice at the conference, some NGOs began form a network in Japan as well.

For the Kyoto Conference, many Japanese citizen organizations and NGOs jointly established the "Kiko Forum" ("kiko" means "climate"), a network-based NGO to work on issues from the citizen's perspective. It was a major step in coalescing the power of citizens, by creating a network of groups on this issue. The forum later evolved into the "Kiko Network," which continues even now to work on global warming issues.

One can discern through all these developments the gradual evolution of NGO activities in Japan. It was in this context that the Japanese government began attempting to recognize more clearly the status of NGOs in society. Up to this point, most NGOs were considered voluntary organizations (i.e., collections of individuals working voluntarily) and had no legal status. Because of this lack of status, they had a hard time doing simple things like renting an office or getting financing. Any such transactions had to be done in the name of an individual who took full responsibility.

In 1998, a law concerning the activities of non-profit organizations (NPOs) (known in Japan as the NPO Act) entered into force. It entitles NGOs recognized by the national government or a municipality to seek legal status. The law has made things easier for NGOs, and since then the number of NPOs in Japan has increased dramatically.

Currently, more than 35,000 NPOs are incorporated in Japan. The majority of them work in the areas of health, welfare, and town planning, while up to 10,000 focus on the environment. Incidentally, Japan for Sustainability remains a voluntary non-governmental organization, because we didn't see the need to become an incorporated NPO. There are many other NGOs and citizens' groups like us.

As a flood of media coverage and reports warns us of the reality that global warming is accelerating, more and more citizens are feeling that society's progress will be too slow if we continue to simply depend on national or local governments to do something, and that we must act sooner. In Japan, the traditional pattern to deal with issues in society was for government to lead and companies and citizens to follow. These days, however, citizen-led actions to address global warming are spreading, partly because the government has less power to lead its citizens than it had before.

Environmental education for the young and the general public is one area where we now witness major NPO involvement. A growing movement of citizens is also trying to make cities more sustainable. For instance, many initiatives are trying to prevent the generation of waste first, and then reuse or recycle the materials that eventually are disposed. There is also a movement to promote consumption of locally-produced energy through efforts such as citizen-funded renewable energy projects, as introduced in a past JFS newsletter

Another active movement focuses on the wise use of local resources. For instance, although 67 percent of Japanese land is forested (with plantations being a major proportion), Japan's forest resources have not been effectively utilized in the past few decades due to competition from cheap foreign timber. Forests will not be well tended if they are not being utilized. As the health of our forests started to deteriorate, we have seen many groups across the country working to maintain and preserve them.

This article has provided a brief introduction of the evolution of Japan's citizens' movement and NGO activities. Reflecting upon it all, I see two major trends.

One is a general shift away from activities to oppose something (negative), and instead towards activities that support something (positive). There used to be many protests across Japan against pollution and over-development, such as the construction of dams and forest exploitation. Protests still occur locally, of course, but when we want to tackle global environmental issues, including global warming, in which each of us is part of causing those problems, we must take another approach. In such a case, I believe that one effective approach is to create a vision of a desirable nation and society, and to support efforts that will lead us there. We are seeing more and more NGOs taking this approach.

The other trend is that, increasingly, more "regular" people are joining NGOs, which in the past tended to consist of the minority of people with a heightened awareness of issues. For instance, these days many people work for a company on weekdays, and then participate in NGO activities during their free time. That is the case with JFS, which has close to 500 volunteers. It is very encouraging for me to know that the movement is expanding.


In the next issue, I will categorize and introduce the types of Japanese NGO positions and activities, as well as their various roles.

Written by Junko Edahiro