The Ecologist December 1971: Japan’s ‘economic miracle’

Ecologist Magazine December 1971
Forty years ago this month The Ecologist reported on the environmental implications of the rise of the Japanese economy. In the wake of the recent earthquake and associated nuclear fears has it cleaned up its act?

During its most rapid stages of economic development the world became both fascinated and suspicious of Japan. Despite the country being a relatively unknown entity at the time, Peter Smith voiced his concerns about the rapid degradation of Japan's natural environment. In light of the recent Fukushima nuclear disaster and the Japan’s continued dependence on the automobile, still contributing to the nation’s air pollution woes, it is clear that these environmental problems are far from having been resolved.

At the time of Peter Smith’s original article Japan had risen from the post-war ashes to rank as ‘the third greatest economic power in the world’. This extraordinary feat was achieved through the commitment to a Ten Year Economic Plan. The goals of doubling national income and gross national product by 1970 were ruthlessly pursued and a blind eye was turned to the alarming increase in air pollution in the major metropolitan areas such as Tokyo. The city developed a chronic photochemical smog problem which, over a 5 day period in August 1970, resulted in the hospitalisation of over 8,000 people. Even with the now mandatory requirement for cars to be equipped with catalytic converters and the implementation of Low Emissions Vehicle Regulations in 2007, smog continues to plague the Tokyo skyline.

The love affair the Japanese have with the automobile is far from over but Japan's public transportation infrastructure has evolved into one of the most advanced systems in the world. The bullet train network known as the Shinkansen was first established in 1964 and has since taken numerous cars off the road and even rendered internal flight routes redundant (the flight service between Tokyo and Nagoya was abolished after the Shinkansen connected the two cities). The Shinkansen has proved a boon for the country’s environmental credentials, travelling from Tokyo to Osaka by train results in only 16 percent of the carbon dioxide pollution as the equivalent journey by car (amount of CO2 per unit transport volume).

The engineering capabilities evident in Japan's now privatised Shinkansen train network, it was on the verge of bankruptcy when Peter Smith was writing, are also present in its car industry. The world’s second largest car firm, Toyota, has been at the forefront of hybrid petrol-electric technology having launched the highly successful Prius model over 10 years ago(it was first on sale in Japan in 1997). UK deliveries have already started for Nissan’s new LEAF (Leading, Environmentally friendly, Affordable, Family car)an electric vehicle boasting a range of up to 100miles.

These innovative transport solutions have been the result of many years of investment in R&D, evidence of this can be found in Peter Smith’s original article where Nissan were already said to be in the process of developing a pollution-free engine after having entered into a contractual agreement with the American Kinetics Institute.

Japan’s big cities have yet to rid themselves of photochemical smog and the natural environment continues to be marred by the waste from its manufacturing industry. However, the nation’s remarkable resilience in the face of disaster following this year’s earthquake and their technological achievements which have lead to the exportation of pollution abatement technology worldwide means bright horizons may lie ahead for the so called 'land of the rising sun'.

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