Sleep? Under the stars? Neither’s done easily in this town


I will love the light for it shows me the way/ Yet I will endure the darkness for it shows me the stars

So wrote the late author Og Mandino. But here in the metropolitan area, darkness is a rare commodity. In fact, look up on a given night in central Tokyo, and chances are you’ll see little more than a hazy red glow.

Here, vending machines, neon signs and convenience stores beat back starlight, which travels millions of light years to reach the Earth.

Light pollution is a growing problem in the metropolis. The problem, exacerbated by smog and other atmospheric particles that reflect the light, recently forced a national observatory 50 km from downtown Shinjuku to close down.

Observation conditions gradually worsened at Dodaira Observatory in Tokigawa, Saitama Prefecture, until the Education Ministry finally closed the facility in late March.

Hiroki Kosai, head of the Saji Observatory in Saji, Tottori Prefecture, remembers visiting the Dodaira observatory while carrying out preliminary measurements before it opened in 1962.

“The sky was full of stars,” Kosai remembers. “It was so dark, you couldn’t see your feet.”

But in 1993, when Kosai last visited the observatory, the light pollution was so bad that he could walk around without a flashlight.

A recent estimate says that 2 billion yen is spent on lights released into the atmosphere every night in Japan.

The problem is a blow not only to the nation’s many amateur astronomers, but also to sleep-deprived residents and farmers who say perpetual light disrupts crop cycles.

The number of such complaints is growing in Yokohama, says Kuniaki Makiya of the city’s Bureau of Environmental Protection. A total of 14 complaints were filed in fiscal 1999, triggering the city to launch a study on possible countermeasures. Its report is to be released by the end of fiscal 2000.

“Light also helps maintain public safety,” Makiya said. “We have to balance the benefits.”

The Environment Agency issued guidelines on light pollution in 1998 that recommended limits on the brightness of neon and streetlights. So far six local entities, including Nagoya, have implemented a portion of the guidelines on an experimental basis.