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Money that must go down the pan

by Philip Brasor and Masako Tsubuku

An important hallmark of development is public wastewater facilities, which are vital in curbing the spread of infectious diseases and checking pollution. Europe leads in this regard. In the Netherlands, 99 percent of the population is connected to public sewerage systems. In the United States the portion is about 75 percent. Japan’s rate, according to the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications, is 76.3 percent as of March 2013, though this number represents population rather than households. In almost all of Japan’s major cities, the rate is close to 100 percent, but the farther away from cities you get the more the number drops. Tokushima Prefecture is the lowest, at 16.3 percent.

This isn’t to say that Tokushima residents are in danger of contracting dysentery, only that the majority of people aren’t hooked up to gessui (public sewerage systems), which bring wastewater to treatment plants. Most of such households have septic tanks, which in Japan are called jokaso. After the war, the demand for flush toilets increased exponentially, but there were not enough resources to build public sewerage facilities as quickly as people replaced their squat commodes with Western-style ones, so many people had to use septic tanks.

In the beginning, septic tanks used the itandoku-shori method, which meant that so-called black water from toilets was processed in the tank while so-called gray water from the bath and kitchen went straight into the environment. Special trucks would periodically drain the septic tanks and take the sludge to treatment plants. By 1969, the number of people relying on public sewerage systems was about the same as the number with septic tanks. Then, in the 1980s, when government standards were revised, new homes increasingly installed advanced jokaso using the gappei-shori method, which processed both black and gray water in a highly efficient manner.

This development is important because it seems likely that more new Japanese homes will rely less on public sewerage systems. Most people are moving to major urban areas that already have sewerage systems, so there is less incentive for local governments to build or extend sewerage systems in sparsely populated suburbs and rural areas.

According to the Sewage Act of 1958, all homes in Japan that are not connected to public sewerage systems must do so within three years of such a system being made available. That means if your home has a septic tank or other type of contained waste-disposal system and your local government then extends sewerage to your community, you are supposed to connect your plumbing to that system at your own expense and within three years. But, as with many such laws in Japan there is no enforcement, and since by today’s standards it would cost a household ¥200-¥300,000 to carry out the work, many don’t, especially since newer jokaso often do a better job of cleaning waste than municipal treatment plants do.

More importantly, local governments will not extend sewerage systems to new communities with low population densities. Take Tokushima Prefecture. One of the reasons the sewerage rate is so low is that the area is often in the path of typhoons, which create floods. Local governments in the prefecture are more likely to earmark public-works funds for flood protection, which benefits everyone, than for sewerage, which benefits a smaller part of the population. It’s a matter of priorities.

We faced a similar situation when we were looking for land on which to build a house in northern Chiba Prefecture. The land we wanted did not have sewerage (or waterworks or “city gas”) even though it was less than a kilometer from Chiba New Town, a major development project that had all these utilities. We called up the local government who told us quite definitely that there were no plans to extend water and sewerage to the area where the land was located, which used to be farmland but had been bought by a local real estate company for housing. Fortunately, the city subsidizes the installation of jokaso to households where sewerage is not available. In fact, most local governments that do not have extensive sewerage systems offer such a subsidy. The exceptions are localities, such as Onjuku on the Pacific coast of Chiba, that have no sewerage system to begin with. Onjuku doesn’t offer a subsidy because it doesn’t have to worry about being fair to all its residents.

The application for the subsidy was made by the private company with whom our builder contracted to provide plumbing. We were told that the city had a budget for jokaso, which means there was a fixed amount of money available during a given fiscal year. The septic tank the contractor chose was certified for a family of five, which seemed large to us since only two people would be living in our house, and we wondered if the subsidy system was subject to opportunism. The tank, along with the labor, would cost ¥467,000, of which the city eventually paid ¥440,000 in accordance with the size.

Households who are connected to sewerage systems have to pay for it. When we lived in Tokyo, the fee was incorporated into our water bill. When we lived in an apartment in Chiba New Town, the public sewerage system was billed separately and came to about ¥1,000 a month. Being outside the system, however, doesn’t mean you don’t pay. After our septic tank was installed, a city official came to inspect it and instructed us on upkeep regulations. The city would “hire” a private inspector to check the tank once a year at a cost of about ¥5,000. Also, a truck would come at least twice a year to remove sludge and clean the tank if necessary, which would also cost money. There would also be a maintenance check every three months and an occasional water quality check of the effluent that would cost ¥12,000.

If these various operations sound like typical bureaucratic gouging, we learned that Inbanuma, which is located to the east of our property, is the most polluted lake in Japan, and waste water with high levels of organic compounds is the main culprit. Thanks to better jokaso technology, the lake’s pollution levels have dropped significantly since the late 90s, but it’s still much higher than it should be.

The city inspector gave us a lecture on how important it is to use our jokaso responsibly, to protect not just our investment but the environment. By being careful about what we flushed down our toilets and washed down our sinks we would not only prevent damaging our jokaso, but also do less harm to the environment. We’ve been careful ever since. It’s not something you think much about when you are hooked up to the sewerage system, which somebody else takes care of.

Philip Brasor and Masako Tsubuku blog about Japanese housing at www.catforehead.wordpress.com.