Show reflects growing 'green' economy

by Mick Corliss

The words “Japanese technology” usually conjure up images of everything from cars and cameras to stereos and mobile phones.

Now, though, growing awareness of “green” issues in this land of concreted coasts and dammed rivers is generating a wave of promising new technologies that consumers and businesses can ride to a more eco-friendly and profitable future. From May 25-28, products incorporating many of these technologies will be on display at “Nexpo 2004 Tokyo,” an annual event subtitled “New Environmental Exposition 2004 Tokyo” being held this year at Tokyo Big Sight.

“The range of technologies showcased at our event has really expanded,” says Mitsuru Niikura of Nippo I.B., a publisher of trade periodicals concerned with waste and the environment, and the driving force behind the show.

Estimates vary, but any way you cut it, the environment is big business in Japan. By 2010, the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry predicts nearly 1.7 million people, or 1.5 percent of the population, will be engaged in environment-industry jobs. The Environment Ministry projects that 2 million will be employed by 2025, with environment-oriented companies responsible for annual turnover of at least 100 trillion yen, compared with the 30 trillion yen estimated in 2000.

Many firms appear to be turning to environmental technologies as integral parts of their business, instead of just a chance for some good PR as often used to be the case. This is in part due to a recent spate of recycling legislation that has affected everything from food to home appliances, as well as stiffer regulations on emissions. As a result, more companies than ever are trying to devise new environmental solutions.

At least 536 firms are slated to participate in Nippo’s exhibition at Tokyo Big Sight — more than double the 225 at the inaugural event in 1992.

Hydrogen-based energy

One particularly promising area is energy. Energy and automobile producers are looking to carve out a slice of the market for non-polluting, hydrogen-based energy sources, one of the most exciting developments on the horizon.

METI expects 50,000 fuel-cell powered vehicles to be on the road by 2010, and on-site fuel cells (mostly 1-kw units for home use) to be generating some 210 million kw of power. Already, Tokyo Gas is set to begin marketing the first commercial domestic fuel cell next year.

Meanwhile, 10 hydrogen stands now operate in the Kanto area, catering to more than 50 vehicles in a project to appraise the usefulness and logistical issues of hydrogen as a fuel.

“Since we already have this [gas] infrastructure we are intent on taking advantage of it,” says Wataru Fujisaki, manager of Tokyo Gas’ R&D planning section.

Fuel cells can convert water, or in this case natural gas, into hydrogen. With 49,000 km of gas pipeline connecting 9.4 million homes, Tokyo Gas could supply roughly half of the average home’s energy needs while diverting excess heat to water heaters. The company plans to market a model for industrial use in 2007.

Issues of cost and durability remain, but government subsidies are being considered, and the fuel-cell business could well mimic the course of solar power, where the leader — Japan — produces nearly half the world’s solar cells. However, although the domestic market is growing fast, solar power still only accounts for 0.19 percent of the nation’s energy needs.

One innovative, if alien-looking, application for solar power is the Kazekamoe street lamp. This Matsushita group product uses solar and wind power to run a lamp and a camera, which can be used to monitor public areas. Though not currently for sale overseas, the product will be exhibited prominently at the Athens’ Olympics this summer.

Stopgap to mainstream

While fuel-cell cars and bizarre street lights may steal the headlines, equipment such as waste-shredders and garbage-sorters perform the environmental grunt work.

One prime example is the homegrown jokaso, an on-site water purification tank. This low-key technology is pervasive — with nearly 2 million already in use — but little known. Essentially a tank the size of a small car, the device is akin to a septic tank, except that jokaso feed waste liquids through compartments where microorganisms purify it for release into the environment.

“Initially, Japan wholeheartedly adopted the Western way of [centralized] treatment. This is good for metropolitan areas, but in the countryside it is too much of a financial burden for municipalities,” contends Takao Watanabe, executive researcher at the Japan Education Center of Environmental Sanitation, a Tokyo-based education and research institution for training jokaso technicians.

The jokaso was originally developed as a stopgap until large-scale sewage-treatment plants reached rural areas. But at less than a third the cost of laying connections to centralized treatment facilities, and with a time horizon for installation of only weeks, these have become mainstream in the countryside.

This promising technology is also starting to be embraced abroad, with projects under way in Indonesia and elsewhere, and other countries expressing interest. A symposium in China is to be held later this year to discuss potential uses for the technology there.

“The jokaso is a very no-frills technology. It is like an environmental treasure for Japan that the world doesn’t know much about,” says Saburo Kato, pundit and head of an environmental nonprofit organization.

Pointing to the increasing environmental focus of Japanese business, he adds: “I think the potential for Japan to . . . provide a model for the world is there, and I hope it happens.”

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