You win some and you lose some . . .


Ten years ago, on March 12, 1992, this column began its life on these pages. Though it’s still “green,” when compared with colleagues who have graced The Japan Times for several decades, Our Planet Earth has now appeared more than 245 times.

Looking back over 10 years of columns reveals a Japan where environmental issues manifest a form of inverted Darwinism: Good ideas do not always survive despite their considerable merit; and bad ideas do not always die a swift, natural death — as one might expect and hope — despite being bad ideas.

My first column introduced TERRA, a nonprofit, advertising-free magazine that focused on issues of culture and environment, and reflected a vibrant segment of early ’90s optimism. Barbara Ward, writing in the autumn 1991 issue of TERRA, captured the idealism and enthusiasm shared by environmentalists at the time, both Japanese and foreign. Ward wrote, “Virtually everything that works today began with a vision and with a group of idealists prepared to work for it. Where there is no vision, people perish. Our visionary perspective is the true realism and that is what we have got to pursue.”

TERRA was one of the good ideas of the early ’90s, a solid, entertaining publication. Within two years, however, it folded.

In June of the same year, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, hosted the U.N. Earth Summit. The summit, too, was a good idea, but too vast, too amorphous and too politicized. Unlike many environmental writers, I did not write about Rio. Instead, that month I wrote about the serial degradation of wetlands in Japan, and how residential sprawl was eating away at the hills of Kamakura.

If these issues sound familiar, they are. A decade after Rio, not much has changed. In fact, many of the bad ideas that were floating around in the bubble years are still afloat, despite being white elephants.

One example is the plan to cut two large tunnels through the heart of Mount Takao, one of Tokyo’s most popular destinations for tourists, hikers and for Shinto and Buddhist pilgrims, located in a quasi-national park in western Tokyo. These tunnels are part of a huge ring-road project that bureaucrats hope will circle the perimeter of Tokyo. They are also unnecessary and will add to already problematic levels of traffic congestion and unhealthy emissions.

This plan to bore through the heart of one of Japan’s great natural and religious treasures has long struck me as emblematic of the undemocratic and money-driven construction politics that have hollowed out postwar Japan and resulted in ecosystem degradation nationwide. My earliest criticism of the plan was that first summer as a columnist, July 1992. I assumed that any idea so inherently bad would soon be abandoned. I was wrong.

Unlike other developed nations, where patently irresponsible projects often wilt and die under open debate, public-works projects in Japan seem to take on lives of their own. Until recently, construction plans were frequently under way before citizens were even informed, leaving the public no voice in deciding how tax-funded projects were to impact their communities, businesses and homes.

Now laws have changed and new public works projects must comply with more demanding environmental-impact assessment requirements, including limited public discussion and comment. Nevertheless, projects that have already been approved, often decades ago, are exempt. So Takao, which has inspired me to write so many times over the years, remains targeted for drilling.

A more recent white elephant to which I have returned in numerous columns is the Isahaya Bay barricade and reclamation project in Nagasaki Prefecture. The plan was widely criticized for years, but the barricade was nevertheless completed in April 1997. It is now blamed for growing problems of water-quality in the area.

One column in particular puts my first year in perspective: the one I wrote following the first-term election of Bill Clinton and Al Gore in November 1992, when many were hopeful that Rio would indeed be a turning point for environmentalism worldwide. “Just in time, political climate change seems to be sweeping Washington,” I wrote. “Environmentalists who held on during the Reagan-Bush years with white knuckles and clenched teeth are cautiously dusting off their battered optimism. The environment may have a fighting chance after all.” I, too, was a victim of misplaced ’90s optimism.

One of the good ideas I wrote about that first year, however, did blossom into a great reality. In November I introduced a small, new nonprofit organization called Global Village, established by Safia Minney and Kaoru Murata to help people live “greener, more ethical lives.” The two women, plus a college student, ran the organization as volunteers.

Today, Global Village is Japan’s leading Fair Trade advocacy NGO, with a sister company, People Tree, which is a major Fair Trade retailer based in Tokyo. The two organizations employ 33 full-time workers, and sales at People Tree topped 480 million yen in 2001. A solid balance sheet and an ethical enterprise: truly a very rare success story in Japan.

But writing an environmental column has involved more than just searching for ideas. It has also attracted them, especially since e-mail arrived. At one time, letters were rare. Now the reader-writer relationship has changed dramatically, and support and abuse flow easily.

The column I wrote that generated the most mail appeared on June 19, 2000, titled “Sure, Japanese rice is expensive — you’re paying for all the chemicals.” The column explained why Japan Agriculture Cooperative (JA) profits from encouraging farmers to use chemicals on rice. It also noted that Japan is one of the world’s largest markets for agricultural chemicals. Japanese readers couldn’t believe this. My reply: Believe it.

Some highlights of the past 10 years have been the elevation of Japan’s Environment Agency to ministry status, though funding remains sorely inadequate; and the government shutdown of a private incinerator adjacent to the U.S. Navy’s Atsugi Airbase in Kanagawa Prefecture that was spewing dioxin-laced smoke across the base and surrounding community.

The greatest change for the better over the past decade, however, has been the substantial increase in popular awareness about the environment. People are getting familiar with the vocabulary and the issues, and government and industry are on notice that citizens and consumers care. Given another decade, even Takao might be saved.