There are days when Makiko Ishikawa can barely breathe. Indeed, the 62-year-old Tokyoite has been short of breath for decades. In the early 1970s, she began feeling the effects of the miasma of vehicle exhaust along Shin-Ome Road, which ran by her home in the city of Musashimurayama in western Tokyo. In 1976, she developed bronchial asthma at age 20. Although she was repeatedly hospitalized with coughing fits, doctors prescribed medication for allergies. Her symptoms only grew worse.

Struggling for air: Health campaigner Makiko Ishikawa developed bronchial asthma at the age of 20.
Struggling for air: Health campaigner Makiko Ishikawa developed bronchial asthma at the age of 20. | COURTESY OF MAKIKO ISHIKAWA

Ishikawa is vice-president of a group fighting to win compensation for illnesses it claims are caused by air pollution. In 2007, plaintiffs won a settlement from local governments and automakers in Japan, but the group has been back in the news recently because its members say they haven’t received promised compensation for medical costs. It’s one of several ways that air quality is being put back into the spotlight ahead of the 2019 Rugby World Cup in Japan and the 2020 Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games.

“Air pollution causes respiratory diseases such as asthma and chronic bronchitis, and I believe this is a public health hazard,” says Takao Nishimura, a lawyer for the group. “Although there has been some improvement in recent years, air pollution in central Tokyo is still at worrisome levels. High summer temperatures are a concern ahead of the Tokyo Olympics, but there are also concerns about the health and condition of athletes due to air pollution.”

Big data for a big problem

At the 2018 Asian Games in Jakarta, Indonesian walker Hendro called his performance “a miracle,” but that wasn’t because he completed the 50-kilometer race in record time. He finished last — the slowest showing for the event in nearly three decades — and about 30 minutes behind winner Hayato Katsuki of Japan. Hendro complained that the heat and air pollution in Jakarta were particularly brutal. Long-distance runner Rose Chelimo of Bahrain also claimed to have had difficulty breathing.

As the mercury hit 31 degrees Celsius, readings of PM2.5 — airborne particulate matter with a diameter of 2.5 micrometers or less — were as high as 80 micrograms per cubic meter, eight times above the World Health Organization’s recommended level. PM2.5 particles can enter the lungs and bloodstream, and have been associated with strokes, pneumonia, heart disease, lung cancer and other illnesses.

Pollution at the Asian Games last year made international headlines, something the Tokyo Organizing Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games in 2020 is hoping to avoid. In May 2018, Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike announced new efforts to fight air pollution at an international event titled Tokyo Forum for Clean City & Clear Sky. Such measures included boosting sales of zero-emission vehicles by 50 percent by 2030.

Factories in Kawasaki, Kanagawa Prefecture, produce emissions that affect neighboring districts, including Tokyo.
Factories in Kawasaki, Kanagawa Prefecture, produce emissions that affect neighboring districts, including Tokyo. | GETTY IMAGES

While air in Japan is less polluted than that in Indonesia, it’s still dangerously dirty. At least 60,000 premature deaths occur from air pollution in Japan every year, according to a long-term, multicenter study published in The Lancet in 2017.

Meanwhile, Japan experienced a net increase in mortality attributed to air pollution between 1990 and 2017, according to “State of Global Air 2019,” a report published by the Health Effects Institute, a Boston-based nonprofit organization, and the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation.

The air in Japan is gradually becoming cleaner, however, and PM2.5 exposures have declined between 1990 and 2017.

“The EU and Japan both experienced 14 percent declines, mostly since 2010, but both still had about 80 percent of their populations living in areas above the World Health Organization guidelines in 2017,” the report notes.

The report also gauges levels of ozone, a gas produced both naturally and artificially. High in the atmosphere, it protects the Earth from ultraviolet radiation and cosmic rays, but lower down in the troposphere it acts as a greenhouse gas and a pollutant.

Ozone can be generated from nitrogen oxide and volatile organic compounds emitted by vehicles, industry and other sources. Also present in dry-cleaning processes and even household products such as chlorine bleach, volatile organic compounds play complex roles in the environment and have proven to be difficult to control. With a population-weighted seasonal average of 67 parts per billion (ppb), Japan has the highest level of tropospheric ozone among nations in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, according to data in the report, which estimates the country had some 6,250 deaths attributable to ozone in 2017. In an independent analysis of ozone measurements in Tokyo from Jan. 1, 2017 to Sept. 30, 2018, Greenpeace Air Pollution Unit found there were 54 days in 2017 and 72 days in the first nine months of 2018 in which ozone topped the World Health Organization guideline level of 50 ppb.

“If you think about the Summer Olympics, ozone is something that peaks in the summer and it affects the performance of athletes, so it’s definitely an issue,” says Lauri Myllyvirta, an energy analyst with Greenpeace International.

Meanwhile, Tokyo had an average PM2.5 level of 13.1 in 2018, according to a global air pollution map of more than 2,000 cities recently published by Greenpeace Southeast Asia and AirVisual. The latter is an air-quality monitoring firm located in Switzerland, the United States and China that categorizes a PM2.5 level of 13 as “moderate” and warrants closing windows to avoid dirty outdoor air. Still, it’s an improvement from 13.8 and 15 for average values from ambient and roadside air-monitoring stations, respectively, in Tokyo for fiscal 2015, according to figures from the Tokyo Metropolitan Government.

“While Tokyo is still struggling with ozone, and PM2.5 only recently complied with standards, air quality is still much better than most of the cities featured in the media in recent years,” says Eric Zusman, a researcher at the Institute for Global Environmental Strategies, a Kanagawa Prefecture-based group that works with the national government. “Some of the main sources of air pollution in Tokyo still come from mobile sources that contribute to PM2.5 and nitrogen oxide (and therefore tropospheric ozone), but there has been significant progress in regulating mobile sources over the past 15 years. Much of this progress is evident in the trends in PM2.5 and the significant reductions over the past few years.”

Smoke monsters: An aerial view of factories near the city of Kawasaki, Kanagawa Prefecture, in 1970. Pollution from neighboring districts used to drift into Tokyo and negatively affect the quality of air in the capital.
Smoke monsters: An aerial view of factories near the city of Kawasaki, Kanagawa Prefecture, in 1970. Pollution from neighboring districts used to drift into Tokyo and negatively affect the quality of air in the capital. | KYODO

Cleaning up the skies

Tokyo has played a significant role in setting air-quality standards for Japan. Even before the period of rapid postwar economic growth, when sulfur oxide, soot and other pollutants fouled the air, Tokyo instituted an ordinance to control factory emissions and another for soot and smoke, in 1949 and 1955, respectively. The effects were limited: An Aug. 22, 1965, Japan Times article reported that 1 square kilometer of the city was blanketed by an annual average of 14.67 tons of soot and, in winter, an average of 0.25 to 0.35 parts per million of soot particles were floating in the air. The air was dangerous in more ways than one.

“During my student days in the 1960s, I drove around Tokyo in an old four-door Datsun,” says longtime Tokyo resident Mark Schreiber, a freelance writer and Japan Times contributor. “One evening on the Koshu Kaido road, I ran into one of the pea-soup fogs that used to be frequent in late autumn, due, I suppose, to emissions from the small factories along the Tama River. Visibility was down to a few meters and driving in it was absolutely terrifying.”

Further laws helped clean the air over the capital, but the regulations that had the biggest impact in recent years were passed under the administration of former Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara.

In 1999, the prefecture launched a “Say No to Diesel Vehicles” campaign. The following year, it banned the use of diesel vehicles that do not meet emissions standards. The regulation was important for being the first of its kind by a local government regulating diesel vehicles and it targeted new vehicles as well as those already on the road, according to the Institute for Global Environmental Strategies.

When low-sulfur diesel came onto the market, diesel vehicles were retrofitted with particulate filters and oxidation catalysts. When Saitama, Chiba and Kanagawa prefectures followed suit, diesel regulations covered more than 34 million people in the greater metropolitan area of Tokyo. Meanwhile, PM emissions in Tokyo dropped from 6.25 tons in 2000 to 2.24 tons in 2010, while the portion from automobiles out of all PM emissions fell from 52 percent to 7 percent, according to the Institute for Global Environmental Strategies.

Along with cleaner air, visibility in Tokyo has also improved. Sky-watchers at Seikei Meteorological Observatory in Kichijoji have been recording the visibility of Mount Fuji, some 83 km to the southwest, at 9 a.m. every morning since 1963. While observers could see the iconic peak on only 22 days in 1965, after 1973, the figure improved to about 70 days per year on average.

Although weather and humidity also affect the visibility of the mountain, the observatory found a significant correlation between the number of visible days and the amount of dust in the air, known as air dust concentration. The observatory attributes the clearer skies to the decline of coal as a fuel as well as greater road surfacing and housing development. By 1999, the number of visible days hit an all-time high of 107, followed by 131 in 2011, and 135 for both 2017 and 2018, according to data from the observatory.

Tokyo’s Bureau of Transportation has begun operating fuel-cell buses on a metropolitan route. | BLOOMBERG

Big wheels, idle hands

While the air above Tokyo may be cleaner than in the past, pollution at street level remains a problem. Aside from dodging smokers, pedestrians who want to breathe clean air have to contend with plumes of foul-smelling exhaust from large vehicles such as buses and trucks. However, the launch of a small but pioneering fleet of zero-emission vehicles has helped prod the industry toward cleaner operations. The hydrogen-powered buses run by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government’s Bureau of Transportation shuttle between Tokyo Station and Tokyo Big Sight in the district of Odaiba.

Not only do the buses have zero emissions, they actively filter PM2.5 particles from the air in order for oxygen to mix properly with onboard hydrogen, meaning they leave the air cleaner than they found it, according to manufacturer Toyota Motor Corp.

“This is particularly interesting when you consider that a fuel-cell bus would take in roughly 10 times the volume of air that a passenger car would,” Toyota spokesperson Aaron Fowles says. “That being said, the air quality in Tokyo is not limited to a single manufacturer, nor is it limited to only one industry. Many factors contribute to the air quality. And Toyota is not limited to only focusing on how to improve air quality in Tokyo, but everywhere.”

Most large vehicles currently on Tokyo roads, however, run on old-school fuels.

Tokyo-based Kanto Bus, one of many operators in the capital, runs diesel-engine buses that run on light oil and spit out a nose-scrunching exhaust. Of its fleet of some 400 buses, including 372 public buses, no vehicles are hybrid, let alone all-electric. Asked whether it plans to introduce any, a spokesman was noncommittal, citing high costs.

Hino Motors, a major truck and bus manufacturer that is based in the Tokyo city of Hino, produces some 67,000 units every year for the domestic market, but its cumulative sales of hybrid vehicles stand at just 13,000.

“We aim to reduce CO2 emissions by 90 percent and make all our vehicles electric by 2050 while promoting development on all fronts with electric vehicles, including hybrid vehicles and clean diesels,” says Makoto Iijima, a spokesperson for Hino. “We are working on the development of next-generation vehicles such as electric vehicles and fuel-cell vehicles, and the evolution of existing technologies such as diesel engines and hybrid vehicles.”

If trucks and buses aren’t rumbling by and leaving trails of exhaust in their wake, they’re often parked and idling their engines. A common sight along Tokyo streets are professional drivers, workmen and other motorists relaxing, eating or sleeping in their vehicles with the engine running, even when temperatures are mild.

The Tokyo Metropolitan Government has launched anti-idling campaigns, attempting to raise awareness with leaflets and posters, but there’s little enforcement. Asked how the municipal government is dealing with idling vehicles, a Bureau of Environment official said staff carry out crackdowns twice every January around City Hall in Shinjuku.

An air-monitoring station in Tokyo
An air-monitoring station in Tokyo’s Odaiba district | TIM HORNYAK

The air up there

Across town, on the manmade island of Odaiba, there’s a prefab hut concealed between a kindergarten and a park. About the size of a delivery truck, it’s painted green to blend in with the hedge that hides it. Inside, there’s a row of machines emitting a steady drone and metronome-like ticking. These six sophisticated pieces of equipment continuously sniff the air for pollutants such as ozone, suspended particulate matter, nonmethane hydrocarbons and sulfur dioxide. Another machine measures weather conditions such as temperature and humidity, and an apparatus outside the hut gauges PM2.5 particles. The hut in Odaiba Rainbow Park is one of 82 air-monitoring stations throughout Tokyo. It’s one of 47 stations sampling ambient air; the other 35 check roadside air. The station is a stone’s throw from a beachfront that will host part of the triathlon and marathon swimming events during the 2020 Tokyo Olympics; concerns about water pollution have led to environmental monitoring there as well.

Susumu Fujita, an air pollution specialist with the Tokyo Bureau of Environment, checks an air-monitoring station in Tokyo
Susumu Fujita, an air pollution specialist with the Tokyo Bureau of Environment, checks an air-monitoring station in Tokyo’s Odaiba district. | TIM HORNYAK

Susumu Fujita, an air pollution specialist with the municipal government’s Bureau of Environment, checks a printed readout from a machine that measures nitric oxide and nitrogen dioxide, a major air pollutant that can contribute to PM2.5 and cause respiratory problems in asthmatics and healthy people. The hourly readings are around 0.02-0.03 parts per million, which are well below World Health Organization guidelines. Hourly readings from Tokyo’s air-monitoring stations are displayed on the bureau’s website in columns of 10 pollutants and atmospheric conditions.

“Wind speed and temperature have a significant effect on air quality because many kinds of pollutants are carried by wind,” Fujita says. “If we don’t account for these variables, we can’t do any analysis.”

Technicians conduct weekly maintenance checks on the sensitive equipment, removing airborne grit and replacing filters. Fujita pulls out a box of used filters and they’re nearly white. He says they were much dirtier in the past.

“Apart from stricter regulations for vehicles, the air in Tokyo has improved due to large factories cleaning up their emissions,” says Teruyuki Takahashi, an official with the bureau’s air protection section. “However, it’s very hard to determine where and how other pollutants are being generated. Cross-border pollution is also a factor affecting air quality in Tokyo.”

Clean-air campaigners recently claimed victory in recent months when various Japanese electric utilities and major conglomerates canceled three projects to construct coal-fired power plants in the Tokyo region, a move that would have led to more premature deaths from air pollution, according to Greenpeace International.

But JERA, a joint venture between TEPCO Fuel & Power Co. and Chubu Electric Power Co., still plans to build a coal-fired plant in Yokosuka, Kanagawa Prefecture. If it overcomes local opposition, the plant would be the only facility of its kind in the Tokyo Bay region.

“It is very important to stop the construction of these coal-fired power plants — not only from the viewpoint of air pollution mitigation but also from the viewpoint of climate change mitigation,” says Jusen Asuka, a professor of environmental studies at Tohoku University’s Center for Northeast Asian Studies. Asuka estimates that PM2.5 and nitrogen oxide emitted by a coal-fired plant near Sendai is responsible for 19 premature deaths per year; he is involved in a legal fight to stop its operation.

As for Ishikawa, the health campaigner who is trying to recoup expenses incurred by fellow asthmatics, she continues to use inhalers and other medication when she struggles to breathe.

“There are many people with asthma in Japan, but few know the cause,” Ishikawa says. “Rather than distinguishing between allergies and air pollution, I think that several causes act in combination. Although we cannot identify such invisible factors, I believe that air pollution is one of the causes of my bronchial asthma.”

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