Pollutants from China and their resultant problems are nothing new to Japan. Acid rain, principally caused by high levels of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide in industrial pollutants, has been a concern for several decades.
While Kyushu and western Japan are most vulnerable to pollutants from mainland China, Shukan Asahi (Feb. 15) quoted Jotaro Urabe, professor at Tohoku University, as saying testing of soil strata on Mt. Hachimantai in Iwate Prefecture indicates metallic precipitates have increased two to fivefold from the levels of the 1950s, serving as evidence that pollution from China extends over nearly the entire Japanese archipelago.
In addition, over the past half decade, the heavy clouds of seasonal huangsha — called kosa in Japanese and referred to alternatively in English as yellow sand or yellow dust — wafting eastward from the Gobi desert each spring have worsened due to ongoing desertification of the region. No longer just a problem for northern China, they darken the skies over Seoul and Korea and have affected commercial air traffic in western Kyushu.
From last month, reports of new pollution problems became ubiquitous in the print media here. While tensions over the disputed Senkaku Islands may have piqued some readers’ desire for any coverage that puts China in a negative light, the topic has sufficient momentum to be treated as an independent story.
A headline in Shukan Taishu (Feb. 11) screamed about the arrival of “China’s homicidal air from which protective masks won’t defend.” The article noted that pollution levels measured in Beijing had reached 25 times the level deemed safe. By some estimates the poor air quality results in some 300,000 deaths and 600,000 cases of people being hospitalized for respiratory diseases each year.
Shukan Bunshun (Feb. 14) reported that Japan’s acceptable air quality standard is set at 35 micrograms of pollutants per cubic meter per day. On Jan. 31, that figure in Fukuoka City was already up to 52.6 micrograms. Two days later, wearers of hard contact lenses were complaining of “feeling grit on their eyes.”
A headline in Shukan Post (Mar. 1) describes China as a “pollution superpower.” Of 300 million tons of nonindustrial waste generated annually, only about 157 million is said to be processed cleanly. Six years ago, levels of dioxin around the country were measured at 608 grams TEQ (toxic equivalent) — six to eight times higher than that of Japan.
The potentially harmful effects of dioxin on human fetuses are said to be as much as 10 times that affecting adults.
Meanwhile Nikkan Gendai (Feb. 11) raised the prospect of China’s government relocating the capital away from Beijing, a suggestion that was first proposed in the 1980s and was debated at the 2011 session that drew up the 12th Five-year Plan. Such cities as Nanjing and Xian — former capitals of China during earlier imperial dynasties — were suggested as alternates.
Japan, too, underwent numerous crises due to pollution during its period of rapid growth after the war. Due to more stringent emissions controls it has eliminated the photochemical smog that frequently occurred in the early 1970s.
“In the 1970s, when pollution in Japan became serious, more than 8 percent of GDP expenditures were poured into countermeasures,” an unnamed analyst in the Ministry of Environment is quoted in Shukan Bunshun. “In China’s case, on the other hand, a report by its government noted that environmental countermeasures will require 7 percent of GDP; currently only a little more than 2 percent is being spent.”
Aera (Feb. 18) advises readers to check air conditions by going online to the Ministry of Environment-operated website Soramame-kun (soramame.taiki.go.jp). When the situation warrants, these measures may help:
• Wear a surgical mask that can screen out microscopic particles
• Consider obtaining an air filtration device for your home
• When returning home from outside, wash your face and eyes, and gargle
• When in doubt, take the same measures used to deal with pollen allergies.
While air quality has dominated recent headlines, the media has also turned its scrutiny to food imports. In an article titled “China’s ‘highly toxic rice’ will destroy the Japanese people!” Shukan Bunshun reported that large supermarket chains in Japan were offering rice imported from China at around ¥1,200 per 5-kg bag. The rice might still be served in some budget restaurant chains specializing in gyūdon (stewed beef over rice). It also finds its way into secondary products such as sembei (rice crackers) or may be sold blended with domestically grown rice.
The article warns that much as 20 percent of China’s cultivated rice acreage — particularly that in southern parts of the country — may contain heavy concentrations of mercury, lead, arsenic and cadmium, along with residual pesticides and organochlorine compounds such as BHC (benzene hexachloride).
“Presently, wealthy people in China are purchasing foods from Japan,” a food inspector in China is quoted as saying. “In Shanghai, vegetables from Hokkaido are popular. They don’t trust agricultural products from their own country. It may seem ironic, but in the future, Chinese will be eating products from Japan, and Japanese will be made to eat foods that Chinese won’t touch.”
To be fair, Shukan Asahi (Mar. 8) spread its net to 51 additional countries — including Britain, Canada, Australia and the United States — and ran a list of “dangerous” imported food items numbering 472 in total.