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Wednesday, March 15, 2000

Fertile soil for Japanese environmentalist groups?

ENVIRONMENTAL POLITICS IN JAPAN: Networks of Power and Protest, by Jeffrey Broadbent. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999, 418 pp., $13.95, (paper).

Given Japan's economic growth after World War II -- a period often termed "miraculous" -- it is not surprising that the worst problems of ecological destruction were experienced here. The generation then at work was not very concerned with sulfur dioxide in the air, mercury in the rivers or toxic waste in landfills. Smokestacks belching out poisonous gas were a symbol of economic growth that promised a better life, not environmental degradation. And it worked: By 1976, the economy was 55 times its size in 1946.

Japan also produced the world's worst health damage from industrial pollution, environmental havoc on a scale unmatched in any country.

Once the disastrous dimensions of industrial pollution and its consequences were recognized, Japan implemented a series of antipollution measures, far outperforming American and European advanced industrial democracies. In the early 1970s, the Japanese Diet passed the world's strictest environmental-protection laws and established an Environmental Agency to enforce them.

The turnabout is illustrated by the reduction in sulfur-dioxide pollution. From 1970 to 1980, Japan managed to reduce total sulfur-dioxide tonnage by 78 percent; the United States cut just 20 percent.

Thus, the economic miracle brought about a pollution debacle that was followed by a pollution miracle. How do political-economic and sociocultural factors produce such a series of miracles and debacles? This is the question Jeffrey Broadbent tries to answer with his thorough case study of heavy-industry growth and environmental protest in Oita City, a port in Beppu Bay in Kyushu.

Oita is a fitting site for studying this complex problem, because it incorporates on a local level what Broadbent calls the growth/environment or "GE dilemma." New industries, especially petrochemical plants, were brought to Oita when it was designated a New Industrial City early in the 1960s and a landfill was created.

At the time, developmentalism reigned supreme, and ecological considerations had no place in economic policy. Inevitably, environmental damage was caused in many places, including Oita. The fishing industry of adjacent villages was especially badly affected. The community reacted by forming grassroots protest movements, leaving the local administration with very difficult choices between securing Oita's refinery growth and responding to the demands for environmental protection articulated ever more forcefully by local antipollution activists.

National and local government administrations, corporate businesses and citizens groups are involved in the GE dilemma and, ideally, finding a solution to it. Broadbent presents a wealth of arguments showing that the GE dilemma should be at the heart of environmental sociology.

Every industrial and industrializing society has to come to terms with the conflicting interests of utilizing and preserving natural resources, of competitiveness in economic growth and conserving nature. His study is more than an in-depth investigation of a particular case where solutions to intense pollution problems were eventually found. He combines careful ethnographic work with general considerations concerning the national context that provides the macrostructural frame for political and economic change. Thus, this book will be of interest to many scholars, and not just students of Japanese affairs.

As he shows, culture is one of the factors shaping sustainable development and balancing the demands of economic growth and environmental conservation. As many scholars of Japanese society have pointed out, social harmony, or "wa," is accorded great importance. In Oita, however, the demand for wa did not restrain community protest against governmental decisions. It may have helped bring about a compromise.

Economic interests, social norms and cultural values shape a society's reaction to pollution problems. In many ways, Japan's rapid response to air and water pollution was exemplary, but whatever lessons can be learned from the Japanese example may not be so easy to put into practice elsewhere.

"Japan's pollution control took place, not by the adversarial and impersonal imposition of formal regulation, but with the informal cooperation -- albeit grudging -- of big business." That is, the same conditions of the social-political system that helped produce ecological disruption were instrumental in adopting effective countermeasures, namely close links between the dominant elites: the Liberal Democratic Party, the bureaucracy and big business.

It is not that citizen-protest movements were ineffectual; quite the contrary, at least on a local level. But the system proved to be flexible enough to accommodate enough of their demands to avoid protracted confrontation.

The result of this analysis of how and when social movements can influence the economic and political conduit is not really surprising, but it is sobering. Since social, institutional and cultural factors play such a significant role, the path of effective mobilization against ecological disruption will differ greatly from society to society. The Japanese path is explored in admirable detail in Broadbent's book.

Florian Coulmas is professor of Japanese studies at Duisburg University.

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