Which are the main Japanese contributions to the world movements for environmental justice? The environmental history of Japan since 1900 seemed an example of “environmental modernization” until the Fukushima disaster in 2011. First, conflicts on copper smelting and water pollution in Ashio around 1900; later some terrible coal-mining accidents and the several illnesses from industrialization such as Minamata, Itai-Itai and Yusho diseases that led to use of litigation not excluding sometimes direct action. Health issues related to industry figured prominently in Japan. Then came the anti-nuclear movement particularly after Fukushima and even later a significant anti-coal movement with the Kiko network. The chapter covers conflicts in the petrochemical, the plastics, paper pulp, the processed food industries; incorporation of wetlands into agricultural production; industrial waste disposal; and threats to aquatic wildlife.

The environmental history of Japan seemed an example of “environmental modernization” until the Fukushima disaster in 2011. We can neatly separate the three strands that are present everywhere in the world: (a) the cult of wilderness or the defence of pristine nature; (b) ecological modernization or “the gospel of eco-efficiency” achieved through technological change; (c) the environmentalism of the people, of the citizens, the poor and the Indigenous, the movements for environmental justice.

Japan, an industrial country with less than 2 per cent of the world's population, has had several landmark environmental conflicts since 1900 (Tsuru 1999). First, copper smelting and water pollution in Ashio; later some terrible coal-mining accidents and the illnesses from industrialization such as Minamata; then the anti-nuclear movement before and particularly after the Fukushima disaster of 2011, and even later a significant anti-coal movement.


The Ashio conflict is famous as an early instance of the “environmentalism of the poor” in a context (damage from copper mining and smelting) common then to other countries – as in Rio Tinto in Spain, in 1888, and La Oroya in Peru in the 1920s.

As narrated in the EJAtlas, this is the story of the encounter of two unequal forces against each other: the Furukawa Corporation and peasant protesters. Before 1880, prior to the Ashio mining activities, the surrounding area was densely forested. The destruction of the trees caused by the sulphurous acid from the mines caused the erosion of the topsoil, which allowed the rainwater to flow directly into the Watarase River, affecting the agricultural lands nearby. To further worsen the problem, the Ashio mine lacked storage facilities for the slag and untreated ores. Thus, these materials accumulated in the rice fields through the irrigation systems. The poisons also affected the quality of drinking waters, with effects on the people's health. In August 1890, serious flooding of the Watarase river basin occurred damaging 1600 hectares of farmland and 28 villages in Tochigi and Gunma prefectures. This flood caused the farmers and villages to get together and create movements for shutting down the mine. However, since 1868 the political context was the Meiji government, which wanted to increase military strength and expand industrial production. The Furukawa Corporation was one of the main actors in this wave of industrialization.

The Ashio Copper mining conflict is significant in Japanese history and in the history of world environmentalism, as one of the first, well documented socio-environmental movements. One main protagonist was Shozo Tanaka (1841‒1913), who took direct action for this cause in December 1901, when he made a written appeal to the Emperor Meiji, whilst shouting for his attention. Shozo Tanaka, from a farming family, is widely acknowledged as Japan's “first conservationist” (Figure 2.1). He became a member of the Diet (the parliament) after organizing mass movements against the copper mining company such as protest marches p. 27between 1897 and 1900. The last march took place from 9 to 11 February 1900 and led to what is known as the “Kawamata incident”, in which 4,000 marchers on their way to Tokyo clashed with police and many were arrested. Shozo Tanaka also took an active role in trying to prevent the Yanaka Village near the Watarase River from being demolished to become a poisoned water catchment lake. However, the village was demolished. The mine closed down in 1973, and refineries continued operating using imported ore until the early 1980s. Some compensation was paid later. Japan's experience of industrial pollution (later to be known as kogai) began at Ashio and other less famous cases of copper smelting around 1900.

Shōzō Tanaka was a Japanese social activist and politician, Japan's first environmentalist (Public domain).
Figure 2.1

Shōzō Tanaka was a Japanese social activist and politician, Japan's first environmentalist

Source:  Public domain

Around 1900, between 8,000 and 9,000 tons of copper were produced per year. In an instance of early popular epidemiology, in 1889‒90 Shozo Tanaka created a survey of the birth to death ratio in order to show that the copper mine was responsible for murder (Strong 1977; Stolz 2007).


The EJAtlas contains some rather awful biodiversity conservation conflicts around the world, including Japan. We consider two cases: the dolphin hunting conflict in Taiji, Wakayama p. 28prefecture, and the expansion of the US Military base in Okinawa that endangered the Henoko Bay Dugong.

Dolphins at Taiji 2

Thousands of dolphins are slaughtered during government-sanctioned oikomi (drive fisheries) in Japan as a whole. The disgusting killing at Taiji, a small town with a population of 3,500, has been condemned for many years. During the six-month hunting season, townspeople corral hundreds of the mammals into a secluded bay and butcher them. The cruel scene was featured in the documentary “The Cove”, drawing unwanted attention to the little coastal community. Environmental campaigners visit the town every year during the autumn drive-hunt season to protest the killings and authorities try to prevent confrontations between locals and activists. The groups active in the defence of dolphins are international organizations like Sea Shepherd and the Earth Island Institute, and also local Japanese organizations like ELSA Nature Conservancy who as they themselves state “are working with Coalition members One Voice (France) and the Earth Island Institute (USA) to stop the cruel dolphin hunts in Japan”.

The meat market brings some money while the primary economic incentive for the Taiji drive hunts is the aquarium industry. Some dolphins are spared and cruelly taken away for training as performers in Japan or abroad, fetching high prices. Live dolphins sell for around $50,000, and this is what keeps the hunters in business, as argued by P. Singer and J. Sosnowsk, in 2016. Taiji fishermen defend the hunt as a tradition; they say that hunting dolphins and whales is crucial to the region's economy. The dolphin captures and killings are done in the Yoshino Kumano Kokuritsu Koen, a national park. The Ministry of the Environment manages the area. Sea Shepherd says that Taiji cannot fall back on “tradition” because history shows that progress negates atrocious ideas. Moreover, it is alleged that high levels of mercury in dolphins captured in the cove make consumption of their meat a dangerous habit for the local people. According to W. Palmer, during the six-month season in 2015‒16, the hunters killed 652 dolphins (while catching another 117 live dolphins to be sold to aquariums around the world).

The Dugong in Okinawa: Anti-imperialist Conservation 3

In Okinawa, south of Taiwan and the Chinese coast, a conservation conflict occurred because of the expansion of a US base at the Henoko Bay, habitat of rare corals and marine mammals like the dugong. In 2003, a coalition of environmentalist organizations opposed the plan. Three Japanese citizens, six US and Japanese environmental associations along with Okinawa residents on behalf of the dugong as plaintiffs filed a claim against the US Department of Defense. The plaintiffs claimed that the US Marine base construction scheme in Henoko Bay would destroy the habitat of the dugong. For local Okinawa residents, the dugong is an integral part of their cultural and historical heritage.

This military facility was planned to replace the existing and controversial military base in Futenma. This replacement plan, however, met strong opposition from environmental activists and Okinawa people because of the impact on the dugong, but also because people had been overburdened by American military presence for too long. In 2008, the judge of the US district court dismissed the standing of the dugong in this case, but mostly agreed with the plaintiffs’ argument, ordering the Department of Defense to conduct a proper impact p. 29assessment prior to the commencement of the construction. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his cabinet were later determined to continue construction. An elected Okinawa prefecture governor strongly confronted Abe and Chief Cabinet Secretary Suga.

By 2019, the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) in the US said in a press release that more than a dozen US conservation and animal protection groups “urged the House Armed Services Committee to push for a temporary halt to construction of a U.S. military base in Japan that could wipe out the Okinawa dugong, one of earth's most endangered marine mammals”. “We would not condone such activities at home, nor should we condone them abroad”, states the letter from the CBD, Natural Resources Defence Council, Animal Welfare Institute, and ten other non-profit organizations. The ongoing construction ignored a democratic referendum in which an overwhelming majority of Okinawa voters opposed building the base over hundreds of acres of rich coral and seagrass habitat.

The CBD is what in the global environmentalist argot is called a BINGO, Big International Non-Governmental Organisation, here helping a movement of “conservation with the people” and not, as in other cases that we shall see in this book, “conservation without the people” or even “against the people”. This Okinawa case we classified in the EJAtlas as a “biodiversity conservation” conflict but it is also a “military installation” conflict. Opposition drew upon the “cult of wilderness” but also on local and national feelings against the US military.


This Japanese chapter includes episodes related to energy sources like coal and nuclear. Industrial progress leaves debris in its wake. I could instead insert some paragraphs on Zen gardens and the cult of human-made landscape in Japanese civilization, landscapes integrated into temples to be admired in Kyoto. However, I would rather stick to the material causes of and solutions to ecological distribution conflicts. We continue with a horrible but not atypical coal accident that marked a change in the energy system away from coal, ending the chapter with the short-lived coal renaissance after the Fukushima disaster of 2011. In the Chikuho coal region (Allen 1994) on 9 November 1963, there was a deadly coal dust explosion in the Mitsui Miike coal mine in Fukuoka and Kumamoto Prefectures. It was one of the worst ever recorded; 458 miners were killed and another 839 were permanently injured. In 1955, coal as a primary energy source provided 50 per cent of energy needs in Japan, but after the Miike labour dispute and mine explosion, the level decreased, dropping to 16 per cent by 1975. Coal production at the Miike mine was 14 tons per worker per day in June 1958, but this was increased to 44 tons as of October 1963.

A memorial ceremony was held on 9 November 2013 to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the country's worst mine accident in the post-war era. The mine, which closed down in 1997, was operated by Mitsui Mining Co. The explosion occurred in a mine tunnel roughly 500 metres below the mine's ground-level entrance. The blast and flame caused roof fall in many areas in the tunnels, which then quickly filled with carbon monoxide. Lack of safety provisions to prevent coal dust was the main cause. Coal-dust explosions are the worst type of explosion because a great amount of carbon monoxide is produced. As a result of this, many miners, even if they survive, continue to suffer from the long-term after-effects. Even if a coal dust explosion does not spread throughout the length and breadth of the mine, the resulting carbon monoxide gas does in fact spread in this way, and all the workers are poisoned. The Miike p. 30mine explosion of 1963 was an example of this. It was common knowledge that maintaining the site clean and moist could prevent such explosions; however, after a strong labour dispute in 1960, the insufficient number of safety personnel ‒ caused by the employer's productivity-first policy ‒ failed to take those measures.

Coal-dust explosions, moreover, present a particular problem, because coal dust is something that is produced at every point in the mining process and accumulates all the way from the mine entrance to the deepest shafts. Therefore, when a small explosion occurs, it is followed by a chain reaction fuelled by the coal dust, and the resulting explosion envelops the entire mine infrastructure. Although “the loss of life and health cannot be compensated with money or other material goods. But for those who are victimized by the system, it is necessary to provide living expenses and to guarantee medical treatment. In the case of the Mitsui Miike coal-mine explosion the victims received very poor compensation” (Hoshino and Iijima 1992). For the 458 deaths, compensation was set at 500,000 yen (rate of 360 yen to the dollar at the time), i.e. 400,000 yen (US$ 1,120) for condolence money and 100,000 yen ($480) for the funeral costs.

Up to that time the mining companies had not paid any money to victims’ families when a death occurred. This understanding among mine-owners was brought into question when the Miike mine union demanded compensation. The executives of the union thought that the one-million-yen ($2,800) demand was rather high, as did the Sohyo (National Organization of Labour Unions), and in this regard the Miike mine workers were criticized even by their own trade unions. We know however that the poor sell cheap.

Wage-workers demand higher salaries, the abolition of piece-work, shorter working times, and safety in work ‒ this has happened for a long time. Accidents and chronic pollutions in mines, factories and plantations continue to take place, in particular in South Asia and also (in coal mining) in China. Exploitation of workers includes bad, unhealthy conditions of work, and in response it is not difficult to find instances of working-class environmentalism (Chapter 20) (Derdak and Hast 1991).

Map of Japan with the cases considered in this chapter, classified in nine categories.
Figure 2.2

Japan's cases considered in this chapter

Source:  A. Grimaldos


Arsenic Poisoning in 1955, Morinaga Milk: Trying to Enforce Liability 5

From June to August 1955, in the western areas of Japan, 12,131 newborn babies were poisoned and 130 died (according to a 1956 Ministry of Public Welfare survey) because arsenic had been mixed into the Morinaga Powdered Milk “MF” produced by the Tokushima plant of the Morinaga Milk Company. The affected infants came down with diarrhoea or constipation, vomiting, swollen abdomens and darkening of skin colour. There was no clue as to the cause. On 23 July, the first infant patient of the Morinaga MF Milk poisonings was seen at Okayama University Medical School Hospital, and then one infant after another was brought into the hospital. On 5 August it was made clear that what the infants had in common was the intake of the MF milk formula. On 19 August, Professor Eiji Hamamoto of the Paediatric Department of Okayama University advised the production chief at the Tokushima plant that several points in the production process should be examined for imperfections. Professor Hamamoto reported the case to the Public Health Department of Okayama Prefecture 18 days after MF milk was found to be the causative agent. The government's Ministry of Public p. 31 p. 32Welfare issued an order for all MF milk to be withdrawn from the market and the Tokushima plant of the Morinaga Company to be closed (Shoji and Sugai 1992).

At that time, the parents of the infant victims came together to organize the Victim Patient Families Association. On 30 September, the Okayama association made the following three demands in relation to the incident: (a) that the company pay all expenses in relation to essential treatment, hospitalization, and hospital visits; (b) that compensation be provided by the company in relation to the poisoning after-effects; and (c) that compensation be set at 2,500,000 yen ($6,942) for each death caused, 700,000 yen ($1,943) for relatively seriously affected cases, and 300,000 yen ($833) for lesser degrees of poison-related degenerative involvement. The company did not respond to these demands, and so the struggle was organized on a nationwide basis. On 19 September, 1,955 victims held a meeting in Okayama City, and decided to form Zenkyo (Morinaga Milk Victims’ Association) and to press for action in relation to their three demands. However, the number of victims was much larger than had been expected and the company appealed to the government to form an advisory committee.

On 21 October, the Ministry of Public Welfare created a five-member committee. On 5 December, this committee announced the results of their deliberations, which were far from meeting the demands of the victims’ families. Zenkyo was very surprised and disappointed at these proposals and as a result decided to negotiate directly with the company. Zenkyo's demands were: (1) that the company compensate families of dead poisoning victims to the tune of 500,000 yen ($1,388); (2) that the company provide regular medical examinations for the living victims of the poisonings; (3) that a research institute be established to further progress in overcoming the lasting effects of the poisonings. On 26 December 1955, Morinaga indicated that none of these proposals were acceptable. Zenkyo protested to the Ministry of Public Welfare and organized demonstrations in concert with the prefectural associations, calling for a nationwide boycott of Morinaga products and staging sit-down demonstrations and strikes at Morinaga branch offices. Zenkyo gained nothing for its efforts, but some people belonging to the Okayama association of Zenkyo decided to file a suit in the civil courts.

After Zenkyo had been disbanded, an organization was established in Okayama Prefecture for the express purpose of providing protection for the Morinaga arsenic milk-poisoned children. In July 1957, it entered into negotiations with Morinaga in which they demanded and received a memorandum from the company that acknowledged the company's responsibility in paying for periodic medical examinations for poisoned infants. In October 1963, the Tokushima District Court handed down a not guilty verdict in the case against the Morinaga Milk Company. Angered by the unfair court decision, this same group decided to spread their movement throughout the country. In March 1966, the Takamatsu High Court reversed the Tokushima District Court decision and sent the case back to the district court for retrial. In the same year, the Okayama Association against Medicine Poisonings (a private organization) proved through careful surveys that the MF milk poisonings had serious after-effects. At this point the children were 14 to 15 years of age. A survey was completed, the title of the work was “Visit after 14 Years” and contained interviews with 68 people, 80 per cent of whom were found to have definite after-effects and abnormalities. Professor Maruyama held a press conference on 18 October 1969 to publicize “Visit after 14 Years”. Many of the victims’ parents were encouraged by the Maruyama Report, and once again a Morinaga Arsenic Milk Poisoning Protection Association was formed. In comparison to the situation in 1955, the new association had a much better chance of success, for there were anti-pollution movements in the making. The researchers found some very definite after-effects of the poisonings, tried to discover effective p. 33treatments for the problem and provided immunological analyses relative to victim medical prognosis. Professor Maruyama organized a committee to survey the after-effects of the poisonings in cooperation with the Japan Paediatrics Academy and the Japan Hygiene Academy.

On 12 December 1970, representatives of the Morinaga Milk Company met with those of the protection association in Okayama, and thereafter they met once a month until 11 July 1971. Bowing to pressure from the protection association and also from public opinion, the Ministry of Public Welfare agreed to make examinations of the poisoning victims. Its report was made to Okayama Prefecture in December 1972, and the conclusion was that there was no special need for the patients to worry. Public opinion was at this time in full support of the protection association. From autumn 1970 a boycott against Morinaga began to spread to all parts of the nation. In August of 1972, at the fourth national assembly of the association, it was decided that permanent measures should be specified for the victims of the Morinaga arsenic milk poisoning. The claims involved the payment of compensation for those who had died as well as those who were still suffering the after-effects of the poisoning. In 1972, the boycott movement against Morinaga products was already nationwide, and with these resolutions it spread like wildfire all over Japan. Before the boycott movement had gotten underway, the Morinaga Company held 45 per cent of the market for powdered baby milk, but after the boycott started that share went down to 17 per cent.

In April 1973, members of the Kinki branch of the protection association filed a suit for damages against the Morinaga Company in the Osaka District Civil Court. In the same year, a lawsuit was begun in the Okayama District Court in August and in the Takamatsu District Court in November. The Tokushima District Court case was reopened and in March 1973, after the Public Prosecutor had brought charges, the director and production chiefs of the Morinaga Company were sentenced to five years in jail. The boycott of Morinaga products and the court cases were the two most important aspects of the movement and were both long-term measures. On 23 December 1973, an agreement was reached. It attributed full responsibility to the Morinaga Company for the original problem. In April of 1974, the Hikari Foundation was established in order to help the Morinaga poisoning victims. It took 19 years for this organization to be formed. As of 1981, there were 17 district offices, managed by parents involved in the protection association. There was also a great deal of cooperation from medical doctors and from people working in special education. By the end of March 1983, 6,389 Morinaga victims were in communication with the Hikari Foundation. Brett Walker (2010) gives these figures for 1981: 13,389 ingested the milk, 600 died, 6,093 had health difficulties, 624 were plagued with retardation.

Yusho Disease and the Ban on PCB 6

This case led to the banning of polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB); it was a crucial case not only for Japan but for the world in the battle to prove the risks of PCB. In 1968, “Kanemi rice oil” was contaminated. For deodorization, the oil was heated using PCB as the heating medium, circulating through pipes. Due to holes in the pipes, the PCB leaked into the cooking oil and contaminated it. From February to March 1968, a mysterious sickness occurred in poultry farms in western Japan, resulting in the death of over 400,000 birds. The contaminated rice bran oil had been sold to poultry farmers for use as a feed supplement and to consumers for use in cooking. About 14,000 people who consumed the contaminated rice oil were affected. Additionally, in children there were reports of poor cognitive development.p. 34

From June to August 1968, effects on humans began to appear successively in western Japan. These effects were generically called Yusho (油症). In October 1968, from the investigations by scientists at the Faculty of Medicine, Kyushu University, and at the Department of Health, Fukuoka Prefecture, the cause of the diseases was determined to be the rice oil contaminated with Kanechlor 500 (KC-500), a brand name of PCB. Victims slowly organized to claim damages, and there were numerous court cases, still going on in 2013. These claims are usually interpreted as citizens’ movements (shimin undo). Indemnities paid were low but at least the liability of the company was recognized.

PCB is thought to have effects as an endocrine disruptor, in addition to causing direct health effects. In Japan, victims were afflicted with various health problems, such as skin pigmentation effects, an increased foetal death rate and chlorine acne. Even before the harm to people was revealed, chickens were fed contaminated oil and a massive death occurred; however, these deaths were not initially considered a serious issue. If they had been taken seriously, then perhaps the Kanemi Yusho accident would not have happened. Over 30 years afterwards, victims were still suffering from their injuries. Poly-chloro-dibenzofuran (PCDF), a dioxin, was also found in the contaminated oil. Finally, in 2002, the Japanese Government admitted that the injuries were caused by PCB, as well as dioxin. After the Kanemi Yusho accident, people began to realize the toxicity of PCB and the movements to forbid it spread globally. In 1974, its manufacture and use were banned completely in Japan. Manufacture of PCB had started in 1929 at Swan Co., USA. Immediately after that, the toxicity of PCB began to cause problems such as the chlorine pimple disease in labourers. However, because of the “excellent” properties of PCB, its production was expanded (Tsuru 1999) (Koppe and Keys 2001).

Itai-itai Disease 7

The outbreak of Itai-itai disease, a painful chronic cadmium (Cd) poisoning, took place in Toyama prefecture along the Jinzū River for many decades. The cause of the disease was discharge from the Kamioka zinc mine belonging to Mitsui Mining & Smelting Co. The name Itai-itai means “it hurts-it hurts”, for the severe pains people with the condition felt in the spine and joints. The soil in rice paddies was polluted with heavy metals including Cd through irrigation water from around 1910 to the 1960s. Farmers and peasants who used the water of the Jinzū River for agriculture, as well as fishermen who fished those same waters noticed decreases of crop yields and catch of fish. Realizing that the pollution came from the Kamioka zinc mine, they established an Association for Fighting against Mitsui Mining and Smelting Co.

In 2006, the Itai-itai-byo Taisaku Kyogikai (Council on measures to aid Itai-itai disease victims) published a pamphlet to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of its establishment. The pamphlet contains the testimonies of 56 people discussing the half-century of efforts to provide relief for victims. Efforts have included court battles with Mitsui Mining & Smelting Co. In 1972, the survivors and their families became one of the first pollution victims in Japan to win a lawsuit against a major company. According to Ryoshin Takagi, the deputy head of the council even after academics put forth the theory that cadmium caused the disease, sufferers and their family members were fearful to take action, concerned that the region's rice would stop selling and women would stop coming to the area to marry once word of the disease spread.p. 35

The pamphlet carried an essay by Tatsuru Shimabayashi, a lawyer who died aged 82. He wrote, “the true nature of the pollution lies in the fact that the victims have suffered for life, and that local governments and the company responsible for the damage have ignored the victims’ suffering”. The estimated cadmium intake of Itai-itai victims was 1 mg/day (20 times the maximum permissible limit and 200 times the normal intake in unexposed populations). The number of people affected (mainly women) peaked in the years between 1955 and 1960. It caused severe bone deformities that resulted in pain upon walking, and chronic renal disease.

The Kamioka Mine has a long history dating back to the Yoro era of the Nara period (around 720), when gold was discovered on the site. As the country's rulers changed through the Muromachi, Azuchi-Momoyama and Edo periods, minerals continued to be extracted. In the Meiji period, in 1874 the Mitsui clan acquired the Kamioka mine and began modern mining operations. From that point to the suspension of mining in June 2001, the mine continued to contribute to the supply of zinc and lead. By the late 1950s, the cadmium poisoning contained in water of the Jinzū River was corroborated by epidemiological research conducted together with agronomist Kinichi Yoshioka. The Itai-itai disease became one of the ‘Four Major Kogai Litigations’ in the post-war period in Japan. Mitsui Mining and Smelting Co. lost the court case.

The costs of the disease were enormous in personal and financial terms. The costs of decontamination of soils run into hundreds of millions of USD. By 1990, about 4,340 ha, or 66 per cent of the approximately 6,510 ha of the most highly cadmium contaminated farmland had been restored (Walker 2010; Miyamoto 1987; McKean 1981; Kaji 2012; Tsuru 1999).

Minamata 8

Minamata disease is caused by methylmercury poisoning. The name comes from Minamata Bay in Kumamoto prefecture, where the Chisso factory released industrial waste. During 1932‒68 local residents, especially fisher families, suffered the consequences.

The Chisso Minamata factory first started acetaldehyde production in 1932, producing 210 tons that year. By 1960, production reached a peak of 45,245 tons. On 1 May 1956, a hospital director reported to the local public health office the discovery of an “epidemic of an unknown disease of the central nervous system”, marking the official discovery of Minamata disease. By October 1956, 40 patients had been discovered, 14 of whom had died. During 1932‒68, local residents, especially fisher families, suffered from a variety of symptoms. At first, doctors were unable to diagnose the cause of the disease. Then, in 1959, doctors at Kumamoto University determined that organic mercury poisoning was the cause of the symptoms. Mercury was used as a catalyst in the production of acetaldehyde, a chemical employed in the production of plastics. This highly toxic chemical bioaccumulated in Minamata Bay and the Shiranui Sea fish which were then eaten by the local population resulting in mercury poisoning. The cause (recognized in 1956) was the release of an estimated 27 tons of methylmercury in the industrial waste by Chisso Corporation petrochemical and plastics factory over a period of 36 years. Fishermen demanded compensation for fishing families and for damage to fishing grounds. Fishermen demanded 100.000.000 Yen, but they only received 35.000.000 Yen (less than $100.000).

Minamata disease symptoms include ataxia, numbness in the hands and feet, general muscle weakness, narrowing of the field of vision and damage to hearing and speech. In extreme cases, insanity, paralysis, coma and death follow within weeks of the onset of symptoms. p. 36Only in 1968, however, did the Tokyo government acknowledge that the mercury dumping by Chisso was the ultimate cause. Five years later, Chisso admitted legal responsibility. It was proven that Chisso withheld critical information in 1959 and continued to dump waste. They were not held legally liable for their negligence until 1972. Chisso stopped production of acetaldehyde when an alternative technology for producing plastics was developed.

As of March 2001, 2,265 victims had been officially recognized (1,784 of whom had died) and over 10,000 had received financial compensation from Chisso. Over $611 million has been paid to victims in compensation. In 1977, the Japanese government cleaned up the bay by vacuuming up 1.5 million cubic metres of mercury-contaminated sludge. After $359 million dollars and 14 years, the project was completed in 1997. Chisso continued to operate in Minamata producing chemicals and fertilizers. The local population has declined by 70 per cent since its peak. The film Minamata, based on the book by Aileen Mioko Smith and Eugene Smith showing harrowing images, was released in 2022 (McCurry 2006).

Yokkaichi Asthma 9

Yokkaichi asthma (四日市ぜんそく Yokkaichi zensoku) arose in Yokkaichi city, where after 1955 many cases of asthma were reported after power stations, oil refining and petrochemical plants were put in operation. A court case was won by plaintiffs in 1972; this is again one of the so-called big pollution diseases in Japan. Yokkaichi is the city with the largest population in Mie Prefecture. The disease had its peak from the mid-1950s to the early 1970s. The burning of petroleum and crude oil caused large quantities of sulphur dioxide, and smog began to cover some quarters of the city resulting in severe cases of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, chronic bronchitis, pulmonary emphysema and bronchial asthma. This industrial city faces Ise Bay on the Pacific Ocean side of the Japanese archipelago.

In the mid-1950s, a petroleum complex was built and began to operate. The complex included the largest heavy oil-fired power station and refinery in Japan at that time using crude oil with a high sulphur content (more than 3 per cent). The sulphur dioxide (SO2) emissions caused air pollution. By the early 1960s, the incidence of respiratory diseases increased among people living in the vicinity of the complex, becoming a major health problem in Japan that was known as Yokkaichi Asthma.

A series of counter measures were taken since 1972, as a result of a successful lawsuit brought by nine inhabitants of Isozu against six companies in the Yokkaichi Court for reparations of health damage. The court case began on 1 September 1967, and a favourable verdict was obtained on 24 July 1972. Sulphur dioxide air pollution in this region has been markedly reduced afterwards. Deemed as one of the big pollution diseases of Japan, Yokkaichi Asthma was felt in the city for nearly 20 years, after Yokkaichi filled in its coastal lowlands in a successful bid to attract modern industries (McKean 1981).

Toroku Mine, Arsenic 10

In the hamlet of Toroku, Miyazaki prefecture, there was arsenic pollution for many decades. The Sumitomo Metal Mining Co. had bought the arsenic mining rights in the 1960s and was later deemed liable for the pollution damage. The mine is located in Kyushu Island at 1,600 metres above sea level. According to Bampen Chaiyarak (2009), before World War II arsenopyrite production workers hammered ores into small pieces and moulded them with their p. 37bare hands before taking them to burn in a kiln. The kiln was designed to filter out arsenious acid. Kilns also produced smoke and ashes containing arsenic. Workers swept the ashes into the Toroku River which was also used for rice irrigation. Toroku villagers started to notice that trees died, bees disappeared, mushrooms no longer grew, bamboo shoots turned red and livestock died mysteriously. All these events caught the attention of a veterinarian in 1925. His investigation showed that environmental conditions had deteriorated. The Asia Arsenic Network documented the case of Kiemon Sato's family that lived only 100 m from a kiln. All seven members suffered similar symptoms, including blackened skin and bad coughs. Five members died between 1930 and 1931.

In 1941, a Buddhist organization, Wakokai, asked the mining company to stop producing arsenious acid. While arsenic production was temporarily stopped in 1941, the company announced that a new kiln would be built in 1951. Wakokai decided to stage a protest. but some villagers, mostly men, agreed to the construction in exchange for monetary compensation. A new kiln was completed in 1955. In 1967 mining rights passed from a small company to Sumitomo Metal Mining Co. A young school teacher and a journalist from Asahi Shimbun reopened the case, and “the Environment Agency finally decided in 1973 to designate the chronic arsenic poisoning as a kogai disease” (Tsuru 1999).

Miyazaki Prefecture assumed the role of mediator between the affected villagers and the company as negotiations for compensation proceeded (Chaiyarak 2009) but the patients were unhappy, as their evaluation was based solely on the patients’ external wounds. A group of Toroku women organized an alternative movement to criticize the government for this and victims established the Association of Toroku Arsenic Pollution Victims. Some patients filed a court case demanding compensation. The victims won the case at both the primary and appeals courts. In 1990, the Supreme Court also directed the company to compensate victims under the Pollution-Related Health Damage Compensation Law (PRDCL). These were small victories, largely led by women, except that many victims had already died (George and Toroku 2013; Tsuru 1999).


Ainu Complaints in Hokkaido 11

One of the most interesting cases of defence of rivers took place in Hokkaido, an island to the North, involving Indigenous peoples. Two dams were built. The first dispute, over the Nibutani Dam, contributed to the better awareness of Ainu rights in Japanese courts and politics. One spin-off of the dam project was a large Ainu cultural museum and some recreational areas. However, the Ainu failed to prevent the dam being built.

The Nibutani Dam construction project was part of the Bureau of Hokkaido “Saru River General Development Project”. The length of the dam is 550 m and the height 32 m. The construction began in 1973 and was completed in 1997. The initial purpose was to supply industrial water to the Eastern Tomakomai Industrial Area, about 30 km west of the proposed dam site. Later, the Bureau added hydroelectricity and flood control to this scheme that mainly supplies agricultural water to the rice fields below the dam and electricity generation for local needs. The flood control claim by the Bureau was questioned by many when there was a threat of dam breakdown in 2003 after a typhoon made the water level reservoir reach the critical point. Some households were damaged by flash floods at that time.p. 38

The dam threatened the traditional livelihood of the Ainu people, Indigenous people in this area as also in Sakhalin and Kamchatka. The Ainu livelihood depended on harvesting salmon, an endemic species called shishamo and other fish that are available in this river. The dam site would destroy some parts of their traditional grave sites along with historical and sacred sites. It would also inundate areas some Ainu farmers received under the Former Aboriginal Protection Act of 1899. The valuation languages were not only or mainly economic compensation but Indigenous territorial rights, the local food sovereignty in the form of salmon, the preservation of endemic species of fish and the value of religious sites and ancestors’ graves for the local population.

Two Ainu landowners refused to sell the land to the Bureau, and in 1987 the Bureau used the Land Expropriation Act to forcibly take their lands. In 1997, the Sapporo District Court of Hokkaido rendered its decision, acknowledging the illegality of applying the Land Expropriation Act without considering the cultural and religious significance of the Ainu people. The court also acknowledged that the Ainu people were among Japan's Indigenous people (previously known as “minority” people). However, as the dam had been already completed, the court argued that it would not be necessary to decommission it or discontinue operation.

As reported by Georgina Stevens in Cultural Survival (2004) there was a second edition on this conflict in the construction of the Biratori Dam, further upstream on the same Saru River. “Due to the Nibutani dam litigation, work on the second dam was delayed […]. They [the Ainu] are actively involved in the planning, development, and execution of a survey to assess and minimize the impact of the second dam on the region's Ainu people, culture, and environment”. Participatory consultation was influenced not only by the Nibutani Dam judgment, but also by other legal developments in June 1997. A new article was added requiring river management authorities to take necessary measures to ensure that the views of local citizens were reflected. As a result, a committee made up of local representatives from the Biratori Township participated in the drafting of the maintenance plan for the Saru River system. Under this plan it was agreed that construction of the Biratori Dam would go ahead for flood control reasons (although likely also for economic reasons). Importantly, the plan also included efforts to consider Ainu culture in the preservation and management of the river.

A second legal development influencing the Ainu's situation was the July 1997 enactment of the Ainu Cultural Promotion Act. This law was aimed at “implementing measures to promote Ainu culture and realize a society in which the ethnic pride of Ainu people is respected”.

Waste Disposal Dispute in Teshima Island, Kagawa Prefecture 12

Over 700,000 tons of industrial waste, including heavy metals, PCB, oil and shredded materials were illegally dumped on Teshima Island. This tiny island is part of a group of islands in the Seto Inland Sea. This was a beautiful landscape, designated as a natural park in 1934. In the rapid industrialization process of Japan, refineries polluted some of these islands with toxic chemicals, while industrial waste was illegally dumped on Teshima. Inhabitants deserted the islands, leaving the elderly behind. The conflict outcome can hardly be considered a success in environmental justice because it took 25 years before a plan was worked out to shift the industrial waste away from Teshima.

During these 25 years, the heavily laden ships came to Teshima to dump their cargoes of toxic waste. Activist Shozo Aki started a yellowtail fish project in 1975, but he was forced to close down the fish farm when a huge amount of water laced with deadly dioxin leached from p. 39the beach into the sea in 1990. Aki went on to lead a grassroots campaign against the industrial waste disposal business. In 1995, a survey found toxic substances, including dioxins and PCB, on the island. Residents subsequently filed a damage suit against the company, seeking compensation and the removal of the industrial waste. The Takamatsu District Court ruled in their favour in late 1996. In June 2000, the residents agreed with the Kagawa Prefectural Government on a plan to remove all the waste. An impermeable wall was to be constructed on the north coast of the disposal area to prevent polluted water from flowing out to sea. A “solution” would be to re-send 600,000 tons of industrial waste to Naoshima Island. This material would be transformed into slag at a new melting furnace in Naoshima, with a capacity of 200 tons per day. The slag would be reused as aggregate in concrete. The plan also stipulated that the governor of Kagawa apologize to islanders.

By 2007, one-third of the waste had been removed. In 2007 the accumulation of industrial waste still occupied nearly 80,000 m2 of the 15 km2 island of Teshima. By 2015 it was reported that over 700,000 tons of waste had been treated so far, with a remainder to be treated within two years. The project costs increased to yen 79 billion from the originally estimated yen 49 billion, which are borne by the Japanese government and Kagawa Prefecture in halves (in USD, almost one billion).

Teshima's local resistance and activism on the island itself (with less than one thousand residents) cannot be understood as a NIMBY phenomenon in which people complain of waste dumped on the island and agree to send it to another island 40 minutes away. It became a well-known conflict that helped activists in other waste disposal cases. The nationwide problem of illegal dumping of industrial waste remains after Teshima and other cases prompted the Japanese government to tighten penalties against offenders. This successful cost-shifting takes place whether the waste dumping is legal or illegal. The case featured some outside support (including Greenpeace-Japan) (Labunska et al. 2000), and involvement of judicial and administrative authorities at wider scales. In March 2017, the last load of waste left Teshima to go to Naoshima. Among the people seeing the ship off, there was Shozo Aki. “Of the 549 islanders who filed the petition, 320 are already dead”, he said.

Direct Action at Kochi's Paper Pulp Factory 13

In contrast to other environmental conflicts, this conflict fiercely pitted fisher people and citizens against a paper pulp company. In the end, they got a successful sustainable solution by direct action, and the factory closed down in 1972. Before that there had been numerous attempts at negotiation of alternatives and compensation for damages. From the Tokugawa period (1760) onward, Kochi City was famous for its paper production and manufacture. As time went on, the rivers of Kochi became polluted and the people, particularly the fishermen, felt increasingly threatened. According to the UNU report on industrial pollution in Japan (Jun Ui 1992), in the 1930s a pulp-processing plant was built, releasing even more effluent into the environment. In 1948, a new pulp complex was proposed for the old pulp plant site. The city administration and prefectural government supported the project while the local fishermen and many citizens were against it. The plan included no facilities for treating industrial waste.

In July 1949 the anti-factory citizens’ movement and the company came to an agreement in relation to pollution prevention. The company Kochi Pulp assumed responsibility for the damage done and it would ensure to pay compensations. The mayor of Kochi City and the p. 40governor of Kochi Prefecture signed the agreement. In 1951 the factory went from Kochi Pulp to Daio Pulp management with the name Nishi Nippon Pulp Factory, and in the process the validity of the pollution-prevention agreement was downgraded. Citizens staging a sit-down demonstration against the new plant were arrested by the police. The high quantities of sulphur dioxide that the factory emitted into the air damaged human health, and discharge into the river and Urado Bay killed all life in the aquatic environment. The prefectural office announced that the results of tests on water samples yielded no evidence as to the cause of the degraded aquatic environment.

In the ten years during which there was no waste treatment provided, the paper production grew but the Urado Bay fishing industry went into decay. In 1962, the fishermen gave up their fishing rights to the company in exchange for compensation of 100 million yen (about US$ 277,000). In the 1960s, the prefectural offices reclaimed land around the bay in order to build more factories. In August 1970, when a typhoon hit the city, the people realized the error of reclaiming wetland, because many homes were flooded, washing up accumulated pulp sludge into people's homes. With this turn of events, a second wave of protests against the pulp factory started in 1970. An environmental group in Kochi City and a group formed to protect Urado Bay initiated a movement to remove the pulp factory, or to ensure that the sludge discharged from it was fully treated.

On 31 May 1971, the management decided not to negotiate with the Urado Bay citizens’ group. The four executives of the citizens’ movement decided that the situation had reached crisis point and that there was only one course of action ‒ to pour cement into the mouth of the factory effluent outlet. This action took place on 9 June, stopping factory operations for 15 hours. This protest was fully supported by the citizens of Kochi City, and the prefectural and city authorities were forced to ask the company either to install pollution-control equipment or to move the factory elsewhere. The factory was closed down in May 1972. Two of the four persons involved in the action were prosecuted in court providing an ideal platform for the protesters. National environmental protection groups and the mass media all supported the two people being tried in court and, as a result of the efforts, the court case ended on 31 March 1976 with the two being required to pay a fine of only 50,000 yen (about $200) each.

Tampering with Tidal Flats: Landfill in Fujimae, Aichi, and the Isahaya Bay 14

The Fujimae Tidal Flat conflict was both on waste management and on biodiversity conservation, where environmentalists were successful because a plan to construct a landfill was cancelled after resistance from an expanded circle of activists. The role of international supporters was important. In general, industrial and domestic urban waste are subject to two different systems: landfill or incineration (with the caveat that incineration produces air pollution and requires space to deposit the ashes). In this case, in July 1981 Nagoya City announced a plan to fill 105 ha of Fujimae tidal flat for the construction of a landfill. The background was the population increase and the increase in waste due to the widespread use of plastic. On the other hand, the Fujimae Tidal Flat had become a valuable site and feeding ground for Japan's migratory birds. Hence, this plan became a major social problem from the aspect of protection of migratory birds and the conservation of tidal flats, and some grassroots groups developed their resistance.

February 1987 saw the formation of the “Community Meeting to Protect Tidal Flats in Nagoya Port” counting with 15 nature conservation groups. One of the activities of the group p. 41was the “100,000 Petition” in 1990, signatures were collected with the support of all parties. In March 1992, the project was revised to reduce the landfill area to 52 ha. In August 1998, Nagoya City put an artificial tidal flat maintenance plan on the assessment report, applied for the landfill, and proceeded to the approval. Then, the situation changed. In April 1998, the International Association for Impact Assessment adopted the “Fujimae Tidal Flat Recommendation”, which called for a review of the assessment by Nagoya City. In December, the Environment Agency of the Japanese government pointed out at the International Wetland Symposium the threat from the Fujimae Tidal Flat's Reclamation. Then followed remarks by the Secretary of the Environment Agency and by the Minister of Transport, while the media also insisted on the conservation of the Fujimae Tidal Flat. What was critical, though, was people's opinion. The mayor of Nagoya in 1999 announced the cancellation of the project. Fujimae Tidal Flat was saved and designated as a Ramsar Site in November 2002.


Meanwhile the Isahaya Bay conflict in Nagasaki and Saga prefectures was still ongoing. It is a conflict confronting farmers against fishermen, seaweed collectors and conservationists because of the ill-considered reclamation of land for agriculture. In 1997, the gates cutting off water to Isahaya Bay were closed, and the Isahaya tidal flat was drained. The construction of this dike by the Japanese government sparked conflicts for 20 years based on very material concerns about fishing and seaweed collecting, as well as on the appreciation for pristine nature in the form of marine life and migratory birds. There was an alliance between conservationists and fishermen against state authorities and farmers. The bay had been brutally closed on 14 April 1997 by a 7 km seawall constructed to create more farmland by the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fishery. According to the Japan Times, this was a 250 billion yen government project that divided the fishermen and Saga Prefecture on one hand, and the farmers and Nagasaki Prefecture on the other. The controversial Isahaya Bay Reclamation Project was blamed for reduced harvests of fish and nori (seaweed) in the sea.

What used to be one of the largest and richest staging sites of migratory birds with a very great number of molluscs and fish, was thus turned into farmland, causing a huge loss in biodiversity. The government was caught by two conflicting court decisions over whether or not to open the gates. Both fishermen and farmers won district court rulings in favour of their compensation claims. The government is obliged to pay compensation to the fishermen as long as the gates are shut.


The spectacular Fukushima accident of 2011 was a landmark in the story of nuclear accidents and anti-nuclear movements across the world (Chapter 10). Within the limits of this book, this is a summary of what happened. In 1961 the town councils of Futaba and Ōkuma had voted to invite Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) to build a nuclear power plant on the border of the two towns. On 11 March 2011, an earthquake hit the Japanese East coast, and knocked out the Fukushima nuclear plant cooling systems, causing hydrogen explosions and meltdowns at three reactors. The accompanying radiological release was rated at Level 7, p. 42the highest on the scale and on par with Chornobyl. The tsunami disabled the use of both the primary circuit of refrigeration and the emergency systems. The heat of the reactors became very high due to lack of refrigeration. Sea water was used to cool them down, after explosions took place. The spent nuclear waste in a pool outside one of the reactor buildings started to heat up again for some time, releasing radioactivity. Although it was known that tsunamis of a height of more than 30 m could occur in the region, the plant only had a 6-m containment wall and essential systems were located in flood areas. The accident caused the release of radioactive material into the sea for a long time.

The total power of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant was 4,700 MWe. The write-off is several billion US$ and the potential liability is many billions more. The contamination will affect the marine ecosystems. Tens of thousands of people were evacuated and will not be able to come back. TEPCO is totally unable to face the very large liabilities from the accident. All nuclear power stations in Japan were closed, and the attempts by the government after 2015 to start some of them again encountered widespread opposition. Never again will there be a consensus on nuclear energy in Japan. One of the plants closed down was the Ōi NPP. It was reported that, on 7 June 2012, about 70 women including ten from Fukushima did a “die-in” in front of the Prime Minister's Official Residence to protest against the restart of Ōi Nuclear Power Plant. Before the “die-in”, ten Fukushima women visited the Cabinet Office and met with officials to submit a letter of requests addressed to Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda. Buddhist nun and writer Setouchi Jakucho joined a hunger strike to protest against restarting the Ōi nuclear plant. She became 90 years old on 15 May 2012.

The Kansai Electric Power Co., Inc. (KEPCO) is an electrical utility of Kansai region. Before the Fukushima nuclear disaster, 11 nuclear reactors supplied almost 50 per cent of the region's power. The Ōi nuclear plants in Fukui prefecture were part of them. Two 1180 MWe pressurized water reactors in Ōi were taken offline for Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) inspections in 2013 (Figure 2.3). Authorization to restart was pending. In Fukui Prefecture, many commercial nuclear reactors clustered along a short coastline, as nuclear-friendly politicians had dominated most of Fukui's government offices. KEPCO's application to resume operation of nuclear energy plants in Ōi met strong protests and the regional court granted an injunction against the operation in 2014. In the lawsuit, a group of 189 people from Tokyo, the plant's host prefecture of Fukui and 20 other prefectures contended that the No. 3 and 4 reactors at the Ōi plant had resumed operating in August 2012 even though their safety had not been certified. They claimed that the plant is sited near several active seismic faults and that KEPCO underestimated the maximum magnitude of an earthquake. The court ruled in favour of the plaintiffs and issued an injunction against Kansai restarting units 3 and 4.

21st of May 2014: Lawyers hold signs reading "justice is alive" and "suspension has been ordered" at the Fukui District Court (Kyodo News, the Japan Times).[i] Kyodo, (2014). Fukui court blocks Oi nuclear reactor restart, in landmark ruling, The Japan Times, May 21. https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2014/05/21/national/fukui-court-blocks-oi-nuclear-reactor-restart-landmark-ruling/
Figure 2.3

21 May 2014: Lawyers hold signs reading “justice is alive” and “suspension has been ordered” at the Fukui District Court

Source:  Kyodo News, the Japan Times; Kyodo (2014). Fukui court blocks Oi nuclear reactor restart, in landmark ruling, The Japan Times, 21 May. https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2014/05/21/national/fukui-court-blocks-oi-nuclear-reactor-restart-landmark-ruling/

An editorial in the Japan Times noted that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, in reversing the nuclear phase-out policy, emphasized the economic viability and supply stability of nuclear energy. He dismissed the no-nuclear option in Japan's energy mix as unrealistic, noting that the nation was losing trillions of yen each year due to the increased cost of thermal power. The Ōi court ruling of 2014 discarded a similar argument by KEPCO noting that it is legally irrelevant to discuss people's fundamental rights to life on the same level as the question of rising costs of generating electricity. These were incommensurable valuation languages. However, in 2018, the Nagoya High Court's Kanazawa branch declared that the nation, having learned its lesson from the accident at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant in 2011, would not make the same mistakes again. The 4 July 2018 ruling overturned the Fukui District Court's decision of four years previously in favour of the plaintiffs.p. 43


The failed breeder reactor called Monju is a very significant case for Japan and the rest of the world. The failure came because of technical difficulties and not so much because of widespread protests. In September 2016, after spending ten billion USD, the government finally decided to stop the plutonium fuelled fast-breeder reactor in Fukui Prefecture. Tsuruga already hosted two conventional reactors, and in 1983 preparations had begun for the construction of a new fast-breeder reactor called Monju. The reactor, named after the Buddhist deity of wisdom, had barely operated since it first generated electricity in 1995.

Decommissioning Monju meant abandoning a project that has devoured large government funds. The government calculated that it would cost another US$6bn to restart Monju and keep it operating for another ten years. According to the Japan Atomic Energy Agency, decommissioning Monju will cost an estimated US$3bn. Monju was seen as a pillar of Japan's nuclear fuel recycling programme because it is designed to burn plutonium retrieved from huge stockpiles of spent fuel produced at other nuclear power plants. Moreover, fast-breeder reactors are supposed to produce more plutonium than they burn while generating power. On 27 January 2003, the Nagoya High Court's Kanazawa branch had handed down a historic ruling nullifying the government's 1983 permission for the construction of Monju. The verdict p. 44recognized three main areas in which the Nuclear Safety Commission's (NSC) pre-construction safety review was inadequate. However, this court decision was later reversed.

Monju dates back to the 1980s, when work began amid the realization of a need to reduce reliance on imported fossil fuels. The Monju reactor reached criticality for the first time in 1994 but was forced to shut down in 1995 after a leak of sodium coolant and a fire. There was an attempt at a cover-up. In November 2012, it emerged that the operator, Japan Atomic Energy Agency, had failed to check as many as 10,000 of Monju's components, as safety rules require. The Nuclear Regulation Authority declared that the government-affiliated JAEA was “not qualified as an entity to safely operate” Monju. It told the government either to find an alternative operator or scrap the project. The government was unable to find new management.

Meanwhile, decommissioning Monju after 2016 revived international concerns over Japan's massive plutonium stockpile, enough to produce thousands of atomic bombs. With no way to consume plutonium directly, the government planned to continue using MOX fuels ‒ a mix of plutonium and uranium ‒ in conventional nuclear reactors. But many commercial reactors remained idle at least for some time in the wake of the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster.


The electricity system of Japan relied more on coal after Fukushima, but even more on natural gas (Figure 2.4), which produces less CO2 than coal. Fukushima and the consequent stoppage of many nuclear plants have been compensated by degrowth in electricity production, renewables, natural gas and coal-fired power plants (CFPP). Coal has not increased more because of civil society opposition, as reflected in the Kiko network and the Goldman Prize to Kimiko Hirata in 2021 (Chapter 16).

How Fukushima Changed Japan's Energy Mix (IEA, K. Buchholz).
Figure 2.4

How Fukushima changed Japan's energy mix

Source:  IEA, K. Buchholz

The Kobe Coal-Fired Power Plant 17

There would be no world movement for environmental justice without some successes but the general rule is failure. Sometimes instructive failures, such as the Kobe CFPP, occur. This 1,400 MW project was one of many new power stations burning coal being challenged by lawsuits. As reported in Nikkei Asian Review (21 Nov. 2018),

in Japan's port city of Kobe, a pair of 150-meter-high white chimneys tower over the bay, located just beside a residential area. Brushing aside protests from environmentalists and locals, plant owner Kobe Steel started construction on a huge expansion project that will double the size and emissions of the Kobe Power Plant. More than 14 million tons of carbon dioxide and other pollutants are expected to belch each year from the enlarged chimneys by 2022.

The Kobe Steel Power Plant Project is a plan to build two new power generating units just 400 m from the residential area of Nada Ward. Schools and hospitals are located nearby. Residents in the region have suffered health impacts from air pollution for years. Construction plans for these two new plants were submitted to the government in 2018. Therefore, the residents of Kobe City launched two court challenges. One calls for an injunction to prevent Kobe Steel Ltd from building and operating the new units. The other called for a judicial review to determine whether or not the national government had violated legislation by permitting p. 45the plan to go ahead despite an insufficient EIA. The plaintiffs were the three generations of citizens living in Kobe City and the vicinity of the power plant, including grandparents’ generations who want to leave behind a livable environment for children and grandchildren. The two new units planned would each emit 0.6 per cent of the nation's greenhouse gas emissions.

The first oral argument was held at the Osaka District Court in January 2019. Residents insisted on the cancellation of the confirmation notice from the Minister of Economy, Trade, and Industry in the EIA. The plaintiffs claimed that “Coal-fired power generation emits more than twice as much CO2 as natural gas”. Based on the international Paris Agreement, they insisted that the government's CO2 reduction target could never be achieved this way. One of the plaintiffs pointed out that “great damage will occur to people all over the world, including Kobe”, due to abnormal weather and the rise in sea level. Another of the plaintiffs, Erina Imai, a senior student at Kobe University with active participation in Fridays for Future strikes, said that she was “very scared” because of the forecast compiled by international organizations. A general meeting of shareholders of Kobe Steel, Ltd. was held on 20 June 2019. About 20 plaintiffs and supporters protested close to the general meeting venue. However, on 15 March 2021, the Osaka District Court dismissed the action requesting the cancellation of the Kobe Steel CFPP under construction in Nada Ward.p. 46


The Minamata illness and the Fukushima accident became household names around the world over the last 70 years. Industrial illnesses were brought into the judicial system in Japan and subject to compensation, but how could the country become so keen on nuclear energy despite the experience with radiation deaths and illnesses in Hiroshima and Nagasaki? This is something of mystery only explained by the rhetorical success in separating “atoms for peace” from “atoms for war”.

Beyond such accidents, which are the main Japanese contributions to the world movements for environmental justice? The country had a long march to economic growth combined with militarization and imperialism in China and SE Asia until 1945, and more growth in the long period after 1945. This trajectory was marked by ecological modernization after the Ashio protests of 1900 and the legal changes brought by the “big industrial pollution diseases” of the 1950s and 1960s, together with the moderate complaints against land and water grabbing and infrastructure projects desecrating rural and coastal landscapes. This long march has recently halted. The economy scarcely grows, the public debt is very large, population does not grow, Japan remains a large net importer of materials but it is moving into a post-growth economy.

Contrary to Durkheim's dictum, social facts (such as environmental conflicts, economic changes) sometimes have “natural” causes, meaning causes studied in the chemical, physical and biological sciences. The readers must by now be aware of the “materiality” of the causes of the conflicts. Beyond interpretations of the industrialization of Japan in terms of militarization (until 1945), state-corporative-capitalism after 1945 or, recently, neoliberalism, we have described commodity extraction and exploitation such as copper mining, zinc and lead mining (and cadmium pollution); arsenic mining; coal mining and CFPP; hydropower and nuclear power; oil and petrochemical industry; the plastics and the paper pulp industries; the processed food industries (rice oil and powdered milk); trade in live animals (dolphins); incorporation of wetlands into agricultural production; industrial waste disposal (in Teshima island, and in other landfills); and threat to wildlife by military installations by a foreign country (in Okinawa).

The ecological distribution conflicts in Japan are thus similar to those in other countries or regions because their “materiality” is similar. The concept of kogai was introduced for illnesses caused by pollution. The existence of an environmentalism of the people (often as victims of such cruel instances of pollution) is complemented in Japan by a strong strand of ecological modernization that tried to cope with the effluents of increased economic affluence. In the next chapter we shall look at the conflicts that respond to the socio-metabolic profile of The Philippines, different from that of industrial Japan.

Political ecologists study the use of political power to distribute material resources (such as land, water, etc.) and pollution among social groups or classes. The narrative of this sample of conflicts from Japan started from the claims against damages from industrialization in the early counter-movements against copper mining and smelting. The Ashio Copper Mine is where the Furukawa zaibatsu began its long career. Some decades later, the big pollution diseases and the links between industrialization and health impacts (from arsenic, PCB, mercury, cadmium poisoning, asthma and other respiratory diseases) led to the establishment of a p. 47principle of legal environmental liability and state regulations already in the late 1950s. The disputed mechanisms of compensation for victims of coal mining accidents or industrial toxins clearly showed that enormous pain and loss of life could really not be made commensurate with money. The use of litigation was frequent but did not exclude sometimes direct action such as blockades and other imaginative items in the repertoires of socio-environmental contention as in the Kochi paper mill struggle. The frequent links between scientists and socio-environmental movements are obvious, although other scientists were faithful servants of the industrial corporations. The questionable use of the territory in coastal areas and tidal flats, and some conflicts on maritime biodiversity conservation have also appeared, as well as conflicts on industrial and domestic waste disposal. There are also a few environmental conflicts involving Indigenous peoples.

The oscillations in energy policy follow the pattern of very large growth of social metabolism concomitant to economic growth after World War II. Some hydropower conflicts arose. There was a clear option for nuclear energy (without military connections in Japan's case), interrupted by the failures at Monju and Fukushima. The current option for gas has come together with a short-lived option for coal-fired power plants even after the Paris Agreement of 2015, giving rise to a strong movement of opposition. Japan is also funding CFPPs from Vietnam to Indonesia.

The stagnation of the population in Japan (at 125 million) and zero economic growth is perhaps a model also for European industrial countries. Economic degrowth is compatible with stable or growing well-being and with an improved environment if the population decreases enough. This ideal-type Japanese model might encounter some financial difficulties. Without economic growth and inflation, how should the public and private debts be paid? Will economic stagnation cause unemployment? Will economic stagnation prevent positive technological innovations? How should the enormous stock of the built environment in Japan be maintained without further energy and material inputs? Will environmental social movements be able to impose an ecological political agenda?



Ashio Copper Mine, Japan (Yuki Sasaki), EJAtlas.


Biodiversity conservation conflicts in Japan: dolphins at Taiji, EJAtlas.

The Japan Times (2016). Japanese director launches crowd-funding appeal to screen pro-whaling film in U.S., 6 September.

Palmer, M.J. (2016). Will Japan stop whaling and killing dolphins in time for the Tokyo Olympics?, Earth Island Journal, 13 September.

Singer, P. and Sosnowski, J. (2016). Japan's notorious dolphin hunt is where the world's aquariums shop, Los Angeles Times, 6 September.


The Dugong in Okinawa: anti-imperialist conservation (Kenichi Matsui), EJAtlas.

Sullivan, P. (2019). House armed urged to halt airbase construction to save Okinawa Dugongs, press release, Centre for Biological Diversity, 19 March.


Miike coal mine and disaster, Japan (Joan Martinez-Alier, suggested by Kenichi Matsui), EJAtlas.

The Japan Times (2013). Memorial marks 1963 mine disaster, 9 November.


Arsenic poisoning in 1955, Morinaga Milk, Japan (Joan Martinez-Alier and Kenichi Matsui), EJAtlas.


Yusho disease: Kanemi rice oil contaminated with PCB, Japan, EJAtlas.


Itai-Itai disease, Toyama prefecture, Japan (Grettel Navas and Joan Martinez-Alier), EJAtlas.


Minamata disease, Japan, 2016 (Desirée Torrente), EJAtlas.p. 48


Yokkaichi asthma, Japan, EJAtlas.


Toroku mine, arsenic pollution, Miyazaki prefecture, Japan (Joan Martinez-Alier), EJAtlas.


Nibutani Dam on Ainu homeland, Japan (Kenichi Mitsui), EJAtlas. https://bit.ly/2ZSwoZt.

Stevens, G. (2014). More than paper: protecting Ainu culture and influencing Japanese dam development, Cultural Survival.


Teshima island, waste dispute (Joan Martinez-Alier), EJAtlas.

Kamata, T. (2007). Island's environment recovering from illegal waste; residents try to follow suit, Japan Times, 7 June.


Kochi paper factory producing pollution, Japan (Joan Martinez-Alier), EJAtlas.

NHK (2017). Island reaches cleanup milestone, 16 May.


Isahaya Bay, fill in of the tidal flats, Japan (Kenichi Mitsui and Mariko Karlsson), EJAtlas.

Cancellation of Landfill in Fujimae Tidal Flat, Aichi Japan (Natsuka Kurado and EnvJustice ICTA-UAB), EJAtlas.

Japan Times (2015). Resolve the Isahaya Bay standoff, 22 November.


Ooi (Ōi) nuclear power units temporarily stopped, Japan (Joan Martinez-Alier, suggested by Kenichi Matsui), EJAtlas.

The New York Times (2015). Nuclear reactors in Japan remain close by Judge's order, 14 April.

EXSKF (2012). Protest on-going for 10 hours in front of Ooi nuke plant entrance, 30 June.

Japan Times (2019). Japan's post-3/11 energy policy, 13 March.

The Asahi Shimbun (2013). Editorial: Oi nuclear plant ruling reads like it was rendered pre-Fukushima, 18 July.


The failed fast breeder reactor, Monju, Japan (Joan Martinez-Alier), EJAtlas.


Buchholz, K. (2021). How Fukushima changed Japan's energy six, Statistica, 11 March.

Kobe City Fight Against Coal, Japan (Naw Thiri May Aye), EJAtlas.

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