Nature and the Environment in Postwar Japan

Nature and the Environment in Postwar Japan

Background Information.

Scholars have long debated how to reconcile apparently contradictory attitudes toward nature and the environment in modern Japan. On the one hand, Japanese culture is suffused with a profound aesthetic appreciation of nature, traditional value systems (particularly Shintō) place great emphasis on respect for the natural environment, and Japanese people, even today, often express the belief that their society is more sensitive and attuned to nature than Western societies are. On the other hand, Japan has a long history of efficiently exploiting the environment and degrading the natural world to meet human needs and the demands of industry.

After World War II and especially during the decades of high-speed economic growth, Japan’s manufacturers were prodigious, largely unregulated polluters and Japan gained an unenviable reputation as the world’s most toxic country. Paul Ehrlich described Japan as the developed world’s “canary in the coal mine,” a nation so profoundly polluted that it functioned as a test case of how high human tolerance levels could be.   The air pollution in Tokyo was legendary: Mount Fuji was obscured behind a perpetual fog of exhaust and particulate matter, pulmonary complaints skyrocketed, and traffic police were equipped with oxygen tanks on particularly hazardous days. Japan’s rivers, lakes, and coastal waters were filthy, polluted by untreated sewage, highly toxic industrial wastes, and the run-off of agricultural chemicals. Fisheries suffered, often dramatically, as did people, most famously the residents of Minamata, a small village with a large chemical factory that dumped huge quantities of methylmercury into the local bay for decades. Other examples of environmental crisis were almost countless from the 1950s to the 1970s, including the rapid subsidence of major cities from the unregulated pumping of groundwater, fatal red tides, PCB contamination of cooking oil, arsenic in milk cartons, and the rampant logging of old-growth forests.

Starting in the mid-1960s, public outcry rose over the mounting levels of industrial pollution and the larger issue  of the costs (social, environmental, health, and cultural) of Japan’s rapid postwar economic development. The efforts of the Minamata victims to gain redress, played out in the courts and in the media, galvanized other sufferers from pollution-related illnesses (including cadmium poisoning and severe forms of asthma) to press corporations and the government for action. Public demonstrations in favor of tighter environmental regulation surged, fanned by left-wing political parties, active local environmental groups, and inspiration from environmental movements abroad. In response, the so-called “Pollution Diet” of 1970 passed a sweeping set of fourteen new laws that, at least on paper, constituted the strictest antipollution regime in the world. The new statutes made polluters financially responsible to their victims under civil law, provided for mediated dispute resolution, amended and tightened existing laws concerning air and water pollution, traffic and noise pollution, toxic waste disposal and the National Park system. From 1970 to 1975, central government spending on environmental issues went nearly doubled in real terms, while local government expenditures increased threefold and business investment in antipollution measures rose up to 40% annually. Such efforts led to rapid improvements, especially in air and water quality, and Japan was acclaimed internationally for its success in pulling back from the brink of environmental catastrophe.

Today,  Japanese attitudes toward nature and the environment still appear contradictory to many observers. Japan hosted the 1997 Kyoto Conference on global climate change and has been active in promoting international adoption of the Kyoto Protocol. Grass-roots environmental groups have flourished in Japan in recent years and many Japanese corporations are world leaders in the development of environmentally sensitive technologies. At the same time, Japan still has a reputation as an “eco-outlaw,” exporting many of its environmental problems to other countries (for example, by moving dirty production facilities to Southeast Asia) and engaging in many questionable environmental practices (including whaling, the trade in ivory, deep-sea dumping of toxic waste, and drift net fishing). Environmentalists also criticize Japan’s aggressive public works programs (which led to the paving of many watersheds over recent decades) and forestry policies (which have weakened forest diversity through monoculture plantations). Understanding how the Japanese venerate nature while still systematically exploiting the environment remains elusive to many Western observers, yet the Japanese are hardly alone among the residents of industrialized nations (including the United States) in professing a love for nature while simultaneously pursuing environmentally unsustainable lifestyles.

Learning Goals.

1.  Students will articulate the extent of the industrial pollution crisis which Japan faced in the 1960s and 1970s.

2  Students will understand the social protest movements which grew out of Japan’s environmental crisis and the belated response of the state to pollution problems.

3.  Students will understand how a profound and widespread belief in a uniquely Japanese appreciation for nature coexists with an equally profound and widespread proclivity to exploit and degrade the natural environment.



Common Core Standards
College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Reading


  • Standard 1.  Read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and to make logical inferences from it; cite specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions drawn from the text.
  • Standard 4.  Interpret words and phrases as they are used in a text, including determining technical, connotative, and figurative meanings, and analyze how specific word choices shape meaning or tone.
  • Standard 7.  Integrate and evaluate content presented in diverse formats and media, including visually and quantitatively, as well as in words.

College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Writing

  • Standard 11.   Develop personal, cultural, textual, and thematic connections within and across genres as they respond to texts through written, digital, and oral presentations, employing a variety of media and genres.

College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Speaking and Listening

  • Standard 1.  Prepare for and participate effectively in a range of conversations and collaborations with diverse partners, building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly and persuasively. 
McRel Standards
World History


1.  McRel Standard 44.  Understands the search for community, stability, and peace in an interdependent world.

2.  McRel Standard 45.  Understands major global trends since World War II.




Language Arts

1.  McRel Standard 4.  Gathers and uses information for research purposes.

2.  McRel Standard 5.  Uses the general skills and strategies of the reading process.

3.  McRel Standard 6.  Uses reading skills and strategies to understand and interpret a variety of literary texts.





1.  McRel Standard 14.  Understands how human actions modify the physical environment.





1.  McRel Standard 2.  Knows environmental and external factors that affect individual and community health.

Key Concept.

Modern Japan's complex attitude towards the environment stems from the inherent tension in reconciling a tradition of reverence and a self-proclaimed affinity for nature with the degredation that can accompany rapid economic growth.

Essential Question.  

Primary Source.  

Thought Questions.

1. What political, economic, and social issues did pollution cases like Minamata raise for the Japanese people and the Japanese state?

2. Do you think that the media and international scrutiny played an important role in the Japanese government’s reaction to popular protest and its eventual response to the pollution problem?

3. How would you reconcile the Japanese people’s self-professed appreciation for nature with Japan’s history of pollution and exploitation of the natural environment? Is this a case of modernization clashing with tradition? Or is it a case of a complicated traditional attitude toward nature and the environment enduring into the present day?

4. How different are Japanese views of the environment from what has traditionally been espoused (and practiced) in the West? Do the Japanese have a more acute sensitivity to nature and the environment than Europeans or Americans do?

5. How would you compare the pollution problem in Japan in the 1960s and 1970s to what China is experiencing today?



Focus Activity Ideas.

Ask students to answer, either orally or in paragraph form, the following questions: What is the government's role in protecting the environment?  What role do ordinary citizens play? 

Main Lesson Activity Ideas.

1. Read and discuss the materials on Minamata, supplemented by a short lecture on the history of the incident, drawn from the sources in “Resources” or online resources. 
  • Why did this episode attract so much attention, nationally and internationally? 
  • Was this just about the plight of the poisoned and suffering residents of Minamata, or was it about also about larger issues? 
  • Consider the uproar over Minamata as part of a backlash against untrammeled economic growth at any cost and national economic glory at the expense of individual wellbeing in postwar Japan. 
  • Consider it also as an important example of a popular protest movement representing the disenfranchised in Japanese society against powerful corporate and government interests. Note how the protestors characterize the corporate executives (and, reflectively, themselves) in “We Citizens: Sit-In Strike Declaration.” It has often been said that environmental protests in Japan are typified less by outrage against the human devastation of nature than by the search for redress for the health and economic costs of environmental damage. Does this seem to be the case in the Minamata protests?
2. Ask your students to research other cases of pollution in postwar Japan (Yokkaichi asthma, itai-itai disease/cadmium poisoning, air pollution, acid rain) and other protest movements in postwar Japan (opposition to the renewal of the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty, protests against the Vietnam War, the building of Narita airport, and the American military presence on Okinawa).   Suggested online resources can be found in the "Resources" section below.
  • How do these pollution incidents and protest cases relate to the Minamata example? 
  • What does this variety of cases tell us about (1) attitudes toward the environment, (2) popular participation in political discourse, and (3) public attitudes toward the status quo and “iron triangle” government in postwar Japan?
3. Read and discuss the poems by Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko. As one would expect, the Emperor and Empress present very traditional perspectives on nature and the environment, suggesting (mainly implicitly) that the Japanese have a sophisticated appreciation for the environment and a historical love for the natural world. These poems could be supplemented by pictures of traditional Japanese art and gardens, and premodern nature poetry (such as haiku), all of which are available readily online. Note that the Japanese have a strong, historically rooted aesthetic sense of nature, but that that they have also shown a traditional willingness to manipulate nature (as with bonsai miniature trees or garden design).

4. Read and discuss Chapter 1 from Alex Kerr’s Dogs and Demons. According to Kerr, how “environmentally sensitive” are Japanese people and the Japanese government today? What is the “construction state,” how did it develop, and what are the consequences for the environment? 

Summative Activity Ideas. Have students list three examples of Japan's respect for nature, then three ways Japan has degraded the environment.  Can the students come up with any theories to reconcile this seemingly contradictory attitude?  Are similar contradictions found in the United States?


Materials on Minamata
Numerous accounts of Minamata and its aftermath are now available in English.
Oiwa Keibo, Rowing the Eternal Sea: The Story of a Minamata Fisherman (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2001).

“What’s  Going on?” pp. 39-41; “We Citizens: Sit-In Strike Declaration” in Wm. Theodore deBary, Carol Gluck, and Arthur E. Tiedemann, eds., Sources of Japanese Tradition, Volume II 1600-2000, 2nd ed. (New York: Columbia University Press, 2005), pp.1105-1106.

Photographs of Minamata protests and victims in W. Eugene Smith and Aileen M. Smith, Minamata (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1975).

The  standard academic treatment is the balanced and accessible Timothy George, Minamata: Pollution and the Struggle for Democracy in Postwar Japan (Cambridge: Harvard University Asia Center, 2001)

A more journalistic account is provided by Mishima Akio, Bitter Sea: The Human Cost of Minamata Disease (Tokyo: Kosei Publishing, 1992).

A  particularly moving record, passages of which could be used in the classroom, is Ishimura Michiko, Paradise in the Sea of Sorrow: Our Minamata Disease (Ann Arbor: Center for Japanese Studies, University of Michigan, 2003), originally published in Japanese in 1972.
Online resources about Minamata
"Minamata Disease: The History and Measures", The Ministry of the Environment, (2002).

An editorial chastising the Chisso corporation for rejecting a financial relief package for Minamoto disease victims.

Watts, Jonathan.  "Mercury poisoning of thousands confirmed."  The Guardian, 10/16/2001.
A short article on the 50 year memorial of the government's recognition of Minamata disease.

Poems  by Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko
Online at http://www.kunaicho.go.jp/e-culture/odai.html (year-end poems written by the imperial family and released annually on New Year’s Day).

Additional  poems are available in Marie Philomène and Masako Saito, eds., Tomoshibi: Light, Collected Poetry by Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko (New York: Weatherhill, 1990). Virtually all the poems are in the traditional waka form of 31 total syllables in lines of 5-7-5-7-7.

Additional Resources
Kerr, Alex.  Dogs and Demons: Tales from the Dark Side of Japan (New York: Hill and Wang, 2001), Chapter 1 “The Land: The Construction State,” pp. 13-50.
On the Japanese and their supposedly unique love of nature, see the essays in Pamela Asquith and Arne Kalland, eds., Japanese Images of Nature (Richmond, UK: Curzon, 1997).

Anime also provides an interesting approach to Japanese views of the natural environment: Miyazaki Hayao is often said to have an especially “Japanese” sensibility regarding nature, as showcased films such as Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984), My Neighbor Totoro (1988), and Princess Mononoke (1997).
Conrad Totman has done pioneering work on the environmental history of Japan and his ambitious textbook A History of Japan (Oxford: Blackwell, 2000) applies this approach to the full sweep of Japan’s past.

A  potentially useful case study—on the ways in which World War II brought benefits as well as destruction to the natural environment in Japan—is provided in William M. Tsutsui, “Landscapes in the Dark Valley: Toward an Environmental History of Wartime Japan,” Environmental History 8:2 (April 2003), pp. 294-311.
Other pollution incidents in postwar Japan are less well documented in English, but a useful source is Norie Huddle and Michael Reich, Island of Dreams: Environmental Crisis in Japan (New York: Autumn Press, 1975).
Ui, Jun.  Industrial pollution in Japan (Tokyo: United Nations University Press, 1992).  
Yokkaichi Asthma
Guo, Peng, Kazuhito Yokoyama, Masami Suenaga and Hirotaka Kida.  "Mortality and life expectancy of Yokkaichi Asthma patients, Japan: Late effects of air pollution in 1960–70s."  Environmental Health 2008, 7:8.

Itai  Itai Disease
"Q: What is ouch-ouch or itai-itai disease?"  McGraw Hill's Access Science: Encyclopedia of Science and Technology Online.