Japan: Environmental Issues, Policies and Clean Technology

This article was updated on the 7th July 2018.

Welcome to Japan

Japan is a nation comprised of four main islands and thousands of smaller islands that are located off of the northern Pacific Coast of Asia. With just 18% of its land fit for settlements, Japan’s population tends to be clustered around major cities. As home to 36 million people, Tokyo, the capital city of Japan, is the largest urban center in the world. Until 1853 when United States Navy commodore Matthew C. Perry sailed his fleet into Tokyo Bay and opened the country to the West, Japanese society was previously one of the most isolated in the world. From the mid-19th century on, Japan embraced a policy of rapid industrialization and aggressive economic growth.

Today, Japan is home to the world’s third largest economy, despite a series of economic setbacks that occurred during the 1990s. The Japanese economy is powered by the production of motor vehicles, electronics, industrial tools, steel and other metals. The country also has a modest agricultural sector, growing mostly rice and sugar beets, along with some fruits and vegetables. Japan is also known for its fishing and beef industries.

Environmental Issues of Japan

While Japan has become a cleaner and environmentally more responsible nation over the last several decades, the country’s business, agricultural and industrial activities still contribute to a broad range of environmental issues.

One of the biggest environmental issues in Japan is waste management as a result of the massive amount of trash that the modern Japanese society. Due to the small size of the tiny island nation of Japan, there is a lack of space that can accommodate this trash production. Previously, Japanese municipal facilities would burn high volumes of trash; however, the issues surrounding air pollution forced to government to adopt an aggressive recycling policy.          

The implementation of stricter waste management regulations by the Japanese government has forced residential populations to get creative in how they dispose their trash. For example, Kamikatsu, a small Japanese town of approximately 1,500, has devised a goal of producing zero waste by 2020. Since the closest incinerator to Kamikatsu is in another town, it costs six times more to transport and burn the waste as compared to finding ways to repurpose materials that have been thrown away. In doing so, the people of Kamikatsu have developed a systematic method of recycling up to 80% of their waste materials. For example, at the center of the town, one man uses a hammer to break apart large materials, like a toilet, into small parts to not only separate the plastic or porcelain material into small parts for future use, but also access the rubber and metal materials located inside the toilet that will eventually be sorted into one of the 45 different recycling categories of the city’s plant.          

While Japan is still working towards reducing their waste throughout the country, a recent OECD report found that only 1% of Japan’s council waste ends up in landfills, which is comparable to 49%4 of Australia’s waste that is eventually dumped in landfills. Additionally, the Plastic Waste Management Institute of Japan has stated that 83% of Japan’s plastic waste products were recycled or incinerated, all the while providing power and heat local facilities.

Fukushima Nuclear Reactor Problem Explained (CNN)

Fukushima Nuclear Reactor Problem Explained (CNN) (Video credit: YouTube)

A second major environmental issue in Japan today involves dealing with the aftermath of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant disaster. Although the plant was disabled in March of 2013, the environmental problems associated with the disaster continue to plague the area. In fact, it was revealed in August of the same year that radioactive water was leaking from the crippled plant into the Pacific Ocean. According to a recent study conducted by researchers at Kindai University, it is estimated that since the 2011 disaster that 20,100 becquerels (the International System of Units used to measure radioactivity) of cesium, which is an extremely dangerous fission product that is often found near nuclear reactors, into the Tokyo Bay5.

Japan has faced a serious air pollution starting in the latter half of the 20th century; however, aggressive government policies have allowed Japanese cities to be designated by the World Health Organization (WHO) as containing some of the cleanest urban air in the world.

Environmental Policies of Japan

In a 2010 report, the OECD Noted that Japan has made significant environmental progress through a series of aggressive policies. In their report, the OECD stated that this progress is especially evident in terms of reducing air emissions, water usage and municipal waste generation. Additionally, the report also noted that Japan has made a conscious effort to move away from a strictly ecological model of sustainable development to a more encompassing approach that is focused on identifying the connections that exists between ecological protection, economic growth and social values.

Keihin Industrial District in Japan (Image credit: ziggy_mars / Shutterstock.com)

These connections were further emphasized in the 2006 Third Basic Environment Plan and the 2009 New Growth Strategy. Japan's official Strategy for a Sustainable Society also described the supports for a sustainable Japanese society that includes a low-carbon economy, smart material-cycle measures and maintaining equilibrium with respect to the use of natural resources. Although Japan has implemented an aggressive approach to establishing a sustainable economy, this country lacks a central administrative body that is dedicated to pulling together the various policy threads.

Declaring the fight against climate change a top priority at the 2008 Group of Eight Summit in Hokkaido, Japan has also championed environmental issues on the international stage.

Clean Technology in Japan

According to a recent report by the International Energy Agency, the Japanese government has strongly supported the research, development and adoption of clean technology, which was further brought into focus after Japan began shutting down many of its nuclear reactors in the wake of the Fukushima disaster.

Photovoltaic power plant in Japan (Image credit: Norikazu / Shutterstock.com)

According to a Fortune report, by using developed-in-Japan LED lights, Japanese businesses are able to cut office electricity consumption by as much as 40%. Additionally, Komatsu, which is a major Japanese machinery manufacturer, has found that they have saved over 40% in energy costs over the last three years by installing solar panels, using underground water for cooling and adopting clean manufacturing technology. In fact, Japan is currently the second largest installer of solar photovoltaics (PVs).

A Clean Future for Japan?

Japan is widely considered as one of the most modern and progressive economies countries in the world in regards to their dedication to promote environmental protection. In fact, Japan been particularly responsive to addressing both air pollution and the harmful dangers associated with nuclear power plants.

Some of the major obstacles Japan faces in their quest to a clean technology future appear to be largely bureaucratic and political in nature. Despite these challenges, Japan is expected to continue evangelizing the values of clean technology on the international stage.


Disclaimer: The views expressed here are those of the author expressed in their private capacity and do not necessarily represent the views of AZoM.com Limited T/A AZoNetwork the owner and operator of this website. This disclaimer forms part of the Terms and conditions of use of this website.

Brett Smith

Written by

Brett Smith

Brett Smith is an American freelance writer with a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Buffalo State College and has 8 years of experience working in a professional laboratory.


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