Pollution victims seek cleaner growth

By Suvendrini Kakuchi, IPS, Asia Times, 3 July 1999

TOKYO—Susuze Kajiura often has a hard time breathing, but she has no trouble mustering energy when it comes to joining anti-pollution campaigns. The 55-year-old says she got her asthma as a result of living a few meters away from a major expressway in the middle of Tokyo.

According to Kajiura, thousands more Japanese have also fallen ill due to pollution, and she says she will not stop fighting until the government promises environment and health assessment checks to be carried out before any road construction begins.

I am a state-recognized victim of air pollution and thus am entitled to medical compensation, she claimed. But what's the use of that, when I am so sick I cannot even hold a job or go on holiday?

Kajiura is not the only person in Japan these days who feels more has to be done about industrial pollution. Indeed, more and more Japanese are putting pressure on local governments and Tokyo to limit—if not stop altogether—activities that damage not only the environment but also pose health risks.

Just last week, more than a thousand demonstrators braved foul weather in Tokyo to march on the Environment Agency. There, they submitted a petition, addressed to Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi, calling for, among other things, measures to check dioxin pollution from garbage incinerators. Dioxin has been reported to be carcinogenic.

The protesters also asked that government ministries and agencies to deal with noise pollution around Fukuoka airport, to curb reclamation of the Inland Sea in western Japan, to reconsider plans to build a river dam in Kumamoto Prefecture and to reconstruct polluted regions.

Measures to contain the various kinds of pollution created by all sorts of industrial activity had been left at the wayside as postwar Japan surged forward to become an economic superpower. Industrial development had been the engine of Japan's phenomenal economic growth. But just how dangerous such a productivity first policy was became evident in the late 1950s, when people living along Minamata Bay in southern Japan began exhibiting symptoms of damage to their nervous systems.

Their strange disease was later traced to the methyl mercury in the effluents dumped into the bay by the Chisso Corp. In 1968,Tokyo officially recognized Minamata disease as an illness due to pollution, but it took three decades for the case filed by victims in court to be resolved. Some of the Minamata victims were among the protesters who walked for hours in the pouring rain this week to deliver the anti-pollution petition to the Environment Agency.

So was Kajiura, as was Fumiko Tsujikawa, 71, who has sub-acutemyelo-optico neuropathy (SMON), which affects the nervous system. Although Tsujikawa did not get her illness from pollution, it was apparently the result of the same kind of government negligence and corporate indifference that activists say has made environmental pollution so widespread in Japan.

As Tsujikawa explains it, she and more than 10,000 other Japanese developed SMON in the early 1960s after taking a drug that had quinoform, which causes the disease's more debilitating effects. Tsujikawa and other SMON victims sued, and in 1978, the courts ruled that several pharmaceutical companies should be held liable for selling the drug.

I am now on state compensation, which helps me, admitted the stooped Tsujikawa. But I joined the march to show my support forte thousands of victims of pollution and for Japanese companies to be made responsible to the people [for the destruction that they do].

There have been a significant number of companies that have been forced to hand over hefty compensation to people who describe themselves as victims of the firms' filth. In February, nine companies accused of polluting the air in Kobe agreed to pay 2.42 billion yen ($200 million) to hundreds of people there who had filed a case against them. The companies also pledged to improve the environment.

Despite such victories, Kajiura observes that victims of pollution face the new century with mixed feelings. There are cases we have won against the government and companies [and these represent] a major step forward in the fight for a cleaner environment, she said. But at the same time, there are new cases of pollution with younger victims. One example she cites is the current dioxin-spewing incinerator issue.

Still, Kajiura says that while they have yet to see concrete moves from Tokyo, at least the Environment Agency has promised to conduct tests for dioxin pollution. Other activists have also noted growing support for consumer protection through safer products as well as environmental protection. The Diet has even passed a Product Liability Law Addis discussing a proposed Environment Assessment Act.

Says Kajiura: While these new laws may be watered down from what we want exactly, there is still no doubt that we are in abetter era and Japan's economic development will no longer be at the cost of people's health.