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Interview with Yukiko Kada, Japan Team Leader of the Environmental Values Project

October 1, 1999

Environmental Values Project: Tell us something about the research you are doing on behalf of the Carnegie Council's Environmental Values Project. Which case studies did you choose, and how do they illustrate the impact of values on environmental policymaking? Also, how does your research fit into existing research on Japan's environmental problems?

Kada: From early on, when bureaucrats took action on the so-called "four severe pollution issues"—which refers to cases of chemical substance pollution in Minamata, Niigata, Yokkaichi, and Itai Itai Disease—environmental policy-making in Japan has been reactive. The emphasis is on ridding the areas of pollutants and on treating victims—not on the need to address the social and cultural conditions that led to the pollution in the first place.

In Japan, as elsewhere, policy-makers tend to base their decisions on material and economic—not socio-cultural—factors. They are not in the habit of treating the environment as a broad concept encompassing issues of community formation. Thus far, Japan has supported very little research in the environmental values field.

In this project, the Japan team has tried to shed light on values in Japanese society as they relate to nature, life, pollution, and economic development. We've done this by conducting field interviews with people interested in or affected by pollution in Minamata, Niigata, Nagara River, and Lake Biwa. The first two of these cases represent the "four severe pollution issues," as mentioned above. The latter two concern issues of resource use. All four cases were deliberately selected according to the methodology for the environmental values project, which is concerned with exploring pollution and resource use.

Our research aims to influence Japanese policy makers' thinking on environmental policy by pointing to the underlying factors—cultural backgrounds, types of community organization, and individual vs. collective attitudes toward the environment—that shape our policy choices.

In addition to promoting a socio-cultural perspective on environmental policy-making, a desired outcome of our research is to empower Japanese people to do something about their environment at the local level instead of leaving these issues entirely in the hands of national government officials. Ideally this would mean treating pollution and other problems early on, instead of waiting until a crisis occurs.

Environmental Values Project: What are your most interesting findings thus far? Can you draw any tentative conclusions from the four case studies—any recommendations for Japan's environmental policy makers?

Kada: The four case studies illustrate two types of community formation found in Japan: closely knit community (e.g., Minamata and Lake Biwa) and loosely knit community (e.g., Niigata and Nagara). We discovered that closely knit communities develop their own impetus for generating social movements that lead to significant progress on the environment. Such communities also tend to be more progressive, with members stepping forward to take responsibility for the community's future. For the purposes of our research, we have named these individuals "framers": they frame the context in which the community develops. In loosely knit communities, by contrast, there is less impetus to seek solutions to environmental problems. Likewise, local leadership is harder to cultivate.

In addition to the "framers", there are two other kinds of local actors that need to be taken into account in the community. The first is the ordinary person who may not be consciously aware of the so-called "environmental issues" in his or her community, but who has a deep knowledge of the local history and culture. Other local people tend to be active and knowledgeable about the environmental issues but tends to be idealistic about addressing them. My intention is to empower and bring together these two types of local people so that their involvement with local environmental concerns is grounded more fully in their actual experiences and perceptions.

At the policy level, the central government has to take into account the interests of various and dissimilar bureaucratic bodies and thus their environmental policy tends to be more conservative. We found that when local governments had pro-environment values and were allowed to manage the decision-making process, they were often able to act far more radically and effectively than the central government could.

Environmental Values Project: Our project has the ambitious aim of comparing environmental values across countries as different as Japan, Chian, India, and the United States. What are some interesting comparisons that you have noted among these four countries? Would your recommendations for Japan apply to the other countries in the study, or are we talking about apples and oranges?

Kada: Environmental policy is distinctive in each of the four countries under study. For instance, I've observed that in the United States, people subscribe to the ethos of nature conservation as something separate from their daily lives. Whereas in the other three countries (Japan, China, India), emphasis is placed not only on securing healthy environmental conditions but also on enhancing people's lives through resource allocation. In separating man from nature, Americans have effectively placed environmental values on a higher—one could even say, more aesthetic—plane than we Asians tend to.

Environmental Values Project: Do you have any plans for a follow-up study once the research finishes? Can you already identify some new directions to which the research lends itself?

Kada: Japanese environmental policies are changing very rapidly, and we would probably want to extend our study to include some of the current hot spots like Kawabegawa or Yoshinogawa. Both areas were slated for water resource development in the 1960s—only to be abandoned because of the high risk of environmental degradation. That Japanese policy makers are giving priority to the utilization of scarce resources like water is an encouraging trend, well worth exploring.

We are also interested in further investigation of water resource and pollution issues in China and India, where we've observed interesting similarities and differences with Japan throughout the course of this project. All three countries have a common monsoon climate as well as a heavy dependency on surface water because of rice paddy production. The Japan team would be interested in seeing what kind of impact community formation in India and China has on environmental decision-making at both local and national levels.

For more information on Kada's work, read her research paper "Environmental Justice in Japan: Case Studies of Lake Biwa, Nagara River, Minamata, and Niigata-Minamata."

Related Links

Diseases Caused By Environmental Pollution

  • Effects of Minimata Bay Disaster in Niigata
    Chapter 4 of an on-line book, Industrial pollution in Japan, published by United Nations University. Explains the origin, spread, and effects of Minimata Disease in the context of Japanese industrial and ecological history.
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