Suffocating levels of smog moving from China to Japan has led the
foreign ministry in Tokyo to propose a meeting with Chinese officials to
discuss the air pollution problem.
The ministry said in a statement that it was working for the “protection of Japanese residents” and would like to hold an information exchange with China after Chinese New Year celebrations have ended.
Increasing air pollution from China was first reported to be drifting
towards western Japan at the start of February. PM 2.5 levels in four
areas in Nagasaki Prefecture, including Sasebo and Isahaya, were
averaging 41 micrograms per cubic meter on January 31. This exceeded the
daily limit of 35 micrograms set by Japan’s Basic Environment Law.
A PM 2.5 reading shows the level of particles in the air that can be
inhaled directly into the human lungs. The World Health Organisation’s daily recommended limit is 25 micrograms. Excessive inhalation increases the risk of lung cancer and other respiratory diseases.
An article published by Chinese state media outlet china.org.cn speculated that Japan could be the “ringleader” behind thepollution problem.
“After the earthquake, Japan switched from nuclear to coal-fired power,
and they have been incinerating their waste,” said Chinese economic
critic Zhang Lie.
“The impact on China’s environment has been very large. Because of this, I cannot blame China alone,” he added.
Burning is permitted as a method of waste disposal in Japan when it is
“necessary for prevention, emergency measures or recovery from
earthquake, storm and flood damage.” This is according to Article 14 of a
1971 cabinet order amending the Waste Management and Public Cleansing
However, making an exception to cleanliness standards is not a choice
many Japanese are willing to make. Japanese people use the same word;
kirei, to refer to beauty as they do to cleanliness. Cleanliness is a
sign of purity, according to Shinto beliefs that have been historically
influential in JapanScanning the aisles in a convenience store, a Japanese consumer can find
antibacterial pyjamas, pens, flutes and piano keys, computer keyboards
and drinking glasses.
The country’s trademark electronic toilet seat is known as a washlet.
Its manufacturer, Toto, invites users to allow the washlet’s spray
feature to give the body a “natural, purifying experience” that will prove much more hygienic than using toilet paper.
“Japanese may feel some concern over air pollution from China, because
in general there is mistrust of Chinese products. Contamination in foods
especially such as gyoza has in the past caused a stir,” said Dr Merry
White, an anthropology professor at Boston University who specialises in
Japanese social sciences.
Ten people from Chiba and Hyogo prefectures were hospitalised from
December 2007 to January 2008 after eating contaminated gyoza that had
been produced in China. It was determined that the gyoza dumplings had
contained a highly toxic pesticide.
“In the past, every subway station in Tokyo had a big LED reading the
ppm (parts-per-million) of various chemicals in the air which sometimes
flashed warnings that face masks might be worn, or the elderly should
stay inside,” Dr White said.
But Dr White added that face masks are often worn to prevent the spread
of germs if the wearer has a cold, rather than as protection from
pollution.Wearing the mask allows hygienically-minded Japanese to continue to live
and work as usual. This is important peace of mind to have, as the
country’s workplaces offer few allowances for an employee with a minor
A 2009 study
by the Center for Economic and Policy Research found that a Japanese
employee that takes five days off work to recover from the flu is not
entitled to sick leave. The expectation to arrive at work means that
wearing face masks is not the least you can do, it’s all you can do.
China is enjoying its own vacation right now, but it’s less celebratory
than usual. The Chinese government has urged residents to cut down on
the amount of fireworks set off during Chinese New Year celebrations to
reduce pollutants in the air. Sales of fireworks in Beijing are down 37%
from the 2012 festive season, according to state news agency Xinhua.
It’s a mature way to welcome the Year of the Snake. Cooperating with
Japan on the spread of pollution would be even more sensible. The two
countries are engaged in a territorial dispute where national pride is
making compromise impossible, and they need to be able to trust each
other. Coming together on a less patriotic issue would be the most
practical way to establish that trust.