Ailing ‘Mononoke’ Forest Highlights Pollution Tension

The New York Times’ Martin Fackler reports fears that Chinese air pollution is harming forests on the remote island of Yakushima in southern Japan. The island, a UNESCO World Heritage site, inspired the forest setting for Hayao Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke. In March, as residents of central Kyushu’s Kumamoto prefecture were asked to stay indoors, a school trip on the island was cancelled due to elevated (by local standards) levels of PM 2.5. The true explanation for damage to Yakushima’s pine trees is disputed, but the pollution theory is resonating among a public increasingly wary of China.

A mysterious pestilence has befallen this island’s primeval forests, leaving behind the bleached, skeletal remains of dead trees that now dot the dark green mountainsides. Osamu Nagafuchi, an environmental engineer with a passion for the island and its rugged terrain, believes he knows the culprit: airborne pollutants from smog-belching China, hundreds of miles upwind.

[…] These fears have reached a new level recently as China itself has issued more public warnings about the growing health risks from its cities’ gray, soupy air. While Mr. Nagafuchi and a small number of collaborators say their research is not politically motivated, they admit that they may be finding more receptivity among a public that already resents China for supplanting Japan as Asia’s largest economy, and for what is seen as its haughty attitude in a territorial dispute over islands both countries claim.

[…] Residents who believe the pollution is caused by China described feeling helpless, saying they doubt there is any action their government can take even if it becomes convinced Mr. Nagafuchi is right.

“There is not much we can do about this, except ask the Chinese to spend more money on environmental cleanup,” said Mr. Tetsuka, Mr. Nagafuchi’s research assistant. “I’m afraid it will only get worse and worse.”

Others feel that Japan can achieve more than just appealing to China and selling air purifiers to its wealthier residents. Global Times’ Lin Meilian reports that scholars and officials from the two countries gathered in Beijing last month to discuss environmental cooperation. (Lin also briefly explores the limited effectiveness of unpruned nose hair as a pollution filter.)

Hideaki Koyanagi, director of the Institute for Global Environmental Strategies (IGES)’s Beijing office, sees the air pollution issue as an opportunity to improve Sino-Japanese relations.

“Pollution knows no borders,” Koyanagi told the Global Times. “What the Japanese people don’t understand is if we help to improve the air quality in China, it will eventually benefit Japan.”

[…] Koyanagi wrote an op-ed piece for the Kyodo News, outlying China’s efforts to control air pollution such as shutting down polluting and unsafe factories and promoting clean energies.

“Blaming China can’t solve the air pollution problem,” Koyanagi said. “It is very important for Japan to use its experience to help China with its policymaking and understand that helping China is helping itself.”

At The New York Times’ Latitude blog in February, the Council on Foreign Relations’ Alexandra Harney described how political self-preservation overcame vested interests and short-term economic imperatives, enabling Japan to address its own pollution problems:

Five decades ago, people were asking similar questions about Japan. Even as the world marveled at the country’s 10 percent annual growth, alarm was growing over air pollution in several cities. Emissions of nitrogen dioxide, carbon monoxide and sulfur dioxide tripled during the 1960s. Japan became known for pollution-related illnesses: Yokkaichi asthma, Minamata disease (mercury poisoning) — both named after the cities where they first appeared — and cadmium poisoning, known as itai-itai, or “ouch-ouch,” because of the excruciating bone pain it caused.

[…] It was only when citizens’ movements, which grew out of protests against the 1960 U.S.-Japan Security Treaty and the Vietnam War, got the attention of opposition parties in the 1960s and early 1970s that the government was forced to confront pollution. “I saw the government and L.D.P. as responding just enough, just in time, when the pressure got strong enough that they could defuse the opposition and stay in power,” said Timothy George, a professor at the University of Rhode Island and the author of a book on Minamata disease.

The first result was a blizzard of laws — 14 passed at once — in what became known as the Pollution Diet of 1970. Air pollution fell dramatically in the years that followed.