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Japanese attitude to health and environmental issues

Written by Maciamo on 12 July 2004 (updated in November 2006)

What on earth is a Green Party ?

Observers of Japanese politics will have noticed the absence of Green Party in Japanese politics. In fact, Japan does have a Green Party, the Niji to Midori (Rainbow & Green), but it has never obtained enough support to be listed at national elections. This says a lot about Japanese voters and the place of ecology in Japanese mindset. When I brought up the issue with some Japanese acquaintances, they wondered about the importance of a Green Party. I explained that the "Greens" did not just care about protecting endangered species, fighting whale-hunting (so dear to Japan), or bothering people about not cutting a nice tree. That is not at all what the Green Party is for. What they want is protecting people's health by passing laws about recycling wastes, reducing industrial pollution, prohibiting the (ab)use of dioxin emitting incinerators, controlling better the quality of food (including stricter test for BSE, etc.), promoting organic food, using cleaner energy (no nuclear or coal power plants...), and so on.

If we have a look at Green Parties around the world, we immediately notice their importance in the West as well as in many other countries. The Greens have received 6.5% of all votes at the 2004 European Parliament election, making them the 4th biggest of a dozens of political groups. The Greens have had 13.4% of the votes at the federal parliament in Belgium in 1999. Die Grünen got 9.5% of the votes in Austria in 2002. The the German Green Party has had over 8% of the votes at the federal parliament since 2002. The French Greens managed to obtain 7.4% of the votes at the 2004 European election, while their British counterparts got 6.3% of their national votes. The Green League received 7.3% of the vote in Finland in 1999. In Austria, the Greens caught 7.2% of the votes at the 2004 federal elections. The Canadian Greens didn't get any seat in parliament despite their 4.5% of votes in 2006. The only other major developed country which doesn't have a strong Green Party is the USA (0.3% of the votes at the lower house in 2004).

Environmental protection

Contrarily to Western countries where hundreds of environmental organisations exists (non extensive list here), Japan has few organisations of its own, and none with a serious influence on government like Greenpeace or WWF. Even these two world-famous organisations have ridiculously few members in Japan. Greenpeace Japan has only 4,500 members, out of 2.5 million in 40 countries worldwide. Europe has about 2 million members with only 4 times the population of Japan. That is over 100x more members per capita.

Japan also claims to have one of the strongest anti-nuclear movements on the planet, but nevertheless has 55 operating nuclear power plants in Japan, against 31 in Russia, 23 in the UK, 17 in Germany, 16 in India, 10 in China, 8 in Spain, or 0 in Italy. Only the USA and France, the world's two more prominent nuclear powers, have more - respectively 103 and 56, so only France has more per capita, although less per square meter. South Korea, with 20 reactors, is well positioned to follow in Japan's footsteps, though.

Do the Japanese really love nature ?

The Japanese often claim that their culture has very special ties with nature through Shintoism. The Japanese are quite proud of their four seasons (one can wonder why). Yet Japan is the only major country that still hunts whales. Most Japanese people do not mind not having a garden/yard with their house, and Japan has impressively few parks and green spaces in its cities, and few botanical and zoological gardens compared to Western countries (see article).

Japanese society is also one of the least vegetarian-friendly on earth. Until the 19th century, the influence of Buddhism meant that people didn't consumed four-legged animals, modern Japan is one of the heaviest consumer of meat, fish and seafood in the world. Contrarily the the growing trend in the West of people who decide to quit eating meat because they do not want to kill animals, this kind of mindset is virtually inexistent in Japan.

Recycling, but how ?

Japan is one of the few countries in the world to burn most of its rubbish. Just in Tokyo, there are dozens of incinerators in the middle of residential districts, as if they didn't know the dioxin and other toxic emissions caused cancer or other disease to local population. Actually there has been many cases of disease caused by incinerators in Japan, but the government continues to build new ones, against protests by local residents (like the infamous new incinerator in Kyoto).

Health ? What can be done about it ?

The lack of concern regarding health is aberrant in Japanese society. It would be difficult to survey the population about their opinion, as most people would say they do care about health (and some about environment), but this is mostly a tatemae stance. (tatemae refers to the Japanese custom of saying what is "politically correct" in public, instead of what they really think).

Signs showing that the opposite is true are everywhere. First of all, organic food is almost unheard of in Japan. That is in sharp contrast to Europe, where about all supermarkets have an "organic food" corner. Secondly, vegetarianism is not only inexistent among Japanese, but is seen as absurd by most of them. Again, the rising rate of vegetarians in western countries is a direct consequence of their concern about meat-related disease (dioxin chicken, crazy cows...). Lower consumption of red meat by lots of Westerners are due to the medical studies showing that red meat isn't very healthy, statement which would make a Japanese laugh in disbelief (or poor medical awareness).

Blatant medical incompetence

But health issues are not just food or waste-related in Japan. Doctors and hospital have acquired such a bad reputation for medical negligence or outright incompetence that the number of Japanese seeking treatment abroad (US, Australia, Europe...) is on the increase. Several books and even TV drama (like "shiroi kyoutou") tackle the issue of poor medical performances in Japan. Scandals involving doctor incompetence resulting in the patients' death make the news on a weekly basis. One of the worst cases was when medical supply companies (including the Japanese Green Cross) contaminated thousands of patients with untreated blood infected by HIV in 1996. One third of all Japanese with AIDS have it due to such medical malpractice.

The ostrich policy

That brings us to the issue of AIDS in Japan. Though the rate are low by international and even western standards, it would seem that the number of HIV-infected Japanese is much higher than the official data claim. Japanese just do not want to be tested, and few people admit using condoms. Their reaction towards AIDS tests reflect again the Japanese attitude toward health: as long as it is not clearly apparent and nobody else seem to care too much, why should we be concerned ? The same is true of the BSE or mad cow disease.

Since BSE was found in Japan 3 years ago, I haven't met a single Japanese who refrained from eating beef (as I do), and most credulously believe that their government or that of other countries are doing a good job in fighting it - when just a fraction of the bovine population is tested, tests are unreliable and bad results often dissimulated. Once again, they prefer to play the policy of the ostrich and not facing serious problems, rather than be responsible. That is as much true of politicians as of ordinary people.

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