TOKYO - In the late 1980s, Japanese politician Shintaro Ishihara co-authored a best seller, The Japan That Can Say No. In it, he urged Japan's leaders to stand up to the United States and say no to its demands for market-opening measures.
Now governor of Tokyo Prefecture, the metropolitan region that is the world's biggest city, Ishihara is saying no to diesel engines.
Fed up with the clouds of sooty smoke that thousands of trucks and buses dump into Tokyo's air each day, and armed with a landmark court decision, Ishihara is pushing for a requirement that all diesel vehicles be equipped with particulate filters by early next year.
He plans to submit a draft bill to that effect to the Tokyo Assembly this fall, aiming to have it become law April 1, 2001. But because particulate filters are virtually nonexistent in Japan, are expensive and cannot easily be retrofitted, his legislation would amount to a virtual ban on diesels.
If enacted without phase-in provisions, the measure would seriously disrupt commerce in the sprawling Tokyo region, if not in all of Japan.
Diesel engines power virtually all of Japan's buses and medium and heavy trucks, and 9 percent of its passenger cars, according to the Japan Automobile Manufacturers Association. Indeed, more than 680,000 commercial vehicles are registered in Tokyo Prefecture alone, and thousands more enter or crisscross the city each day from other cities. Not all are diesel-powered trucks, however.
Despite the unthinkable consequences of an outright ban, auto executives are taking Ishihara seriously.
'We see this as a possible first step down a slippery slope' toward restrictions on all vehicles in the city's central business district, said Antony Millington, Tokyo representative for the Association of European Automobile Manufacturers.
Singapore and several cities in Europe have imposed bans of varying severity on traffic in their central districts, while others are considering curbs on diesels specifically.
Takaki Nakanishi, auto analyst at Merrill Lynch Japan, said Ishihara is 'absolutely right' in want-ing to curb diesels.
'A pure ban on diesel engines in Tokyo is nonsense. But we need to better control the logistics of the truck-based distribution system,' he said.
'In Japan, we still think that economic growth is the most important thing. That's wrong. This is a good opportunity to ask, `Why are dump trucks running around the city? Why are 2- or 3-ton trucks making deliveries to convenience stores three times a day?' Even on the narrow road in front of my apartment, there are 10-ton trucks,' Nakanishi said.
Nakanishi and others agree that Ishihara will not be stopped by considerations of economic turmoil or opposition from the auto industry. Unlike most Japanese politicians, he is an up-front, crowd-pleasing populist who often goes against the positions of his own ruling party by staking out extreme positions.
Ishihara received a boost from a landmark court ruling on Jan. 31, in which the Kobe District Court ordered the federal government to reduce vehicle emissions in the city of Amagasaki, beside Osaka Bay in central Japan.
The ruling also ordered the government to pay a total of ¥330 million, or about $3 million at current exchange rates, to 50 residents who suffered various respiratory illnesses.
The court found that the residents' illnesses were caused by diesel emissions and nitrogen oxide from trucks on a nearby double-deck expressway.
The ruling marked the first time a Japanese court has recognized a link between diesel engines and health problems. That link still is disputed - national government officials have said they will appeal the case - but the California Air Resources Board ruled in 1998 that diesel particulates are carcinogens.
Three similar court cases are pending in Tokyo. In one, the defendants include seven makers of diesel vehicles, plus the central and Tokyo governments and the Metropolitan Expressway Public Corp. In that case, the court also has been asked to rule on the legality of Japan's tax system, which favors diesel fuel over gasoline.
Looking to Europe
When Japan tightened its rules on diesel emissions in the mid-1990s, it focused on reducing NOx emissions. European regulators at the same time focused on particulate matter. Now, Ishihara is asking why Japanese diesel makers can't meet the same particulate levels as their European counterparts.
The industry counters that it is in compliance with all national emissions rules. Individual companies are reluctant to criticize Ishihara directly.
'We were very surprised when Gov. Ishihara first announced his plans for diesel engines in August,' Isuzu Motors Ltd. spokesman Hiromi Koyohata said. He noted that diesel engines 'have a lot of merits' in terms of reducing carbon dioxide and that Isuzu and the Tokyo government are jointly testing a diesel particulate filter being developed by Isuzu.
By publicizing its advanced research into particulate filters, Isuzu apparently hopes to show that a solution to diesel-generated pollution is coming. In Japan, such research usually is kept under wraps until it can be commercialized.
A Mitsubishi Motors Corp. statement said: 'We think there are various ways to cope with the proposal by the Tokyo government.' Automakers could expand their lineup of vehicles powered by liquid petroleum gas and compressed natural gas, and could reduce the cost of particulate filters, it said.
Ishihara met with the executives of several auto companies last year but found little common ground.
Automakers promised to step up their development of anti-pollution technology but said doing so would have only a limited effect on improving air quality.
JAMA Vice Chairman Takeo Suzuki called for a 'comprehensive' approach to the problem. He suggested the building of new ring roads around Tokyo; smoother traffic flow to reduce the time that trucks spend idling in gridlock; and a voluntary program to encourage drivers to turn off their engines every time they stop.
But Ishihara, viewing that as a delaying tactic, said, 'I'm fed up with the word `comprehensive.' '