Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara picked up a bottle of soot and held it up at a recent press conference. He passed it around for everyone to get a closer look. Black particles filled half the jar. It was the emissions of a 10-ton truck driving through central Tokyo for one kilometer. Every day, trucks belch the equivalent of 120,000 bottles of harmful emissions into the metropolitan area.
Ishihara calls it political murder. 'Many Japanese deaths are due to lung cancer, which is generated by two types of cancer substances found in diesel fuel,' he said. Citizens of Tokyo and Chiba province suffer twice the national rate of fatal lung cancers, Ishihara claimed. Moreover, residents suffer from asthma and hay fever caused by diesel pollutants, he said.
Asthma is a serious problem in Japan. It is estimated there are 3 million asthmatics in Japan, with 6,000 deaths annually, according to Dr. Koyoichiro Toyoshima, director for pediatric allergies at Habikino Hospital in Osaka. Ishihara said he is fiercely opposed to the national policies that allow diesel vehicles to continue polluting. Compared with gasoline-powered vehicles, the trucking industry has enjoyed relatively lax environmental rules and low fuel taxes.
Ishihara launched his campaign in January when a court in Amagasaki, central Japan, found many residents' illnesses were caused by diesel gases. The central government and Hanshin Expressway Public Corp. were told to pay 210 million yen, or $1.9 million, to the 379 asthma sufferers who had filed suit. 'It is it likely that vehicle exhaust emissions have aggravated the bronchial asthma from which the plaintiffs are suffering,' said presiding Judge Shogo Takenaka. After the judgment, Tokyo's maverick governor launched his campaign to clean up Japan's trucks. 'Ishihara pulled the cat out of the bag,' said Tatsuo Yoshida, an auto analyst at Amro Security Japan. 'The government then had to come up with proposals to make them look good.'
Japan's allowance for particulate substances - or soot, which is suspected to be carcinogenic - emitted from diesel vehicles is about twice that allowed in the United States and 2.5 times that of the European Union. The Liberal Democratic Party panel has recommended that diesel vehicles be equipped with particulate filters. The panel also proposed regulations to cut nitrogen oxide emissions by 60 percent from 1998 levels.
Filters help eliminate soot, which along with nitrogen dioxides make up diesel pollutants. But 70 percent of the nation's diesel freight trucks are not subject to the regulation. That's because the government failed to control diesel soot until 1993. Moreover, trucks would require many different sizes and types of filters.
Prices for filters range from $6,000 to a staggering $40,000, depending on the size of the truck. They are also cumbersome - about the size of two vacuum cleaners. Trucking advocates say such restrictions would burden the depressed trucking industry. Of Japan's four truckmakers, only two have developed filters and only those of Isuzu Motors are commercially viable.
Regulators have proposed requiring owners of diesel vehicles more than 11 years old to replace their vehicles. This means 80 percent of buses and 70 percent of trucks nationwide would have to be replaced. 'This is more feasible than the filters,' Yoshida said. 'The useful life of a truck is about 10 to 15 years. The new models have better technology, so they produce less harmful emissions.'
Yoshida said this proposal is gaining popularity but admits there are no easy solutions. In fact, these measures have many opponents. Hiro Henmi, who owns 10 trucks, is one of them. 'I don't have the money to replace my trucks, and I can't afford to buy the filters,' he said. 'Besides, the filters would make my trucks less powerful. I'll change my address from Tokyo rather than buy them. My drivers and I are too busy just trying to survive to think about the environment.'
The current law covers Tokyo, Osaka and their vicinities. The law aims to reduce nitrogen oxide emissions by encouraging people to upgrade to cleaner vehicles. Proposed revisions would expand the regulated areas to include parts of Gumma and Tochigi prefectures. The Environment Agency hopes to submit a draft bill on new emission controls to the Diet next year, to take effect in 2002.
But Ishihara has called for all diesel vehicles in Tokyo to be fitted with filters from 2006. Other diesel vehicles registered before September 1995 must be fitted with filters by 2003. Truckmakers have offered to sell diesel-powered trucks that will emit half the amount of exhaust fumes compared with current models, starting in 2005.
Ishihara is unimpressed. His final statement at the press conference was bleak. 'My message is that if a foreigner comes to Japan, it will be fatal.'