Japan was the global “pioneer in pollution” back in the 1960s when rapid economic growth and industrial development seemed to be all that mattered.

The nation began facing a degree of environmental problems and diseases related to pollution that no other country had ever confronted.

Half a century has passed since, and the results of a continual struggle by people to create a better living environment has led to many improvements being made and many regulations passed to curb pollution.

Yet there seems no end in sight to society's struggle to create a safer living environment. Just think of the Fukushima nuclear power plant disaster of 2011, which contaminated an unprecedented amount of land.

Kenichi Miyamoto, an environmental economist, was a 15-year-old student at the Hofu branch of the imperial Japanese naval academy in Yamaguchi Prefecture, west of Hiroshima, when World War II ended.

On Aug. 24, 1945, only 18 days after the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, he passed through the devastated city on a cargo train on the way to a relative’s house in Ishikawa Prefecture.

“The city that once existed was completely gone. I realized what wars are all about,” said Miyamoto. “The utter cruelty inflicted upon the human living condition--the war caused the biggest environmental destruction ever.”

Soon after the end of the war, the United States occupied Japan and disbanded the imperial Japanese military to redemocratize what had become a militaristic nation.

The new Japanese Constitution, which adopted the ideas of a popular sovereign, fundamental human rights and pacifism as its main pillars, was promulgated in 1946.

“Now, I can choose a life other than just serving the nation,” a young Miyamoto thought. He decided to pursue an academic career and became an economist.

Miyamoto, now 86, has been keeping a watchful eye on Japanese pollution over the decades and the civil movements that try to combat it.

In 1961, Japan was in the midst of high economic growth after going through a dramatic postwar recovery. At a conference held by a labor organization, Miyamoto, who specialized in public policy and regional economics, heard a dreadful report from a municipal government official that the number of asthma patients was rapidly increasing in the coastal city of Yokkaichi in the central Japanese prefecture of Mie.

He immediately visited the city and found local hospitals inundated with asthma patients. He saw a patient suffering a severe asthma attack tearing at a tatami mat in agony and another begged him to put an end to his life.

The cause of the air pollution and mass outbreak of asthma was sulfurous acid gas produced by large petrochemical plants in the city.

At the time, the heavy chemical industry was promoted by the central government as a mainstay for economic growth. Among many industrial centers, Yokkaichi was known as the pioneer of industrialization by hosting petrochemical complexes.

Miyamoto started researching similar cases nationwide. He soon found evidence of environmental destruction everywhere, stemming from urbanization and industrialization.

Looking for answers on how to prevent such problems, he examined papers and reports relating to environmental issues in Europe and the United States, but to no avail. That was because Japan was a “pioneer of pollution” at the time.

He despaired, not knowing what he could do to help. Then, he learned that citizens of Mishima and Numazu in Shizuoka Prefecture, southwest of Tokyo, were opposing the plan to build a petrochemical complex there.

The area, which has a large port and abundant water sources, was an ideal location for oil-related businesses. The central and prefectural governments pushed the plan to construct a complex larger than that in Yokkaichi.

“Never repeat the tragedy of Yokkaichi,” was the key slogan for Mishima and Numazu protesters. The public protest movement became a turning point in the history of anti-pollution movements in Japan.

Scientists at a national research institute and technical high school in the area voluntarily investigated geographical and climatic conditions of the area and concluded that similar pollution could occur in the cities if the plant is constructed.

Miyamoto witnessed demonstrations, rallies and study meetings against the development were held again and again with even a branch manager of a regional bank hoisting a placard against the plan.

Public media including local newspapers also supported the protests.

“Local residents decided the way their cities ought to be--the idea of local self-governance was put into practice in this incident,” said Miyamoto.

In 1964, the Mishima and Numazu city governments officially declared their opposition to host the petrochemical complex. The construction plan was withdrawn.

Michio Hashimoto became the first manager of the pollution department of the Health and Welfare Ministry (current Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry), and devoted himself to set up pollution control regulations. In his memoir, Hashimoto wrote that the Mishima-Numazu case was “a great shock” to him. He described it was the fruition of the civil movement and preliminary environmental survey “in the true spirit of local autonomy.”

In some parts of Japan, progressive municipal governments fought to limit pollution around 1970 rather than leaving it to the central government.

In 1967, Ryokichi Minobe, who called for “blue skies for Tokyo,” was elected Tokyo governor. At the time, smog from industrial air pollution had become a serious issue in the capital. Minobe created a pollution control ordinance that had a tougher standard than that of the national government.

In 1970, the central government revised the basic law for environmental pollution control, demonstrating a more environmentally friendly approach. The Environment Agency (current Environment Ministry) was founded in the following year.

According to Miyamoto, Helmut Weidner, a German environmental politics scholar, once said of the Japanese movement that in Japan, environmental policies were made from the bottom up by ordinary citizens. Whereas in Germany, they were made from above by authorities.

By then, Japan was called “the pioneer of pollution control.”

“It was the power of postwar democracy,” Miyamoto summed up. When politicians, government officials and companies tried to prioritize economic growth even by covering up pollution, people made the most of local autonomy, freedom of speech, journalism and basic human rights to fight back.

Yet, the battle with pollution is not over. In March 2011, the nuclear disaster occurred at the Fukushima No. 1 power plant after the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami crippled the facility.

Miyamoto pointed out that the Fukushima incident was indeed pollution caused by a lack of preparation and care from the parties involved.

He defines pollution as a social disaster that violates the living environment of humans and causes health problems or strains on lives due to the failures of a government or a company to provide adequate care for environmental conservation.

“Many residents were forced to move due to environmental contamination and lost their hometowns. It is the first such case since the Ashio copper mine pollution incident,” said Miyamoto, referring to an infamous water poisoning case in Tochigi and Gunma prefectures in the late 19th century.

“We need to accept Fukushima’s nuclear incident as our biggest pollution crisis ever in postwar Japan and push for environmental democracy further. That is our challenge,” said Miyamoto.