Public Works Endanger Japan's Environment Shinto is a distinctly Japanese religion and it attributes souls to animals, vegetables and even rocks. But for decades, construction driven by public works projects has turned Japan into the ugliest country in the world, according to one expert.
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Public Works Endanger Japan's Environment

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Public Works Endanger Japan's Environment

Public Works Endanger Japan's Environment

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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CHADWICK: It's Climate Connections, our year-long series with National Geographic on how people are changing climate and how climate is changing people.

BRAND: You know, Alex, in Tokyo in the summertime it gets really, really hot. And while temperatures are increasing all over the world because of global warming, in Tokyo they're increasing four times faster than anywhere else.

CHADWICK: That would be really scary, especially in the country that gave us the Kyoto Protocol, right? I mean, they're supposed to reign in global warming.

BRAND: That's right. Kyoto, Japan is where that agreement was hammered 10 years ago. But Japan, like a lot of countries, well, their emissions have actually increased, not decreased.

CHADWICK: And I thought if anyone can do this, Japan can.

BRAND: That's exactly what I thought. But what I discovered when I went there a few months ago was a country deeply torn about its relationship to the environment. This is, after all, a country where the main religion, Shintoism, sees every mountain, every tree, every stream, as sacred. But, Alex, for every Shinto shrine that reveres nature...


BRAND: ...there are a hundred office buildings symbolizing Japan's triumph over it.

(Soundbite of traffic)

BRAND: When I get to Tokyo, all I can see is concrete. Even for a diehard urbanist like me, it can be a shock to the system

Seems like in Tokyo you can't walk more than 25 feet before you see some construction going on. Even today, on a Saturday, there are construction crews, cutting tile, laying cement.

Japan expert Alex Kerr says there are statistics that back up my impression.

Mr. ALEX KERR (Author, "Dogs and Demons"): Japan lays, at this point, we're talking between 25 and 30 times the amount of concrete per square foot that America lays.

BRAND: I'm looking up at a huge crane on top of a half-finished building. And just looking out over Tokyo, you'll see miles and miles and miles of concrete. What's even more remarkable when you look out on it? You realize that almost all of these buildings have been built after World War II.

In any other context, that would be a success story. After World War II, with the help of the Americans, Japan sped through the industrialization process. In just a few decades, it became a First World nation. Along the way, though, it never really questioned the benefits of industry. And now there are profound unintended consequences.

Mr. KERR: The tragedy of Japan is that I think it's original, natural state made it one of the most stunningly beautiful countries on Earth.

BRAND: Alex Kerr, in his book, "Dogs and Demons," says now Japan is the world's ugliest country.

Mr. KERR: I would say you can hardly drive for more than five minutes. From the tip to toe, from Hokkaido to Kyushu, without seeing something pretty horrible.

BRAND: To test his thesis, I get out of Tokyo and take the train to Chichibu, a little town about an hour away.

Okay. Chichibu isn't exactly Switzerland. But look, Alex Kerr, in the distance there are mountains smothered in green trees.

And that drumming? It's a summer festival, where people pay their respects to nature. Men in red costumes are carrying a gold shrine through the streets.

We're actually helping the local residents pull this incredibly ornate and gorgeous gold chariot. Children are on the chariot with golden fans, in traditional dress.

BRAND: This festival is organized by Chichibu's Shinto shrine and its head priest Minoru Sonada.

Mr. MINORU SONADA (Head priest, Chichibu Shrine): We are going to take this photo of shrine.

BRAND: Every Japanese person is born a Shinto, he explains to me. And the essence of Shintoism: that God is everywhere in nature, even in this 300-year-old Ginkgo tree in the Shrine's courtyard.

BRAND: 300 years old?

Mr. SONADA: Yes, yes.

BRAND: And it has a rope around its trunk.

Mr. SONADA: It's a symbol of the sacredness. Some deities are dwelling inside that tree.

BRAND: Inside this particular tree?

Mr. SONADA: Yes.

BRAND: Which deities?

Mr. SONADA: Oh, I don't know.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SONADA: Many deities, many spirits are - sacred spirits are inside.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BRAND: This shrine has been here in various forms for 2,000 years. The spot was chosen, the priest tells me, because nearby is a sacred mountain full of important deities. I can see it in the distance, the mist touching the tops of the trees. We're winding down our conversation when the priest says...

Mr. SONADA: The sacred mountain has a very good limestone.

BRAND: Very good limestone? The priest goes on to say that the sacred mountain has been destroyed for that limestone.

Mr. SONADA: Yeah. (Unintelligible) the sacred mountain destructed by the industry.

BRAND: Japanese cement companies have been mining the sacred mountain for decades.

I jump into a cab and drive up the mountain to get a closer look.

(Soundbite of car)

BRAND: Well, we're climbing up towards the mountain, the sacred mountain, and we've passed what seems like at least half a dozen cement factories, one factory after another. They've actually built chutes that goes straight from the mountain into the factory over the road to draw the limestone out of the mountain. It's extraordinary.

It's really depressing. It looks like a giant bent down and opened his big hand, scooping out half the mountain and leaving behind nothing but a tiered gray gash. All that limestone churning through the cement factories ends up as roads, buildings, and even here in the middle of this lush seemingly pristine forest.

After we pass the factories, we stop at the entrance to the sacred mountain. And right at the entrance there is a Shinto gate, a moss-covered Shinto gate. It is absolutely beautiful. And right next to it, listen.

(Soundbite of a waterfall)

BRAND: A waterfall. Even this waterfall is lined with cement, in itself not too remarkable, but I discover it's part of a campaign the Japanese have undertaken across the country to tame nature, to create order. Nearly every river and stream in Japan is contained in cement chutes.

The official Japanese line is it's a matter of self-preservation. We're an island nation battered by tsunamis and earthquakes. We need to protect ourselves from landslides, floods and any other natural calamity.

Author Alex Kerr isn't buying it. He says there are natural calamities waiting to happen everywhere and Japan has overreacted.

Mr. ALEX KERR (Author, "Dogs and Demons"): So what you have in Japan instead is the situation of hitting a mosquito with a sledgehammer. It's every river must be flattened and the seashore must be entirely lined with concrete because we're going to suffer calamities.

BRAND: And so the construction projects, the gouging out of sacred mountains, the paving over of nature, continues - almost on autopilot. That has contributed to a far bigger calamity - climate change.

Back in Tokyo, people complained of a heat island effect. It is five degrees hotter now than 100 years ago, according to city official Mazumi Toyofuku(ph).

Mr. MAZUMI TOYOFUKU (Tokyo Official): (Through translator) And of course, one of the main reasons for that is the infrastructure, basically building a lot of buildings that doesn't absorb heat. They only emit heat, so it's a very bad balance.

BRAND: To restore some of that balance, they're trying to bring back some of the nature that has been obliterated. Now every new skyscraper has to have a rooftop garden to absorb some of the heat. This one is at the top of Tokyo's Blade Runner-like city hall.

I'm walking on to the rooftop garden at the Tokyo Metropolitan Government.

You can walk around it in about 30 seconds. The plants are low to the ground and neatly arranged.

We have, what, juniper here? And? Iris. I think it's an Iris. A German Iris?

This is one of Tokyo's tallest buildings. Looking out, I see an unending palate of concrete grays and browns. I look around at this garden, this little patch of green floating 50 stories in the air, and it seems to me that it's a tiny beacon quietly flashing a message of hope and trying not be drowned out by all the construction below it.

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