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Mysterious Japan: A Diary

Sunday, March 8, Tokyo: The fourteen-hour flight from New York (with a refueling stopover at Fairbanks, Alaska) is one of the longest flights one can make to a conference on pollution (or rather on Kogai, public nuisances, as some of my Japanese friends refer to it).

Yesterday when I was waiting for the limousine to take me from the New York Hilton to Kennedy Airport, it was also Sunday, March 8. The room in the Tokyo Prince Hotel in which I now find myself is hardly distinguishable from the room I left yesterday; if anything it is the Hilton of 1975. In contrast to the RCA television set in the New York hotel, the National set in the Tokyo room works perfectly. The soap and the deodorants advertised on the morning programs are virtually the same—however, the jerky actors of the animated cartoons have faces of Oriental cast. The panel on the side of the night table, full of buttons controlling lights and other appliances, makes me feel like the pilot of a 707.

The view from the forty-fourth-floor window in Manhattan, with the vertical, slender glass towers of skyscrapers all around, makes one feel as though one were in a forest of tall Oregon pines. Tokyo, as seen from the eleventh floor, is still horizontal, with a single tall office building rising above blocks and blocks of rooftops; to the right, a large enclosed garden with a temple in the middle, another to the left, and as varied a building landscape as one would have seen in the New York of 1925.

Tuesday, March 10: Of my fellow conference members (some fifty of them) half are Japanese, the rest from Russia, France, Canada, and Czechoslovakia, Germany, India, Switzerland, and many other countries. Five are from the United States. According to the program, we were to be taken this morning on a tour of Tokyo’s pollution spots. The climax of the excursion was to be the colossal metropolitan garbage dump.

Our first stop was the Television Tower, an old landmark of modern Tokyo. An imitation of the Eiffel Tower, it is said to be somewhat higher than the original in Paris. The view from the top was ideal for a pollution survey. The sun overhead looked the way it was when I saw it two days before during the partial eclipse in New York. Clear visibility below extended to about two miles. Beyond that small circle, all colors became varying shades of gray and all outlines less and less distinct, finally merging in a haze. How universal is the symbolism of architectural shapes! Without consulting the map, one could identify the squat, solid rectangle of ministries, the slightly higher glass boxes of office buildings, the green walled patches of affluent private residences, and at a distance, among large luxuriant trees, a light gray roof: that of the royal palace.

An automatic marker in the lower lobby of the tower was ominously crawling its way up a paper strip, indicating the increase of poisonous sulphur monoxide in the air as the traffic built up toward the climax of the noonday rush.

An excursion bus was waiting at the exit. Each of us was handed a diagram of the bus interior, each seat inscribed with the name of the person assigned to it. Our guides, speaking from the front through a microphone, were, successively, the head of the department of health, the director of the port of Tokyo, and the chief engineer of the sanitation department. To see the port we changed from the bus to a motor launch that slipped for an hour in and out through all the crannies of the gigantic port, between ships, towering cranes, dredges, barges, warehouses, elevators, etc., accompanied all the while by the appropriate statistics.

We passed a big freighter unloading at the sugar pier, and I asked where it came from. Cuba, I was told, a confirmation of the answer to a question I had asked ten months ago in Havana.

Fifteen years ago, the Bay of Tokyo supported a fishing fleet and contained several profitable oyster beds. First the oysters disappeared, then the fish, the fishing fleet, and finally even the sea gulls. Prosperity has destroyed all natural life in the bay.

Through the estuary of a river (whose Japanese name translated into English means Clear Waters) we approached the pier of the municipal sanitation department and docked. Our bus was waiting to take us through the strange, forbidding world never seen by tourists and hardly ever seen by the citizens of Tokyo: the metropolitan dump. Tokyo now generates ten thousand tons of garbage per day (in 1960 there were five thousand). About onehalf of it comes to the dump, which ten years from now will have no space left to expand in; the other half is incinerated, that is, released into the air.

Mile after mile we drove through mountains of refuse, plateaus and valleys of refuse, traversed by caravans of garbage trucks and provisioned by fleets of garbage barges. The only living things in the dump were swarms of crows, replaced for the night shift, we were told, by hordes of rats. The color of this fantastic landscape changes from one stretch to the next, like that of a natural desert. Red, green, blue, and yellow plastic material, deposited in winding layers and fantastic strips, reminded me of a gigantic Jackson Pollock. In other stretches there were acres of tin cans and miles of discarded building materials.

At one point, we came upon a weird muddy lake with a garbage bottom and garbage shores. At one edge, tilted on its side, was a small fishing schooner, the kind one sees at the fishing piers in Gloucester. This boat, however, was dead, its windows broken, gray paint peeling, planks missing in its decks.

Some fifteen years ago, while fishing in the south Pacific, the crew of this schooner saw a great flash of light over the horizon. They took it for an unusual thunderstorm and continued to fish. Four days later, all hands on board fell ill. Blisters broke out all over their skins. They hastened to port. The disease was diagnosed as exposure to H-bomb radiation. First the captain died and then the crew. The boat was floated to the dump and there it is, a monument to the armament race, a rotting hull on the edge of a muddy lake amid a fantastic silent world of garbage:

That evening, at a reception in a Tokyo garden restaurant, an aid from The Nihon Keizai Shimbun, “Japan Economic Journal” (the Wall Street Journal of Japan), tapped me discreetly on the shoulder. We slipped out and our chauffeur-driven car crawled inch by inch through traffic-choked streets to a squat, massive building—the corporate headquarters, housing both editorial offices and printing plant.

In a paneled room, the editors were waiting. Professor Usava, a prominent Japanese economist (who recently had resigned his professorship at the University of Chicago to accept one at the University of Tokyo), was to interview Professor Breton, a city planner from the London School of Economics, and me about environmental disruption, economic growth, and the state of the American economy. The subject of the discussion was mainly the United States. I expressed the opinion that Mr. Nixon’s anti-pollution crusade presents a skillful and unfortunately successful attempt to divert public attention from more fundamental, albeit more conventional, social and economic issues in our country. In present American politics pollution is a middle-and upper-class issue. The man who has no station wagon to drive his family for a weekend to the seashore can hardly get excited about the pollution of beaches. And for a family living in a ghetto the quest for more food and better housing has greater urgency than the campaign for purer air.

Wednesday, March 11: This morning it was my turn to present a paper, or rather to give a brief summary of it. Its aim was to show how both the production and elimination of different pollutants or—more generally—of all “disservices” and undesirable “products” can and should be described and analyzed—in quantitative terms—as integral component parts of the economic system. The so-called input-output methodology already used by economists and business analysts in free-enterprise economies and by central planners in socialist countries can thus serve as an effective tool for describing and explaining the disruptive effects of modern economic growth as well as for designing effective action toward their mitigation and eventual elimination.

Professor Shigeto Tsuru, the chairman of our conference, and I were invited for lunch by a group of leading industrialists and bankers who ostensibly wanted to consult me on the organization of economic research, but actually wanted to hear what I could say about the attitude of the American economic and political establishment toward the rising economic power of Japan. It could have been a private luncheon room on Wall Street: white tablecloth, clear, light bouillon, small rolls, filet mignon, and a delicately seasoned green salad. The twelve gentlemen around the table, some lively, some impassive, were perfectly confident of their ability to master their own world, but uncertain of the intent of their American counterparts. Last summer I read Commodore Perry’s diaries. A hundred and twenty years ago a similar uncertainty must have been in the minds of the Commodore’s Japanese hosts who met with him only fifteen miles away.

These patrons of industry have really little to fear. They are running a tight ship manned by an excellent crew and advancing at an incredibly high speed: the gross national product of Japan rises by some 13 percent a year and the standard of living by about 11 percent, which keeps the large majority of wage earners happy and leaves handsome profits to be reinvested.

Already the third industrial power in the world, Japan is rapidly gaining on the Soviet Union and eventually will be catching up with us. Spectacular success makes a wise man nervous. My hosts around the luncheon table obviously would have liked to make the rising profile of their country look somewhat lower. (When Mr. Nixon speaks of a “low profile” I cannot help thinking that the ship having the lowest profile in an attacking fleet—the submarine—is the most dangerous.) The Japanese are concerned lest their conspicuous success lead to increased demand for economic help from underdeveloped countries and pressure by the US Government for greater contribution to the military defense of the “free world.”

Up to now the governmental statisticians vied with one another in computing the highest possible figures of per capita national income for their countries. With the egalitarian yardstick now being increasing applied, not only in domestic politics but internationally as well, the same statisticians will soon be vying with one another to revise their figures downward as a rich man tries to reduce his taxable income by subtracting storm damage to his house. The United States, the Soviet Union, and Japan will claim legitimate write-downs on their gross national product for polluted beaches in Santa Barbara, contaminated waters of Lake Baikal, and noxious air in Tokyo.

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