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Chinese Pollution Quietly Takes Toll in Japan


April 12 2008


Yamagata, Japan - With a smile on her tanned face, skiier Kazumi Furukawa
can vividly recall the time three years ago she stood here on Mount Zao
and looked down at fir trees turned into glittering crystals.

"The sky was cobalt blue and I could see the tiny snow crystals on the
tips of the tree branches," Furukawa, 56, remembers.

But these days the natural phenomenon is growing rarer and scientists say
the culprit is beyond Japan's control - industrial pollution from China.

Mount Zao is whipped every year by wet winds from across the Sea of Japan
(East Sea) that form layers of ice and snow that shine like crystals. The
Japanese call them "juhyo," or ice trees.

Skiiers from Japan and other Asian nations regularly fly to the 1 600
metre (5 280-foot) mountain just for a glimpse of the juhyo, which local
people describe as little monsters for their intricate twisted shapes.

Fumitaka Yanagisawa, an assistant professor of Yamagata University who has
studied the juhyo for nearly two decades, warns that the frost is
increasingly mixed with acid, spelling danger for the trees' future.

This year he recorded the highest yet levels of acid, "which could have
severe ramifications on the eco-system," he said.

Looking at satellite data, he and another professor, Junichi Kudo of
Tohoku University, concluded that the acid in the trees came from sulfur
produced at factories in China's Shanxi province.

Since he first wrote about his research in a scientific journal in 2006,
elementary school teachers have asked him to give lectures to local
children.

"It's hard to explain this kind of scientific evidence to children, but
finally they seem to come up with the same question: 'What are you going
to do about the problem?'" Yanagisawa said.

He regretted that he had no good answer.

"The pollution comes from outside Japan. There's a limit to what local
residents here can do," he said.

Mount Zao is only one example of pollution hitting Japan from China, where
factory emissions are causing international concern as its economy soars
ahead.

Some schools in southern Japan and South Korea have occasionally curbed
activities because of toxic chemical smog from China's factories or sand
storms from the Gobi Desert caused by rampant deforestation.

Environmental ministers of China, Japan and South Korea agreed last year
to look jointly at the problem, but Tokyo has accused Beijing of secrecy.

"About yellow sand, I am not quite sure how and why it can be regarded as
a national secret," Japanese environment minister Ichiro Kamoshita said in
February.

Blaming other countries won't help - Yanagisawa remembers making a
presentation on his academic findings at a Chinese university in the early
1990s.

"When I suggested the possibility that Japan was being hurt by
cross-border pollution from China, the whole audience booed my speech," he
said with a bitter smile.

"Even now, it's a sort of taboo to mention cross-border pollution when I'm
invited to give a speech in China," he said.

Japanese officials say they are hoping to cooperate on the environment
with Beijing, as Tokyo has been trying to repair ties after years of
friction.

"It will have adverse effects if we push China too much on cross-border
pollution," said Reiko Sodeno, an environmental ministry official who has
observed past bilateral talks.

"Blaming other countries wouldn't help to solve the problem, as it only
hurts national pride," she said.

She said the goal was for Asian nations to come up with a treaty on
long-range transboundary air pollution similar to agreements in place
among European and North American nations.

Japan also suffered terrible air and water pollution as it built itself
into the world's second largest economy, but the situation has been
improving since regulations were imposed in the 1970s.

China has taken steps to clean up its air to avoid international
embarrassment at the Beijing Games in August after a warning from the
International Olympic Committee.

"I have high hopes that in this year of the Olympics for China that
Beijing will cooperate in international efforts towards cutting emissions
of air pollutants," she said.

China is also taking part in talks aimed at coming up with a treaty to
succeed the Kyoto Protocol on global warming. China is expected soon to
top the United States as the top emitter of greenhouse gases blamed for
climate change.

But at current rates, emissions of nitrogen oxide - a greenhouse gas that
is the main cause of urban smog - will increase 2,3 times in China and 1,4
times in East Asia by 2020, said Toshimasa Ohohara, head of air pollution
monitoring research at the National Institute for Environmental Study.

"A lack of political leadership in East Asia would mean a worldwide
worsening of air quality," he said.

 

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