Yokkaichi Air Pollution – 1961-1988

Located in Japan’s Mie Prefecture, Yokkaichi is an important industrial town noted for the manufacture of such diverse products as porcelain, cars, textiles and chemicals. It owes its thriving economy to the port that was built in 1872 and in 1897 it was afforded ‘modern city’ status; its future was assured.

During the postwar push for progress, Yokkaichi became ever more reliant on chemical production and plants sprang up all over the city.

Like many northern cities of England or those of the ‘Rust Belt’ in the USA, the production and processing of hazardous materials was carried out with scant regard for the local environment and, by the early 1960s, the burning of petroleum products in Yokkaichi had reached high enough levels to cause several episodes of severe smog. The first case of pulmonary disease linked to industrial pollution was reported as early as 1961 and it became normal practice for people to mask their faces with handkerchiefs while walking around the city on their daily business.

Levels of sulphur dioxide in the air became dangerously high and began to have a seriously detrimental effect on the respiratory systems of the local population. Initial efforts to alleviate the problem were woefully inadequate. The height of industrial chimneys was raised in an effort to spread the pollutants over a larger area, but this did little to help. The smogs continued and soon hundreds of people were presenting with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), chronic bronchitis and bronchial asthma.

In 1970 a class-action lawsuit against the biggest polluter, Showa Yokkaichi Oil, finally led to effective action being taken. Through a process of gas desulphurization, the harmful chemicals were removed from the atmosphere and the last case of pulmonary disease linked to local heavy industry was reported in 1988,

When: 1961-1988

Where: Yokkaichi, Japan

Death toll: Two deaths have been directly linked to asthma caused by the smog and research indicates that mortality rates from COPD were between ten and 20 times greater in Yokkaichi than in the rest of Mie Prefecture.

You should know: Although Yokkaichi has now cleaned up its act, it will forever be remembered for the pollution-induced asthma which carries its name. Today most cases of ‘Yokkaichi asthma’ are to be found in China, where a lack of environmental control is harming much of the urban population.

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  1. WhiskyBravo Reply

    The 1971 monster movie “Godzilla vs. Hedorah” was inspired by the director’s visit to Yokkaichi area. Like Godzilla was an allegory of the U.S. nuclear attacks on Japan, the other titular kaiju, aka “The Smog Monster”, was an allegory of pollution problems in Japan in the 1960s and 1970s.

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