Asbestos Profile: Japan 

by Laurie Kazan-Allen



(Updated May 2018)

Japan has imported asbestos for more than 100 years. As Japan industrialized, consumption grew, peaking in 1974 at 350,000+ tonnes; from 1930 to 2004, more than 10 million tonnes of asbestos were imported [Asbestos in Japan]. Asbestos had thousands of uses in Japan but the vast majority went into the manufacture of building materials. By 2002, national consumption had fallen to 43,318 tonnes. In 2004, the Government began phasing out the use of asbestos with the introduction of a partial ban; a total ban was promised by 2008 [Japan Total Asbestos Ban by 2008!]. On March 1, 2012, the last remaining derogation for asbestos use in Japan expired and a total asbestos ban was achieved.

The hazardous effects of occupational and environmental asbestos exposures produced a national "silent epidemic" which went unreported for decades. Scientists believe that between 2000 and 2039, there will be 103,000 mesothelioma deaths; adding the deaths from other cancers and asbestosis will make the death toll significantly higher [New Japanese Initiatives: Prevention & Treatment]. Until recently, asbestos litigation in Japan has been rare; the only compensation available to the injured was from a government-administrated scheme. This is changing [Japan: Cause and Effect] [Asbestos Test Case against Japan Railways] [ Legal Victory for Railway Workers in Japan]. As a result of litigation by former asbestos workers, on October 9, 2014, Japanís Supreme Court condemned the Government for failing to take timely and appropriate action on the asbestos hazard and held it liable for damages sustained by injured workers. [Historic Asbestos Ruling by Japanese Supreme Court].

The mobilization of citizen action on asbestos began with the formation of the Ban Asbestos Network Japan (1987) and Japan Citizen's Network for Wiping out Asbestos (1988). Other organizations formed since than also lobby on asbestos issues: the Japan Occupational Safety and Health Resource Center (1990), the Mesothelioma Pneumoconiosis Asbestos Center (2003) and the Japan Association of Mesothelioma and Asbestos-related Disease Victims and their Families (2004). Working together with their partners from other sectors of Japanese society, such as the trade unions, medical professionals and academics, they have improved the medical treatment and legal position of asbestos victims. [Japanese Asbestos Protests] [Support for Japan's Asbestos Victims] [Japan Eternit: An Unending Story] [Japanís Fight for Asbestos Justice] [Japanese Mobilize for Asbestos Justice].

The Global Asbestos Congress 2004 (Tokyo) was the first international meeting to focus on asbestos issues in Asia and, as such, was a landmark event. The publicity it generated kick-started the debate on asbestos in Japan [Global Asbestos Congress 2004]. Within six months, the nation had experienced the "Kubota Shock," one result of which was to expose the collusion of government and industry in the asbestos scandal [Killing the Future – Asbestos Use in Asia]. When the Kubota Shock propelled Japan's asbestos epidemic into the public arena, there was little awareness of the painstaking efforts which had been ongoing since 1988 by the Ban Asbestos Network of Japan (BANJAN) to identify victims and establish the facts regarding the source of their exposure. To commemorate the 20th anniversary of BANJAN a landmark conference was held in Yokohama: International Asbestos Conference for Fair and Equal Compensation for all Asbestos Victims and their Families [see: Report on The International Asbestos Conference for Fair and Equal Compensation for all Asbestos Victims and their Families].

A fact-finding trip to Japan, eight years after the landmark Global Asbestos Congress established that while progress had been made, the asbestos hazard remains an imminent threat [Global Asbestos Congress 2004: Eight Years On] [Asbestos Fallout from Japanese Disaster].


Updated May 2018



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