Tokyo: Cleaner than you Think?

Fun and Bargains Galore

Like many westerners, my image of Tokyo was indelibly etched by photos in a National Geographic issue that marked the 1964 Olympics. Here we met the famous platform pusher, cramming poor slobs onto a train with white-gloved hands. Even worse was the shot of some salaryman gasping from an oxygen vending machine. I remember my reaction as an eleven-year old: “Oh, gross! How can they live in a place like that?”

Those images were still with me as I flew into Tokyo for the first time, 20 years ago. “Well,” I thought to myself, “this will be tough, but if I only stay a year it shouldn’t damage my health forever.”

Reality was less bleak than I’d imagined. It was a relief to discover that the pushers, when you find them, now spend their time peeling off the overeager. And the only life-supporting vending machines I found dispensed beer. I was soon forced to admit I’d been wrong about Tokyo.

Truth is, the picture many people have of Tokyo dates back to the ‘ 60s and early ‘ 70s — the bad old days. Back then, with rapidly growing industry and population, cars with no emission controls and woefully inadequate infrastructure, Tokyo really was a hell hole. By 1973, everyone realized that something had to be done. And to the credit of the national and municipal authorities, it has been. Over the past 20 years, very strict auto and industrial emission controls have been phased in. A vast fortune has been spent on new subways and sewage-treatment scheme. Environmental awareness has spread.

The Rockies it’s not… but as megacities go Tokyo’s a very livable place.

As a result, air quality has improved to the point where Tokyo is now among the cleanest of the world’s megacities. UN data published recently in the Economist ranked Tokyo’s air pollution as “low” in every category except ozone, which was “high.” London and New York, by comparison, both ranked “high” or “moderate to heavy” in ozone and carbon monoxide. Los Angeles scored badly on those plus nitrogen dioxide and particulates. Other Asian centers also got poor marks.

Tokyo authorities are proud of the progress but not complacent. A 1993 Tokyo Metropolitan guide to the environment is frank about the need for further reduction in nitrogen dioxide emissions by cars and particulates from diesel trucks.

It also bemoans the fact that more vehicles every year mean that hard-won gains are tough to maintain. Overall, though, there is a sense that they intend to get the job done. Water quality has also improved over the past 20 years, although much work remains undone. Over 90% of Tokyo structures are now hooked up to sewers and treatment plants have been expanded. Tap water, sourced in the mountains, is of high quality. Still, authorities admit that its taste could use improvement.

With more than 31 million people in its commutershed, Tokyo will never be as pristine as the Rocky Mountains, but it is certainly not an unhealthy place to live. After all, the Japanese have the world’s highest life expectancy — and one quarter of them live here.

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