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Japan: Legal Responses to Disaster Waste Management Issues

(Mar. 23, 2012) There has been some controversy in Japan connected with the plans for handling the large quantity of waste generated by last year's earthquake and tsunami.


The Great East Japan Earthquake and ensuing tsunami of March 11, 2011, killed more than 15,800 people and destroyed cities and villages along the eastern coastline of Japan's Tohoku region. More than 3,200 people are still missing, and more than 340,000 evacuees remain to be resettled. (Government of Japan, Road to Recovery, at 3 (Mar. 2012), Prime Minister's website [click “Road to Recovery” under “Policy” section]; see also Sayuri Umeda, Japan: Law on Making Local Areas Resistant to Tsunamis, GLOBAL LEGAL MONITOR (Feb. 13, 2012).)

The earthquake and tsunami generated approximately 23 million tons of debris along the coast. (Engan shichoson no saigai haikibutsu shori no shinchoku jokyo [Progress on Disposal of Disaster Wastes Generated in Cities and Villages Along the Coastline] (Mar. 19, 2012), Ministry of the Environment website (updated weekly).) The amount of waste in Miyagi prefecture alone is 19 times larger than the amount of waste that the area usually generates in a year. (Higashi nihon daishinsai to gareki shori [The Great East Japan Earthquake and Waste Management], at 1, Jiji Press (Mar. 2, 2012).)

Waste management has been one of the important issues of the post-disaster recovery. Soon after the disaster, the Japanese government implemented emergency waste disposal measures. For example, on March 31, 2011, a Ministry of the Environment ordinance was amended to ease the 30-day advance notice requirement that is imposed when an industrial waste management facility deals with non-industrial waste. (Enforcement Ordinance of the Law on Waste Disposal and Clean-Up, Ministry of Health and Welfare Ordinance No. 35 of 1971, art. 12-7-7, amended by Ministry of the Environment Ordinance No. 6 of 2011.) In April and June, the Ministry of the Environment amended its Notifications, so that rotten seafood in destroyed storage facilities could be discarded in the ocean. (Emergency Disposal into the Ocean, Ministry of Environment Notification Nos. 44 & 48 of 2011 (Apr. 7 & June 17, 2011) [explanations and notifications are available on the Ministry of the Environment website (last visited Mar. 21, 2012)].)

Recent Developments

In August 2011, Japan enacted a comprehensive disaster waste management law in order to quickly and adequately manage disaster waste. (Saigai haikibutsu no shori ni kansuru tokubetsu sochi ho [Special Measures Act on Disaster Waste Management], Law No. 99 of 2011.) This law enabled the national government to request that local governments outside the disaster area accept disaster waste and manage it at the national government's expense. (Id. art. 6.)

In March 2012, the national government decided to utilize this provision. Because residents are afraid of the possibility that the waste has a higher radioactive level than normal and therefore oppose the acceptance of disaster waste in their local areas, only a small number of local governments have voluntarily accepted the material. Thus, as of early March, only six percent of about 23 million tons of waste had been handled. The debris in Fukushima, one of the three hardest hit prefectures in which the crippled nuclear complex is located, will be disposed of within the prefecture. (Noda Asks Municipalities in Writing to Dispose of 2011 Quake Debris, MAINICHI DAILY NEWS (Mar. 17, 2012).)

Based on the provision, on March 16, 2012, Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda sent letters requesting prefectures and the largest cities that have not accepted the disaster waste to accept and manage it. (Ukeire yosei bunsho hasso: seifu [Written Requests for Acceptance Sent: the National Government], YOMIURI ONLINE (Mar. 17, 2012),