“Tokyo Threatened by Killing Pollution” was the headline that greeted newspaper readers on December 9th, 1970. The article, a piece by Michael Hornsby written originally for the Times in London, detailed Japan’s environmental struggles. It began by covering Tokyo’s smog problem. “A group of children playing in a schoolyard had trouble breathing and begun falling down. In the days and weeks that followed thousands of people had to be treated in Tokyo hospitals for painfully smarting eyes and sore throats.” It also included a grim description of Tokyo Bay. “It is slowly becoming a huge cesspool. Fish, in which the bay used to abound, have been found suffering from cancer and other deformities Large quantities of cadmium and mercury mercury were discovered in sludge dredged this year.” The 1970’s were perhaps the nadir of Japan’s environmental health and the article’s criticisms were well founded. President Nixon, conscious of the public concern for the environment, and always interested in the Orient, saw in this crisis an opportunity. Pollution was both an international issue that required diplomacy and an opportunity to cooperate with another country on a common problem.
1970 was a hot and smoggy summer in the nation’s capital. Russel Train had recently been appointed as the chairman of the Council on Environmental Quality. The challenges he faced were looming, as the smoggy air hung over Washington D.C. and assaulted his nose and lungs. When he read about similar conditions in Japan, he advised President Nixon to contact Prime Minister Eisaku Sato. President Nixon’s letter was well received and Prime Minister Sato quickly replied: “I agree with your statement that the impact of a deteriorating environment extends beyond national borders. In view of its international character and the enormous scientific techniques needed to be developed, the problem could be effectively dealt with only through international cooperation.” The Prime minister expressed interest in a personal meeting with Russel Train, as well as policy meetings with important ministers. Those meetings were based around “various problems common to both of us” and designed to formulate “arrangements for our mutual cooperation.”
At the time of Train’s visit, Japan was still developing a centralized agency to deal with environmental issues. On his trip, Train met with Prime Minister Sato, worked with environmental coordinator Sadnori Yamanaka, and traveled to Japan’s parks. In a memo written after his trip he described the experience. “This has been an outstanding Success…There is no question of the political importance of environment in Japan. They have since set up an environmental agency with cabinet rank; passed ocean dumping legislation and a number of other statutes; steadily raised the level of their public and private investment on environmental protection; [and] supported us internationally on the principle that ‘the polluter must pay the costs of cleanup.’”
In his article on Tokyo’s smog Michael Hornsby quoted a grim vision of the future. “The pedestrian will carry a gas mask as naturally as an umbrella. He has predicted that air pollution will increase 500 times in the next 10 years.” Russel Train’s visit to Japan, and the joint efforts of Nixon and Sato’s administrations helped prevent that future. The basis for that newfound diplomatic relationship was a common concern over the environment. Environmental concerns were a problem that required international coordination. Just as importantly, they were a diplomatic tool that helped the Nixon administration form new international bonds and strengthened existing relationships.