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Japan Follows US in Scaled-Back Role for Rio

LESS than a year ago, Japan planned to be a generous green giant at this month's Earth Summit, ready to provide yen, technology, and a Japanese philosophy on nature as remedies for the environment.

But Japan has since scaled back its role in Rio from that of a newfound global eco-leader to a low-profile broker. "Japan's No. 1 contribution is to facilitate dialogue," states Masaki Seo, a Foreign Ministry official working on the summit. (European and Pakistani preparations for Rio, Page 6.)

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Officials blame a worsening economy in Japan and their own bureaucratic bickering on key issues for the revised strategy. Also, the government wants to ward off demands from other nations for more money for environmental causes.

"People tend to think about funds, especially from the government," Mr. Seo says. "But things should not be discussed only from that standpoint."

Many environmentalists cite other reasons why the government reduced its visibility in Rio, revealing instead a Japan that may be a dubious environmental leader.

Often willing to please the United States, the Japanese government followed the lead of the Bush administration and failed to fight for tough or binding agreements at the summit, says Hideo Obara, director-general of the Nature Conservation Society of Japan.

"George Bush told Japan to keep quiet, and it did," he says.

On the issue of carbon-dioxide emissions, for instance, Japan stopped publicly berating the weaker US stance. "Japan at first tried to change the US government's position," says Yoichi Kuroda, coordinator of Japan Tropical Forest Action Network, "but [it] they didn't try very hard."

Perhaps the main reason for a lesser Japanese role was an apparent victory in the government's drive to silence foreign criticism. Ever since the late 1980s, world environmentalists have criticized Japan's record on the environment, ranging from whale-hunting to deforestation to the import of wildlife.

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But late last year, foreign criticism of Japan started to decrease, says Yoichi Kaya, a University of Tokyo engineering professor and a carbon-dioxide specialist.

One reason was that the government decided to stabilize carbon-dioxide emissions at 1990 levels by the year 2000. The move led many environmentalists to think Japan is active enough on the issue, Dr. Kaya says. "The declaration is just a piece of paper," he says. Also there is wide disagreement on a proposed tax on carbon emissions.

And, Kaya adds, the government wants to solve the carbon-dioxide problem by using advanced technology alone. "But people need to change their lifestyle, otherwise the technology will have no success," Kaya says.

Since the 1970s, Japan has effectively curbedmany air pollutants. But much of the effort has been negated by heavier traffic jams and more Japanese buying bigger cars.

A second reason for Japan's effective containment of foreign criticism was that it became a major source of money for the environment, after raising the percentage of its overseas aid for the environment from near zero to 12 percent over the past decade. "Many countries expect some financial support from the Japanese government, so they have decided not to criticize it," Professor Obara says.

Despite its record as the world's biggest importer of wildlife, Japan received little criticism last April at a major conference it hosted on the international wildlife trade.

"The government was afraid of more Japan-bashing on the environment," Obara says. "But the conference was not so bad for Japan, so the government decided that economic power can have a big influence. It showed they need not worry so much about the environment. They can afford to take a low-profile."

Now, he says, "The Japanese government has a big smile." But has Japan made progress on environment? "No, no, no," Obara says. "Japan has so many problems with nature conservation."

Seo admits that Japan says it is protecting nature while also destroying it: "We've been trying to overcome this problem."

What visibility Japan does take in Rio will be driven largely by a desire of many Japanese politicians to use environmental issues for reelection, environmentalists say.

Noburo Takeshita, for instance, a former prime minister forced to resign in a 1989 money scandal, took up the environmental cause only recently and has been the major force behind Japan's stance at the Rio summit, which he will attend.

"Demonstrating leadership to solve the global environmental problem must be the pillar of Japan's role in the international community," Mr. Takeshita said in a speech in April.

Tarnished by scandal, Takeshita may be attempting a political comeback with a new "clean" image, many commentators say.

But, Kuroda claims, Takeshita is not as strong as he wants to be at the summit because of the strong business pressure behind the scene to avoid tough environmental measures.

Obara adds that Japan's top two priorities are still economic development and avoiding trouble with the West. "Now that the environment issue is the top issue in the West, Japan thinks it must do something. But it will never let environment issues disrupt the economy," he states.

At the summit, Japan will probably commit itself to more environmental aid to other countries, but the aid will mainly help Japanese companies and Japanese politicians, says Naomi Kamei, a coordinator at Friends of the Earth in Japan.

"Takeshita stepped up to the stage so the aid can be used to help Japanese companies sell their products," she claims.

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