View from Tokyo: Pollution is an unwanted export

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MITSUBISHI KASEI, Japan's largest chemical manufacturer, is preparing for another type of sayonara after a Malaysian court last week ordered it to close down a factory in Bukit Merah, near the city of Ipoh, because of health hazards to local residents. The factory, part of a joint venture between Mistubishi and a Malaysian company, Asian Rare Earth, has been the focus of a lawsuit for the past seven years.

The court's decision was widely reported in Japan as the first case of a Japanese company being found guilty of exporting pollution to a poor country. After a massive clean-up of its own factories which started in the 1970s, Japan has stringent pollution control laws. But, according to Japanese lawyers who went to Malaysia to support the villagers against Mitsubishi, Japanese firms are less cautious about environmental concerns in their overseas operations.

The eight plaintiffs, two of whom have since died, first accused Mitsubishi and its Malaysian partner in 1985 of releasing radioactive and other toxic waste from the factory, which they said had affected 40,000 villagers living close by. The court ordered the factory to be closed immediately and gave the company 14 days to remove all radioactive and toxic materials from the site. Mitsubishi is considering whether to appeal to the Malaysian Supreme Court.