A treated asbestos ceiling in a public housing complex. Via NHK.

A survey by public broadcaster NHK has found that there were over 22,000 apartments in public housing complexes across Japan that were built with materials containing hazardous asbestos.

From the findings, a professor from the Tokyo Institute of Technology has suggested that there is a possibility that as many as 230,000 former residents could have inhaled asbestos fibers while living in these apartments. While this does not mean that every former resident will suffer from health problems, the professor did point out that further information is needed from the national and local governments.

The investigation was carried out by NHK and the Japan Association of Mesothelioma and Asbestos Related Disease Victims and their Families. According to the results, the 22,000 apartments included 8,700 units in public housing complexes that once contained spray-on asbestos, as well as units in city housing and UR housing where minuscule amounts of asbestos were used in spray-on materials. They did not have access to data on public housing complexes that have already been demolished, so the number could be higher than estimated.

The details of the investigation, including the names of the public housing complexes, where asbestos was used and when it was removed or treated, were published on the Association’s website on June 12 and can be viewed here: https://sites.google.com/site/tatemonosekimen/.

The Association also set up a free consultation line for the following two days, and received over 500 calls from former residents within 24 hours. In response to the NHK news report, Kanagawa Prefecture, Saitama Prefecture, Yamaguchi Prefecture and Yamaguchi City have set up consultation desks at their government offices for concerned residents.

In 1988, the national government ordered all local governments to remove or treat all spray-on asbestos from public housing complexes across the country. Each year the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism (MLIT) and local governments carry out surveys of public housing complexes to see how the removal process is going. However, the national government has not surveyed how many buildings contained asbestos, while the local governments will not publish the names of the housing complexes known to contain asbestos.

The 50+ year old Aoyama Kitamachi Apaato housing complex in Omotesando, which is currently in the process of being torn down and redeveloped, still contained spray-on asbestos up until its demolition this year.

Kubota Shock

In 1954, a machinery factory (Kanzaki factory) was opened in a residential neighborhood near Amagasaki Station in Hyogo Prefecture. It produced asbestos-containing materials for over 40 years. In 2005 it was announced that 145 of the factory workers and 190 local residents died from asbestos-related diseases. This was the first time attention was paid to the risks associated with living near these hazardous factories.

Asbestos was commonly used in Japan between 1956 and 1989 in buildings and factories with a floor space of over 1,000 sqm, and sometimes in homes and apartments. Spray-on asbestos, which can easily become airborne, was banned in 1975. Rock wool insulation containing up to 1% asbestos was in use until 1995.

For detached homes and low-rise flats, residential asbestos could sometimes be found in the cement boards used for exterior siding and in slate roofing (manufacture was banned in 2004). In buildings, it could often be found in the ceiling above air-conditioner machine rooms, as insulation in electrical rooms, and sprayed onto walls.

Timeline of asbestos regulations in Japan:

  • 1975: Spray-on asbestos containing a concentration of over 5.0% was banned.
  • 1988: The importation of crocidolite (blue asbestos) was stopped.
  • 1989: Factories manufacturing asbestos were required to provide measurements and reporting.
  • 1994: Special procedures regarding the removal and disposal of asbestos from existing buildings were introduced.
  • 1994: The importation of amosite (brown asbestos) was stopped.
  • 1995: The manufacture, importation and use of blue and brown asbestos was banned.
  • 2004: Materials containing over 1.0% of asbestos were banned. The manufacture, importation and use of chrysotile (white asbestos) was generally banned.
  • 2006: Materials containing over 0.1% of asbestos were banned. Spray-on asbestos was banned.
  • 2012: All asbestos-containing materials were banned.

NHK, June 12, 2017.
NHK, June 13, 2017.
NHK, June 14, 2017.
Tokyo Metropolitan Government Bureau of Environment 
Kenichi Miyamoto, Kenji Morinaga, Mori Hiroyuki. Asbestos Disaster: Lessons from Japan’s Experience. Springer Science & Business Media, 2011.