By Sophie Westbrook, ’19

Cascading down from last time’s Nepalese heights, seeping through the earth and drifting through the air, some of Earth’s all-important freshwater makes its way to Japanese rivers.  There, it takes on a new role as the currency of an incredibly complex system. The same water is expected to support factories and fisheries without ever failing to sustain the citizens’ high standard of living.

The Japanese government prides itself on providing top-notch infrastructure, including a reliable supply of tap water. The Japan Water Works Association (JWWA), which confronts all water-allocation decisions, prioritizes bringing “safe and tasty water” to homes [1]. That’s an unsurprising goal that has been close to fulfillment for decades. So, it seems odd that both public and private entities are fascinated by the JWWA’s work. While everybody is upset by dangerous tap water (see Flint, Michigan), most of us forget about it when all is well. What makes Japan different?

The beginning of an answer comes from history. Japan urbanized long before it had the means to control diseases like cholera and typhoid [1]. Once the nation opened up to trade in 1854, outbreaks started claiming thousands of lives [2].  The devastating mortality rates meant that city governments, then national agencies, invested a ton of effort in piping safe water to communities. The situation improved but tap water remained a threat until the Waterworks Act mandated disinfection in 1957.  The government players that struggled through the intervening century of variable safety are still around today. So, there is an ‘agency memory’ of how carefully the water supply needed to be watched. It’s reinforced by the sight of countries not too far away continuing to struggle with waterborne illness.

That is not a good enough explanation, though. The Japanese government and its citizens know how safe their drinking water is: they aren’t just projecting others’ worries onto themselves. Rather, they have chosen to prioritize maintaining and improving a strong situation. That starts to explain why the JWWA offers thirteen indicators for the “Comfortableness of Water Quality” [3]. The aim is not only protecting public health but also making water consumption as pleasant as possible. That seems to be linked to the idea of cleanliness, which has been at the heart of Japanese culture for centuries [4]. There is also a focus on sustainability over huge periods of time [5].  Japan is an old place that’s interested in both continuity and improvement. Many citizens believe that water quality can actually advance their goals instead of simply staying out of the way. They are probably right: after all, we are what we drink.


[1] “JWWA Profile 2015.” (n.d.): n. pag. Japanese Water Works Association. Japan Water Works Association, 2015. Web. 7 Mar. 2016.

[2] “Water Supply in Japan.” Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare. Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare, 2008. Web. 07 Mar. 2016.

[3] “The Present Condition of the Water Service in Japan.” Japan Water Works Association. Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare, n.d. Web. 07 Mar. 2016.

[4] “Very Clean People, the Japanese.” The Economist. The Economist Newspaper, 02 Aug. 1997. Web. 07 Mar. 2016.

[5] “Responding to International Water Resource Problems.” Water Resources in Japan. Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism, 2008. Web. 07 Mar. 2016.

This article is the second in a column called “Water, Water Everywhere”. Check here throughout the rest of the semester for the rest of Sophie Westbrook’s posts.