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May 16th, 2008:

Tokyo Comparisons With Hong Kong

Urban Jungle

Celebrity vet Eric Lai shares his views on society through the eyes of animals. Give him your feedback at

Dr Eric – Updated on May 16, 2008 – SCMP

This week: Tokyo observations

Here is my chance to be a foreign correspondent. Well, not quite a real one. There’s nothing dramatic happening around here. I am not dodging artillery shells and there isn’t any risk of me stepping on a live mine. I’m writing this week’s column from a coffee shop on the streets of Shinjuku, Tokyo. I’m here on a personal mission – to acquire some fancy surgical equipment and to stuff my face with Japanese food.

I’ve been here for two days now and that isn’t enough time to make any conclusions about Japan, its people and its ways. But I have seen some things I like and I am going to make some comparisons with Hong Kong that Hongkongers can appreciate.

I arrived at Narita airport and I went directly by the express train to Tokyo. I had to wait a little for the train to arrive, so I had some time to work out my train connection to the suburb where my hotel was. I stood in front of a poster displaying a bewildering array of rail lines that criss-cross Tokyo and extend out into the hinterland. Given the country’s long love affair with railways, I wasn’t surprised. One of the measures of success of imperialist countries during wartime was the size of its railway network.

In fact, one of the reasons for the first Sino-Japanese war (1894-95) was tension over railway tracks in Korea. After the war Russia and Japan began a race to build railway networks in China. The Russians and Japanese strong-armed the Qing dynasty to allow them to build tracks that extended all the way to Vladivostok and the Japanese to build through Korea and down the coast of China. Soon after this rail race the Russo-Japanese war began, in 1904, and the first thing the Japanese took over was a major rail junction at Yongsan-gu in Seoul.

This emphasis on the importance of the rail system led to the extensive use of rail after the war for both transport and industrialisation. This is easily seen in the rail system in place today. To put it in perspective, Hong Kong has more than 200km of railway, while Tokyo alone has more than 1,100km.

The Tokyo system took a little getting used to but I reached my destination with little trouble. During my stay I noticed that train stations were not separated by much distance, which made travel by car almost unnecessary.

The second thing I noticed as I left the train and stepped onto the footpaths of Tokyo was the lack of haze and pollution. While there was a stiff breeze that day, I’m sure the main reason was the lack of street traffic and the Pearl River Delta industrial area. And while there is an extensive bus system in the city, the density of buses on the streets compared to Hong Kong was much lower. As a result roadside pollution on main thoroughfares was much lower.

Given this observation I would certainly lend support to extending the existing rail system in Hong Kong to more areas such as Island South and eastern New Territories. Also, with more than 10 railway companies operating, there is stiff competition for Tokyo passengers. Many of the companies operate at the same or adjacent stations, so passengers can choose between them. The existing and planned extension of the rail system in Hong Kong, further entrenching the current monopoly, means uncompetitive prices in the future.

While dragging my luggage through the streets of Tokyo in search of my hotel and getting lost in the process, I noticed the number of people riding bikes on the pedestrian walkways and the number of bikes parked on footpaths. Surprisingly, there were no locks or chains on any of the bikes, so I assume bike thieves are uncommon. I guess the city has the luxury of space, which allows a bike culture. The footpaths are much wider and can accommodate bike riders, and wherever the road is wide enough, a generous proportion is given over to cycle tracks.

Given the pleasant, low polluted and bike-safe road environment, I would probably want to ride a bike to work if I lived in Tokyo. Civic planners trying to make a greener Hong Kong should look at this. Hong Kong’s small size makes it perfectly suited for biking, as the distances are shorter, and there is no greener or healthier form of transport.

Another luxury the abundance of space in Tokyo allows is plenty of large and beautifully kept parks. On my second day the weather was wonderful and hot and I found a beautiful stretch of lawn on which to frolic. Just sitting there watching the world going by was a luxury I have rarely been able to enjoy since my university days in Melbourne. The lack of public spaces in Hong Kong should be addressed seriously. The recent fiasco of the locking away of public open spaces from the public is only a symptom of a much more malignant disease.

There is much more to like in Tokyo, which I will save for next week’s column.

Law Aims To Cut Sulphur-Dioxide Emissions

Environmental Protection Department

The new law requiring the use of ultra low sulphur diesel in industrial and commercial processes will be tabled to lawmakers on May 21, the Environmental Protection Department says. If endorsed, it will take effect from October 1, cutting local sulphur-dioxide emissions by about 2,480 tonnes a year.

The Air Pollution Control (Fuel Restriction) (Amendment) Regulations, gazetted today, mandates the use of clean diesel with sulphur content of no more than 0.005 % by weight in industrial and commercial processes.

Sulphur dioxide is a major pollutant responsible for respiratory illness. It plays a significant role in causing regional air pollution and reacts with other chemicals in the atmosphere and transforms into fine particles which impair visibility and contribute to smog formation.

The Hong Kong Government and the Guangdong Provincial Government reached a consensus in 2002 to cut sulphur dioxide emissions 40% by 2010, using 1997 as the base year. The new law will help reach the reduction target, enabling Hong Kong to improve the smog problem, air quality and public health.

It will also bring Hong Kong to the forefront of using clean fuel: At present, nowhere in the world is clean fuel being used in this comprehensive manner.

The new law will not cause any major impact on the operational environment of the industrial and commercial sectors. It could create a ‘win-win’ situation for the environment and the business sector, showing that protecting the environment need not be at the expense of economic growth.