A Cool Head

Righting global wrongs—particularly those dealing with the environment—has kept Akio Morishima busy for decades. His speciality, compensation law, has taken him all over the world in pursuit of ways to balance some massive scales.

One true measure of a human being is the way that person deals with conflict and hostility.

Akio Morishima was a professor of law at Nagoya University during Japan’s turbulent era of student unrest in the sixties and seventies. He would frequently speak with the fiery young radicals. Because he kept his cool and was open and honest, Morishima gained their respect and often had access to buildings on campus that others did not.

This unflappable attitude has been an asset when dealing in tort law—the process of securing compensation for wrongs done to a person or group—which has been Morishima’s career focus as a legal practitioner and scholar since he got his law degree in 1958 from Tokyo University. (He followed up by earning a master’s degree from Harvard Law in 1968, and later taught there.)

“When I started out, compensation issues were rather general and local,” Morishima recalls. “Something like a traffic accident, where someone hit a pedestrian or another car. Then in the sixties pollution issues gradually arose, and even though my interest in compensation remained, the scope and types of accidents I was dealing with began to change.”

According to Morishima, the list just keeps growing. “Air pollution, Minamata disease, water pollution and the microplastics that fish are swallowing, nuclear power issues after 3/11, and so many more. Global-level problems. I’ve had to tackle so many issues and work with so many countries.” 

The latter includes Canada. He was a visiting professor at UBC in 1980 for a year. As fate would have it, he met Wilf Wakely there. “Wilf helped me find a place to live, in the gorgeous home of a paper company vice president who was going to Peru,” Morishima recalls. “The house even had a wine cellar. I got to rent it, at a very reasonable price, with one of the conditions being that I take care of their cat.” 

That was also the beginning of a lifelong friendship with Wakely, which also led to Morishima joining the CCCJ’s Honorary Board of Advisors decades later. 

Serious Impact

An internationally eminent lawyer and enthusiastic supporter of environmental justice, Morishima is considered a theoretical leader of environmental law and environmental policy development in Japan. As the chairman of the Policy and Planning Committee of the Central Environment Council, for example, he contributed to Japan’s Basic Environmental Law and was the mastermind behind the government’s Basic Environment Plan in 1998, which outlines the country’s long-term policies for environmental preservation.

During his tenure as the president of the Central Environment Council between 2000 and 2004, Morishima was committed to promoting policies to make Japan truly sustainable by coordinating various stakeholders in the country. 

Following the convening of Earth Summit+5 in 1997 and the adoption of the Kyoto Protocol, awareness was growing among Asian countries with regards to sustainability toward the agreement on the Millennium Development Goals at the UN Millennium Summit in 2000. 

“When Japan established the Institute for Global Environmental Strategies in 1998, I was asked to be its president and chairman,” Morishima remembers. “So I visited several countries in Asia, Europe and so on. In Europe they hadn’t had this kind of issue, so they were very curious about that.”

IGES tackles fundamental challenges to humanity, and its support has included the creation of a regional network of researchers and practitioners, as well as developing research activities under Morishima.

As of 2023, Morishima still finds time to serve as the president of the Japan Center for International and Comparative Environmental Law, the advisor to the Japan International Cooperation Agency Legal Assistance Project for Vietnam, and as a special advisor to the Association of Environmental Law and Policy, Japan, among others. 

In fact, he provided legal assistance on the drafting of the Vietnam Civil Code for the Vietnam Ministry of Justice in 1992, activities that resulted in the governmental ODA legal assistance projects of Vietnam, Cambodia, and so on. In a sense, Morishima is an initiator of Japan’s ODA legal assistance project.

 

Publications and Public Recognition 

Along with American and Japanese colleagues, Morishima produced a book titled Environmental Law in Japan in 1981 through MIT Press, He was also a coauthor of Modern Trends in Tort Law and a contributor to other publications in English covering topics such as land development, human population distribution, and many more on environmental angles. 

His favorite was a piece that appeared in 1986 in the British Columbia Law Review about accident compensation schemes in Japan. “I taught UBC students about accident compensation schemes that we took from Europe, institutional arrangements with a framework of limitations,” he says. “I wanted to let them know the difference between the common law way of thinking and the adopted Western continental scheme.” 

His work has earned plaudits from home and abroad. An Environmental Protection Award from the Environment Agency in 1995. The 1996 laureate of Global 500 Award from UNEP. The 2001 Elisabeth Haub Award for Environmental Law and Diplomacy from the Université de Livre de Bruxelles. Two Cambodian Friendship Orders in 2002 and 2009. And the Order of the Sacred Treasure, Gold Rays with Neck Ribbon, from Japan’s emperor in 2013.

He’s nonchalant about both publications and prizes, however. “I don’t really like awards,” he states. “People have their own measures for giving awards, and while I appreciate them, they are outside measures.”

Morishima is still writing articles, however. At the moment he’s focusing on the 1999 Tokaimura nuclear accident and the state of victims compensation. He also mentions Fukushima, where victims may receive compensation but it’s actually government money that Tokyo Electric will eventually get back in about twenty years as electricity rates go up. “From a compensation lawyer’s viewpoint, it’s a political arrangement,” he says. “And they don’t understand the victims.”

 

Recent Life

At eight-eight, Morishima does not seem to have slowed down much professionally, still involved in many causes and organizations and practicing at the law office of Kato, Nishida & Hasegawa in Marunouchi. He’s also a professor emeritus at Nagoya University. “I try to maintain my health, but I have back pain, and because of COVID, I’m just doing what I can to slow down the decline. When you’re my age, you’ll understand,” he says with a laugh.

“I eat and enjoy music,” he adds. “My wife passed away ten years ago, and she liked music. I don’t know where she is, but I hope she can enjoy with me in spirit. When I was young, I loved hiking in the mountains, and I visited museums everywhere I went. But these days the pictures seem too simple or too complicated. While I’m not against religion,” he continues, “I don’t know what death is. So while I’m alive, I enjoy my life within my limits.” 

In the meantime, Japan and the rest of the planet should be thankful for all he’s done to make things right and help living things survive.  

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