C. ITOH, a large Japanese trading company, wanted to build a road into the dense tropical rain forest of Sarawak, Malaysia, where rich harvests of logs were waiting. The company found a ready financier - Japan's foreign aid program. In the name of ``development,'' the government helped pay for the exploitation of the rain forest. The 1982 loan came to light two years ago when indigenous tribes protested against the logging activities, which have stripped vast areas of their forest home. The Japanese government was embarrassed and the company hastily ended its involvement in the project.
But Japan's huge appetite for tropical timber has not abated.
And with the help of government policies, environmental experts charge, logging by Japanese companies is contributing significantly to the denudation of Southeast Asia's rain forests.
Japan is under increasing scrutiny for what critics portray as a pattern of insensitivity to global environmental problems.
Aside from the issue of tropical forests, Japan has also drawn fire for:
Being the world's largest consumer of protected wildlife products.
Continuing whaling activities, despite international bans and quotas.
Using drift-net fishing techniques that indiscriminately kill marine life.
Granting foreign aid to developing countries for programs that give short shrift to environmental concerns.
Underlying these issues is a broad lack of awareness among the Japanese public, experts say.
A recent study carried out by the United Nations Environment Program, covering 6,600 citizens and 700 government officials in 14 countries, showed Japanese were among the least concerned about a range of global environmental issues.
The environmental movement, increasingly a powerful force in Europe and the United States, has a very small - though growing - following here.
There was a strong antipollution movement several decades ago in response to massive problems at that time. But those were substantially dealt with.
``Japanese people are not necessarily concerned with what affects the environment in foreign countries,'' Environment Agency official Hiroaki Takaga says critically.
BUT global environmental issues will be a major agenda item at the annual summit of seven major industrial nations in Paris Friday. Japanese government officials intend to demonstrate their own commitment to solving these problems and are trying to put the most positive face on their environmental policy.
Singling out Japan for criticism is unfair, government officials say. Japan's record on controlling industrial pollution is one of the best in the world, officials of the Environment Agency point out. And Japan has joined in fully on international initiatives such as the effort to control global warming and to protect the ozone layer.
On June 30 the government issued its first policy statement on global environmental conservation. A Cabinet committee declared that Japan will participate in international steps to decrease the use of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), the chemicals which destroy the ozone layer. It will promote international research and develop new technologies, such as substitutes for CFCs. Japan will share its industrial pollution technology, considered among the most advanced in the world.
The Japanese government pledged to increase overseas development assistance (ODA) for pollution control and other environmental projects in developing countries.
According to a Foreign Ministry official, Japan will announce in Paris a plan to provide 300 billion yen (about $2.2 billion) in such aid over the next three years. Most of this is for urban programs, such as building of sewage systems, but it will also include aid directed at tropical forests, including reforestation.
Japan will also take concrete steps to ensure that it ``pays more attention to the environment'' in its foreign aid program, the government promised. The government will try to make sure this also takes place ``in the overseas activities of private Japanese corporations.''
Japanese environmentalists give the government credit for taking the first steps to correct major problems.
``This is the first time they have announced a policy on rain forest protection,'' says Yoichi Kuroda, coordinator of the Japan Tropical Forest Action Network.
The supply of antipollution technology ``is one of the few areas that Japan can really contribute,'' says Yuta Harago of the World Wildlife Fund's Japan branch.
But these activists also question the practical commitment of the government to follow up these broad statements.
``We doubt if they really want to conserve the whole earth,'' says Masahito Yoshida of the Nature Conservation Society of Japan. ``They only answer to the pressure from foreign countries.''
The specialists point to two key areas where Japanese policy shows little sign of change - the unrestricted use of resources such as tropical timber and the unwillingness to mandate environmental impact assessment (EIA) studies for all ODA projects.
The government policy ``failed to focus on how to reduce Japanese consumption of tropical timber,'' charges Mr. Kuroda, who co-authored a recent World Wildlife Fund study of Japan's tropical timber trade, ``Timber from the South Seas.''
The study proposes many practical steps, including substituting softwoods from temperate climates for the low-cost tropical hardwoods, which are mostly used to make cheap plywood.
Government officials cite figures showing that Japanese imports are a tiny percentage of total consumption of tropical woods, the vast majority of which are consumed in the source countries as firewood and building materials.
The government is using such figures, Kuroda retorts, ``as an excuse to avoid Japanese responsibility.''
Commercial logging first opens up closed forests, with slash-and-burn agriculture and firewood collection following the loggers, he says.
Environmental assessment of development projects is a minimum requirement, conservationists contend.
The Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the grouping of industrial nations, drew up assessment guidelines in 1985 and agreed the following year to implement them within three years.
Most industrial nations and international organizations, such as the World Bank, have done so. The World Bank has a large staff dedicated to this purpose and has refused solely on environmental grounds to fund projects.
As a result, ``those developing countries which want to carry out big projects are really hungry for money,'' comments the World Wildlife Fund's Harago. They are looking to Japan, he suggests, which is the second-largest aid donor in the world after the United States.
Japanese aid policy does not require an EIA to be done, stopping only at suggesting that the engineering consultants who usually do feasibility studies for projects ``voluntarily'' include such considerations.
Theoretically, aid projects are requested by the recipient countries. In practice, explains Harago, Japanese trading companies or construction firms often ``suggest'' projects, such as the logging road in Sarawak. The consultant firms are usually tied to such companies.
Last December the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), one of the two main aid agencies in the government, announced acceptance of the OECD guidelines for EIA. Kuroda's study praised JICA's efforts to improve the situation. But he worries that nothing has been done since to implement this announcement.
One key problem is the lack of personnel. According to the Foreign Ministry official, who is closely involved in this work, there are only four staff members in the entire Japanese aid apparatus with responsibility for ensuring environmental assessment. Although this capacity is to be expanded, he says, there are no concrete numbers planned.
The government is now drawing up manuals, following international guidelines, which will provide aid officials with criteria for evaluating the environmental impact of projects.
However, the Foreign Ministry official admits, there is no plan to make EIA a mandatory regulation.
``We are more practice-oriented,'' he explains. ``The fact that we don't have a system or law, doesn't mean we are doing nothing.''
But experts say that this leaves too much power in the hands of the consultants and private companies who do the actual assessments. Most important, the critics say, there is no independent review or other means of making the process known to the public.