TOKYO -- Instead of spending weekends like a typical Japanese salaried worker -- lying around the house, watching whatever is on TV, getting poked around with a vacuum cleaner by his wife -- Haruki Nakamura spends his weekends pursuing a higher calling.
He collects empty aluminum cans for recycling.
It was not entirely Mr. Nakamura's idea. Last October, his company, Sumitomo Light Metal Industries Ltd., decided it would be a friendly gesture to have its employees pick up a certain number of aluminum cans every month to prove that the company has a sense of environmental responsibility. As the vice manager of the company's general affairs division, Mr. Nakamura was told he had to collect at least 150 cans a month.
"At first, I was a bit embarrassed to pick up the cans left around the vending machines," Mr. Nakamura said, "but now, I try to look for them even on my way home from work."
Japanese companies are often criticized worldwide for their insensitivity toward environmental protection, and growing international and domestic concern on the issue has prompted some companies to try to improve their images.
Companies like Sumitomo, seeking to establish that they are "sound to the environment," have launched corporate recycling campaigns and have become active in sponsoring environment-related events. Other companies are not just after image improvement but are capitalizing on a trend toward "eco-business."
In January, Daiei Finance Inc. introduced a new type of credit card that automatically transfers 0.5 percent of the purchased amount to an environmental protection group as a charitable contribution.
The company's spokesman, Masafumi Fujimoto, said that the company had received more than 11,000 applications. "The card was developed strictly out of our will to do something for environmental protection," he said. "But as a result, we are seeing some benefits."
According to a research report by Mitsui Taiyo Kobe Bank, the number of companies setting up sections that deal with environmental issues has shown a sharp rise. Though measures that deal with the issues differ from company to company, the report suggests that with a long-term perspective and sound business strategy, investment in the environment will eventually yield profit.
Early this year, the Federation of Economic Organizations, or Keidanren, adopted a "Global Environment Charter" calling on Japanese companies to work toward developing revolutionary technology that could be transferred to foreign corporations. The charter is aimed at creating the impression that Japan is contributing to the international community through environmental technologies.
In May, an adviser for Mitsubishi Research Institute Inc. wrote in a financial magazine here that the ecology business market is expected to grow to about $15 billion to $21 billion in the near future.
One sign of environmental awareness is the growing use of recycled computer paper in offices. Honshu Paper Co. Ltd., the leading company in production of recycled computer paper, was producing 200 metric tons per month when it began production in 1980. Now, its monthly production has risen to 16,000 tons.
And faced with international restraints on the emission of carbon dioxide, automobile companies have become serious about developing electric automobiles as an alternative to gasoline and diesel engines.