Japan’s Struggle With Sustainability

The Struggle For Sustainability in Japan.

The Japanese Paradox

Living in Japan for close to 3 years now, I am still frequently both delighted and frustrated by the nuances of modern Japanese culture. There are so many strange contradictions and paradoxes that exist. However, none cut me deeper than when addressing sustainability here in Japan.

Nani? = What?
Nani = Say What?

Whatโ€™s In A Name?

When bringing up sustainability, I often find myself having to explain the word itself. Not that I’m particularly surprised by this! Despite my hopes to the contrary, sustainability still comes across as a niche term. One that isn’t all that well understood either. Nevertheless, I remain strongly committed to sharing the message and awareness. Even if it takes some time to get it into. And I do get drawn into it! Although I justify the effort with the belief that I may be helping to move the needle forward where I can. Is it potentially tiring? Yes. Periodically frustrating? Sure. But of course I think it’s totally worth it!

With every conversation, discussion, conference, or debate I find it easier to go through. In fact, I’ve already posted about this. It’s my attempt at clarifying sustainability. Thankfully, sustainability has been getting more attention lately, but conveying it remains a challenge. That’s regardless of the growing recognition for the term. Although listeners may nod along to the word, its meaning can often appear vague and perhaps difficult to decipher. And that’s in English! Now imagine what it’s like translating it into Japanese.๐Ÿ˜‚

Actors Scarlett Johansson & Bill Murray visit Japan in the 2003 film Lost in Translation.
Still image from the 2003 film, Lost in Translation.
The actors are at a great Shabu-shabu restaurant here in Tokyo…

Translating The Challenge

As you may have guessed, it’s a trial in and of itself. And that’s before even talking about implementation! The lack of awareness around the meaning of sustainability doesnโ€™t prevent it from getting tossed around a lot. Indeed, the word sustainability is popping up with increased frequency in both corporate and academic circles all over Japan.

Just in these past few years, I’ve witnessed sustainability signage and labels slowly appearing around Tokyo. Sustainability references are showing up on school banners, buses, and coffee shops, as well as the occasional park or public office. It might not be well understood, but the word itself is certainly getting around.

Will Ferrel, "I get it"

A Gradual Understanding

Sustainability is gaining recognition in Japan! Not quite as much as what I witnessed back in Canada, but it’s something. In Tokyo at least, I’ve heard it brought up in the context of business operations and manufacturing efficiency. Unfortunately, it’s also frequently being used for the purpose of corporate greenwashing. Companies and organizations with no legitimate sustainability strategy are brandishing the word in the hopes of gaining brownie points. Disappointing to be sure, but at the very least sustainability is entering the conversation.

But it’s a mixed bag. Because of all the political platitudes and corporate marketing, the word sustainability doesn’t have the impact that it could or should. So we also need to include other terms when trying to introduce it in conversation. I for one often bring up environmental concerns as a way to engage in sustainability discussions.

Rather than using the term sustainability, I refer to nature (shizen) or the environment (kankyo). The Japanese people I speak with also appear to respond with quicker understanding when I simply state my desire for being, “eco.” For instance, “I don’t want any plastic packaging, I’m eco.” It’s also been working better for me in the day-to-day struggle to avoid the copious amounts of disposable plastics.

Click here for 4 Simple Ways to Cut Back on Single-Use Plastic in Japan.

How is sustainability addressed in Japan?
Click the image for a pretty comprehensive report from The Financial Times.

The Japanese Experience

Despite all the plastic, I wouldn’t go so far as to say Japan isn’t onboard with sustainability. Indeed, environmental protection and the application of good management principals (a Japanese forte), are long-standing concepts in this country. In fact, there are plenty of great Japanese examples that the world has already benefited from.

In addition, there’s an abundance of Japanese traditions and cultural phenomena that allude to this connection with sustainability. You may have already heard of hanami (flower viewing picnic), onsen (hot springs), or shinrin-yoku (forest bathing). These terms benefit from a certain degree of tourism and promotional attention.

But there are plenty of others, including ikagi (purpose or reason for being) and wa (harmony). For anyone interested in exploring this topic further, there’s a lot out there. Indeed, for anyone keen on learning more about Japanese history and culture, there are numerous examples that reflect a profound understanding of sustainability (see also In A Japanese Way).

Walking through a bamboo forest. There's so much history that lends itself towards sustainability in Japan.
Click the image to read more about the Japanese practice of forest bathing.

The Long Road To Sustainability

Unfortunately for the sustainability movement, potential doesn’t quite make for reality. Despite the historical connections, Japan has a lot more to do when it comes to sustainability. This is clearly evident in Japan’s contemporary approach to urban lifestyle (an urbanization rate of 91.7%!!), consumption habits, business practices, and political will.

Japan (and the world at large) has a lot to gain from a sustainability transition! As the Japanese population slowly realizes this and reconnects with the extraordinary potential inherent within such a transformation, the opportunities are tremendous! This is undoubtedly true in many other parts of the world as well, but it feels almost painfully obvious here.

A sustainability paradox: Japan boasts super high-speed Maglev trains can travel at 600km/hr. - only they're still predominated powered by coal, oil, & gas.
Japanese Maglev high-speed trains can travel at 600 km (375 miles)/ hour. This makes them the fastest in the world! Despite their brilliant futuristic design, they are still powered by fossil fuels (mainly coal & gas).๐Ÿ˜ฑ [Image: JR RailPass].

A Whole Lot of Coal, Oil, & Gas

One of Japan’s biggest sustainability fails is its over-dependence on fossil fuels. In particular, its plethora of coal-fire burning power plants (see Japan Coal Plant Tracker). It may come as a surprise, but Japan’s energy mix is still heavily dominated by fossil fuels. Indeed, 80% of Japanese energy needs come from coal, oil, and natural gas! The rest is split between nuclear power and renewables (they’re finally moving up!).

Another is the amount of plastic consumption. This one’s also pretty serious. Despite the supposedly high levels of recycling here, (surprise!) most of it actually ends up getting burned. This was an especially unpleasant discovery. Not only have my wife and I been cleaning and separating our plastic waste (only to learn that it gets burned up), but as residents of Tokyo, we also ultimately breath in this garbage. Indeed, my breathing has become increasing compromised since moving to Japan. Clearly there are many opportunities for government to up its eco-game. By now you’re probably wondering what the public response has been…

The sustainability challenge: Anti-coal protesters with an effigy of the Prime Minister of Japan, Shinzo Abe.
Anti-coal protesters with an effigy of PM Shinzo Abe. Click for more on No Coal Japan.

Time For Change

Unfortunately, many I’ve spoken with aren’t even aware that Japan is still primarily powered by fossil fuels. Rather, they’re often quick to blame China. Even fewer still are informed of Japan’s role in fossil fuel promotion. Shockingly, Japan is actually a leading funder of coal plant development in Southeast Asia. Instead, many have highlighted the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi disaster.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard this response. That the reason for all the coal & oil is because the country had to shutdown its nuclear power. While this may have been true in the short term, it does not explain why renewable energy makes up such a small share of Japan’s energy mix. This, despite the fact renewables make better sense financially. They also wouldn’t generate the same kind of environmental risks associated with nuclear power.

Help!! Climate Change is upon us!! Quick, we need more nuclear power plants;) Said no one...

Nuclear Power Is Not The Answer

Nuclear power is clearly not the solution to the global climate crisis. While it may generate less carbon emissions than from burning fossil fuels, it’s simply too long a solution (see Running Low On Time). And that’s without even considering the enormous costs, the nuclear waste, and the potential hazards.

Indeed, adopting nuclear energy in Japan was always bound to have associated risks. Given the country’s perpetual threat of earthquakes, typhoons, and tsunami’s (the Japanese islands literally sit on The Ring of Fire). It may have made sense at some point, but not anymore. There are cleaner, quicker, safer, and cheaper renewable energy alternatives.

Contemplating Alternatives

This is also true in response to Japan’s plastic-wrapped obsession. The current norms requires copious amounts of plastic! To the point that nearly every item purchased is covered in the environmentally-harmful stuff. Thankfully, there exist plenty of alternatives to plastic packaging. Many of which have a long and historic tradition in Japan. It’s a matter of highlighting the issue, and connecting it back to Japanese culture. Check out furoshiki for example!๐Ÿ‘‡

Difficult Conversations

The quest to find out answers and alternatives for Japan’s current fossil fuel dependency makes for some very real and relevant conversations. Tough under normal circumstances, especially so coming from a foreigner!

Still, it’s my hope that in attempting to address the sustainability question, I am also helping to stimulate some curiosity and attention to the issue. My ultimate goal of course would be for these conversations to get converted into genuine action. That talking and writing about sustainability can help to spark the motivation in others as well. Seemingly simple conversations can at times leave lasting impressions.

Sumo dancers

Engage With It

As such, I’ve learnt to engage with sustainability discussions as best I can and as frequently as possible. I speak with everyone from the grocery store clerk, bartender, or mailman, to the local senior bike volunteers, or sitters at my child’s daycare.

Even if it requires some additional explanation, examples and photos (in Japan we can’t assume comprehension, even when people say yes), I make the effort. Indeed, discussing sustainability represents a brilliant medium for conveying an array of ideas and advocating for greater climate action.

Having said that, I would also recommend that you go for it if you have it in you. Don’t be shy. Try and have those conversations when and where you can. In doing so, it can also help provide you with some additional motivation.๐Ÿ˜‰ Clearly sustainability solutions are complex and multi-layered, but you’ll definitely evolve your understanding as your immerse yourself in it.

My Neighbor Totoro, wake up call!

Awakening The Japanese Spirit

Now back to the the Japanese take. So while the term sustainability has not yet become locally ingrained, people do willingly acknowledge the need for improvement (Kaizen is a thing here). And with the help of an increasing number of influencers, Japanese are slowly coming around to the generally accepted definition of sustainability.

As mentioned above (The Japanese Experience), there already exists a genuine understanding of the importance of environmental care. It’s apparent to most visitors who come to Japan. You can observe it manifested from the way Japanese people pick up their trash following a public gathering, or the popularity of the regular trips back to nature. Many Japanese also take great pride in the quality and care of their local foods, supporting growers, and gifting/sharing seasonal produce.

It's pretty tough to capture Japanese culture in a meme... but you can summarize it;)

A Long History of Environmentalism

Of course, there are many other examples of how Japan people engage with environmental sustainability. Offhand, I also think of all the craftsmen & women who work to create (and repair) local goods. Then there’s all the amazing Japanese art and poetry! Much of it was inspired by nature and the discovery of finding balance with the environment.

Such environmental awareness is also visible in Japanese cinema. Notably in the immensely popular Studio Ghibli films. These movies often deliver strong environmental messages. Unfortunately, it would appear that these are not well understood, given the degree of consumerism and merchandizing related to the films.

Japanese monkeys relaxing in an outdoor onsen.

A Balanced Approach

The need for balance and consideration is already present in this self-proclaimed collective society. It clearly lends itself towards a potential sustainability transition. Japanese environmental conservation roots also run deep. As does respect for nature. Recognizing the need to maintain balance with the environment and live within nature’s ecological limits permeate the country’s traditions. These elements will surely help the Japanese to adopt the sustainably movement as their own.

Once they do, other Japanese social traits (ex. meticulousness, attention to detail, and genuine honesty) could help propel Japan into a role of environmental leadership. The people of Japan will overcome this struggle with understanding & adopting sustainability. I have confidence in that. I just wish it will happen much sooner, and so help the rest of planet’s inhabitants curb the worst of the impending climate crisis.

Kamikatsu, the Japanese town with zero waste.

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