Japan’s Struggle with Sustainability
Last Updated on
The Japanese Paradox
Living in Japan for almost 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.
What’s In A Name?
Often, when bringing up sustainability, I find myself having to explain the word itself. I’m no longer surprised by this. Given my motivation, I’m strongly committed to sharing the message and awareness. Still, it’s a challenge. Despite the growing attention to the term, the definition of sustainability can often appear vague and perhaps difficult to decipher. (Click here for my breakdown). And that’s in English! Now imagine what it’s like translating it to Japanese.😂
As you may have guessed, it’s a trial in and of itself (before even talk of implementation). But that doesn’t prevent it from getting used a lot! Sustainability is coming up increasingly in both academic & corporate circles. Also, I am slowly beginning to see signage and labels creep up here in Tokyo. Sustainability references are appearing on school banners, and the occasional park or public office. It might not be understood, but the word itself is getting around.
Not quite as much as what I witnessed back in Canada, but it’s something. In Tokyo at least, I’ve heard brought up in the context of business operations, and is too often used for corporate greenwashing PR, but at least recognition of the term is beginning to take hold. Rather, people seem to respond with quicker understanding when simply saying, “eco.” For instance, “I don’t want any plastic packaging, I’m eco.”
The Japanese Experience
That’s not to say Japan doesn’t “do” 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 (will be posting more about these in the future)!
The Long Road to Sustainability
Despite this historical connection, Japan has a lot to do when it comes to sustainability. This is clearly evident in Japan’s contemporary approach to lifestyle, consumption habits, business practices and political will. There is much to be gained from it, as the Japanese slowly recognize and reconnect with the vast potential inherent within sustainability. This is undoubtedly true in many other parts of the world as well, but it is almost painfully obvious here.
The biggest fails are the over-dependence on coal and plastics. Japan’s energy mix is still dominated by fossil fuels. About 80% of Japanese energy needs come from coal, oil, and natural gas. The rest is split between nuclear power and renewables (finally moving up!).
Time for Change
Unfortunately, many I’ve spoken with aren’t aware that Japan is still primarily powered by fossil fuels (they are too often overly quick to blame China for poor air quality), or that Japan is a leading funder of coal plant development. They highlight the Fukushima disaster, despite its current irrelevance to the promotion of renewables. Indeed, adopting nuclear energy was always bound to be risky, given the perpetual threat of earthquakes, typhoons, and tsunami’s – but this could have provided even greater motivation to for cleaner, safer alternatives.
It makes for very real and relevant conversations. As a result, attempting to address the sustainability question, provides an excellent opportunity for concerned citizens to participate in meaningful discussion. It is my hope that these talks will be converted to action, as more people question the status quo and express their concern fo the future.
Sustainability… Simple, yet Complex
As a result, we really don’t need to get too hung up on the word itself. Regardless of who you’re speaking with (whether in Japan or beyond). Sustainability is more of an approach anyway. It’s represented by a mentality and corresponding practice, that is simultaneously both simple and complex. As such, there’s so much from social culture & history that we can tap into. Have fun connecting it with what’s relevant and see if you can bring it up in your daily conversations.
Engage With It
Because of the complexity of the word/topic, I had hesitated bringing with my very limited Japanese. But I’ve since learnt that I really didn’t need to that. Sustainability is totally worth incorporating into your conversations.
Even if it takes some additional explanation and examples (in Japan we can’t assume comprehension, even when people say yes). Discussing sustainability represents a brilliant medium for conveying an array of ideas and advocating for greater climate action. Engage with it! In doing so, it can help provide you with additional motivation as well;) Although, admittedly dejected by the copious amount of plastic waste and plethora of idling vehicles and SUVs, when I call attention to it, understanding is recognized.
Awakening the Japanese Spirit
So while the term sustainability has not yet become indigenous, people do acknowledge the need for improvement. And with the help of an increasing number of influencers, the Japanese are coming around to the generally accepted definition of sustainability. There already exists a genuine understanding of the importance of environmental care, and the need for balance and consideration in a collective society. Furthermore, there are also plenty of deep roots within Japanese society, that will help the people here adopt sustainable practices.
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.