Japan’s Struggle with Sustainability
Last Updated on July 15, 2020 by Marc-Antoni
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 around Tokyo. Sustainability references are appearing on school banners, as well as the occasional park or public office. It might not be understood, but the word itself is getting around.
A Gradual Understanding
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, Unfortunately, it is also being used too often for the purpose of corporate greenwashing, but at the very least recognition of the term is beginning to take hold.
Rather than using the term sustainability, people here seem to respond with quicker understanding when I state my desire for going/being, “eco.” For instance, “I don’t want any plastic packaging, I’m eco.” It’s been working better for me in the day-to-day struggle to avoid the copious amounts of disposable plastics.
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. In addition, there are plenty of cultural phenomena that allude to this connection with sustainability. You may have heard of hanami (flower viewing picnic), onsen (hot springs) or shinrin-yoku (forest bathing), but there is also ikagi (purpose or reason for being) and wa (harmony).
The Long Road to Sustainability
Despite this historical connection, Japan has a lot more 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.
One of the biggest fails resides in the country’s over-dependence on fossil fuels, especially coal-fire burning power plants. It may come as a surprise, but Japan’s energy mix is still heavily dominated by fossil fuels (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 pretty serious. Despite the supposedly high levels of recycling here (surprise surprise) most of it actually ends up getting burned anyway. So there are some clear opportunities for improvement, but what has been the response?
Time for Change
Unfortunately, many I’ve spoken with aren’t even 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 actually a leading funder of coal plant development in Southeast Asia. Instead, many have highlighted the Fukushima disaster, as a reason for the need for coal & oil. This despite the fact renewables make better sense financially and would not generate the same kind of environmental risks associated with nuclear power.
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.
This is also true in response to Japan’s plastic wrapped obsession, where nearly every parcel is covered in the the stuff. There are alternatives for this too, many of which had a long & historic tradition in Japan.
The quest to find out answers and alternatives for Japan’s current fossil fuel dependence makes for some very real and relevant conversations. Tough under normal circumstances, especially so coming from a foreigner! Still, it is my hope that in attempting to address the sustainability question, I am helping stimulate some kind of curiosity and attention to the issue. My goal of course is for these conversations to converted into action. Suggesting and encouraging sustainable alternatives, as more people question the status quo and express their concern for the future.
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 where and when you can. In doing so, it can help provide you with additional motivation as well.😉
Awakening the Japanese Spirit
Back to the the Japanese take. So while the term sustainability has not yet become indigenous, people do willingly acknowledge the need for improvement (Kaizen is a thing here). 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. The need for balance and consideration is already present is a self-proclaimed collective society. Furthermore, there already exists in Japanese society plenty of deep roots associated with conservation, and respect for the environment’s natural limits. It will surely help the Japanese adopt sustainably movement in due course.
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.