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Developing the Attitude for Sustainability

SNA (Tokyo) — Awareness of environmental issues in Japan is at an all-time low. A lack of will at the central government level, which simply hasn’t prioritized critical matters that will impact the future of the country has sidelined the Japan’s environmental health. The time has come for ordinary Japanese citizens to fill the gap left by government and take responsibility for developing sustainable solutions. Such is the argument forwarded by Junko Edahiro, chief executive of Japan for Sustainability, an advocacy group, during our recent interview at her office in Tokyo.

Edahiro contends that the Abe administration has fallen short due to a vicious cycle of negative feedback. The government says the public isn’t interested in the environment and, in turn, due to a lack of education, the public doesn’t ask for more information, confirming the government’s original assertion that the public isn’t interested.

Progress on environmental sustainability as well as policy leadership currently depends on government, especially since NGOs in Japan face severe funding shortages. The donation model that helps NGOs raise money in other countries has so far not proven to be an effective model for Japan.

In Edahiro’s view, progress around environmental issues and sustainability depend upon three groups: the government, businesses, and communities. The government’s role should be to establish a vision for sustainability, and then support it with proper laws and policies. Businesses, whose “production and consumption systems are responsible for the majority of the environmental impact,” must be compelled to behave in a more constructive fashion. Finally (and ultimately), communities and the individuals who populate them need to understand the importance of making sustainable lifestyle choices and must implement those changes at a local level.

For Japan, the most pressing sustainability issues are essentially linked with the declining and aging population, especially in small municipalities throughout the country. According to Edahiro, nearly half of Japan’s 1,800 municipalities now possess low populations, averaging around 30,000 people per municipality. About nine hundred small towns comprise only about 8% of the total population of Japan, but take up nearly 48% of all the land.

As Tokyo continues to draw people away from smaller towns, and as Japan’s median age continues to rise, the crisis in small municipalities is growing. Businesses and young people are leaving the dwindling, aging population behind without the resources to care for the land or to live decently. The problem, at first glance, may seem to be about the elderly, but the ramifications are systemic.

Even access has now become a problem for many Japanese communities. According to government ledgers, up to seven million people in rural areas suffer from a lack of availability of places to buy groceries, fuel, and other necessities.

Tokyo is not yet facing such problems, but even here it is only a matter of time. Around 2025, Tokyo’s population too is expected to begin its decline. And as the national population decreases, even in the major cities, it may prove difficult to maintain economic growth and to service the bloated national deficit.

Edahiro’s advice is to look to models of sustainability already existing in Japan, communities like Shimokawa town in Hokkaido, and to call for an attitude shift. She advocates building stronger local economies with existing local resources, and she draws attention to a phenomenon of young people returning to the rural areas to create small businesses and find a more relaxed lifestyle outside of Tokyo. Meanwhile, rural communities looking to develop self-reliance and sustainable communities can find support from organizations like Japan for Sustainability.

Fundamentally, Edahiro believes that the Japanese people need to stop looking to the government and big business to provide solutions for their lives, but instead engage with their local communities with the aim of supporting themselves.

“We are moving toward a very unstable, uncertain period of time,” she observes.

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