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Climate Change Impacting Japan

SNA (Tokyo) — Climate change is already altering life in Japan, and its impact is expected to deepen in the coming years and decades. Turbulent weather is an obvious aspect of climate change, but the loss of Japanese cultural heritage is among the associated effects that have yet to be appreciated by the public. Natural systems and human society are interconnected.

For example, eels are a beloved part of Japanese cuisine, but they are now disappearing as a result of climate change. In the case of saltwater eels, rising ocean temperatures account for their disappearance. Saltwater eel larvae are riding currents away from their former courses of travel. Research from the Japan Agency for Marine-Earth Science and Technology (JAMSTEC) has shown a reduction in saltwater eel larvae of 5.5% per year over a twenty-year period. This likely means adapting to a Japan devoid of a prized part of its national diet.

Another food product impacted by climate change is the most important of them all—Japanese rice. According to a Mainichi Shinbun report in December 2015, more than 80% of prefectures were reporting poor harvests due to rising temperatures. Excessive heat has resulted in smaller, lower-quality yields year-by-year.

Beyond food products, the anticipated effects of climate change on Japanese flora is much broader. For example, lichens are ubiquitous in the hot, wet climate of this nation. Sometimes this results in shrines adorned with a patchwork of the multi-colored plants. However, with the addition of sulfur dioxide, an industrial pollutant—and a contributor to climate change in Japan—some species of lichen may stop growing altogether. This means that an increasing number of Shinto shrines will be hosting only barren stone where there was once rich life.

For researchers, lichen serves as a “canary in the coal mine” for the unfavorable impacts of climate change in Japan. In other words, lichen is particularly vulnerable to unfavorable environmental conditions.

Even the iconic cherry blossoms may begin to bloom at unpredictable times, and cicadas will fall out of sync with the seasons.

As for the weather itself, increasingly intense storms are expected in the years to come, caused largely by the consistent rise in ocean temperatures. With record heat and record rainfall in recent years, the impacts on local weather is already evident.

The basic concept that increased global warming produces stronger and more violent weather phenomena, of course, is now commonplace. But the actual level of threat is still difficult to imagine. According to JAMSTEC, Japan can expect to be buffeted by superstorms with fierce winds and heavier precipitation.

As global warming progresses, the heat island effect of urban areas will also become more pronounced. A combination of air pollution and heat increases will, according to Greenpeace, cause worsening allergies and the spread of respiratory diseases among the population.

On the issue of rising sea levels, Japan may fare better than many other nations. Tokyo has put significant money and engineering effort into preparing for catastrophic flooding. Still, Japan does have its low-lying areas as well.

On the global scale, populations are already being forced to migrate due to water shortages and extreme heat. Though Japan may not be directly impacted by such human migrations, the global economy will be affected, meaning that it shouldn’t be dismissed as a local concern.

Most people in Japan are only marginally aware of the impacts of climate change, but the reality is that it is affecting their lives in personal and meaningful ways.

Unfortunately, Japanese researchers are often reticent about straying from the narrow focus of strict data reporting. According to an official at JAMSTEC, they prefer to avoid making statements, predictions, or projections that could be perceived as biased. Government and big business groups have a decidedly anti-environmentalist slant, and it is they which financially support the local scientific agencies at the forefront of climate studies.

This clearly contributes to the shallow public perceptions about the true scope of the threat that Japan is facing.

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