• picture
  • picture
  • picture
  • picture
Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Green Japan

Air Date: Week of

stream/download this segment as an MP3 file

Japan has a green reputation, but is it deserved? Host Steve Curwood talks with Living on Earth's political observer Mark Hertsgaard about the environmental reality in Japan.


CURWOOD: Welcome to Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Japan is one of the countries that was most eagerly awaiting a climate change policy from the United States. Japan, of course, is where the Kyoto Protocol was hammered out in the first place, in 1997. And Japan is likely to cast the decisive vote for the treaty's ratification. Climate policy was on the diplomatic agenda when President Bush recently visited the Far East. And joining me now is Living on Earth's political observer, Mark Hertsgaard, who visited Japan himself to research its environmental situation. Hi Mark.


CURWOOD: So, what was the Japanese response to the voluntary climate program that the Bush Administration has unveiled?

HERTSGAARD: Polite disagreement. Polite is very important in Japan, especially in diplomacy, and Prime Minister Koizumi did say that Mr. Bush's proposal was constructive. However, in their joint press conference after their meeting, he quite pointedly contradicted Mr. Bush's view. You'll remember, of course, that Mr. Bush backed away from Kyoto on the grounds that these kinds of environmental regulations would hurt the American economy. Prime Minister Koizumi said, "The economy and environment do not run against each other; rather, efforts to improve the environment will bring about development in science and technology and also generate greater economic development." Japan's environment minister, Hiroshi Oki, has said that Japan will proceed with ratifying the Kyoto Protocol, probably this spring.

CURWOOD: Now, how does the issue of global warming fit within the larger environmental context in Japan?

HERTSGAARD: Japan has a good reputation in some respects. Because they give rhetorical support to a lot of environmental goals; their cultural tradition indicates a respect for nature and simplicity and, of course, the automobile companies Honda and Toyota are the first ones to get hybrid electric cars out on the market here in the United States. On the other hand, internationally their reputation is not so good. As you know, they have been happy to buck world opinion on whaling and they're willing to Hoover up the oceans in terms of their fishing industry. So, it's rather mixed. I must say, when I was on the ground there, I was astonished at how poor the environmental performance is on the ground in Japan. I was up on Mt. Hiei, which is probably the most sacred mountain in Japanese Buddhism. Massive clear-cuts all up and down the mountain, and on your way there you pass through this terrible sprawl. There seems to be absolutely no zoning in Japan. And so the cities just morph into the countryside and the farmland is disappearing like crazy.

CURWOOD: Now, tell me how the Japanese reputation for consumerism - their love for new technologies, their desire to follow the latest trends - how does that affect the environment there?

HERTSGAARD: Not very well, and it's true, Japan's consumerism has increased pretty dramatically over the last ten years, despite the fact that Japan has been mired in recession. Everything that you buy is over-packaged. Even a single apple will be wrapped two or three times in plastic wrap. And there are now convenience stores, these 24-hour convenience stores, on virtually every street corner. The faddishness for consumer electronics continues, the cars have gotten bigger in Japan, and as a result, despite the economic downturn, Japan is now using more energy today than it was ten years ago.

CURWOOD: So, what is the approach that Japan takes to environmental problems?

HERTSGAARD: Generally, Steve, it's volunteerism, and this makes an interesting parallel to Mr. Bush's proposals here on climate change. In Japan the government and the industry work much more closely together than usually happens here in the United States, and they tend to try to develop a consensus approach. What that means, though, is that industry and government generally come up with voluntary approaches to whatever the environmental issue is. Very rarely do they use the kind of mandatory restrictions that we here in the United States have, say, in the Clean Air Act and, for that matter, the Kyoto Protocol. So it's not surprising that Japan's Federal of Economic Organizations, the Keidanren, which is all the big industries, they have come out very strongly against Kyoto and in favor of Mr. Bush's climate change policy.

CURWOOD: Tell me how the situation in Japan compares with other wealthy nations.

HERTSGAARD: Well, you'd have to say, only the United States really has a bigger environmental footprint, and not by much, at least on a per capita basis. And this was borne out in a confidential report that the German government issued last summer about Japan's environmental performance. The Germans criticized what they called the enormous gap between Japan's environmental rhetoric, which is green, and its environmental performance, which is much less than green. It's true that Japan's energy efficiency is still higher than Europe's, but its use of energy has increased even during the 1990s recession, and they have basically talked a lot about developing alternative energies but done very little. And this suggests, as the German report implies, that this voluntary approach simply hasn't really yielded benefits.

CURWOOD: So, what does all this mean for the prospects of Kyoto then, Mark?

HERTSGAARD: Well, as you pointed out, Japan is the swing issue on this: you need 55 percent of the world's global emissions to ratify this treaty for it to come into effect - that means Europe, Russia and Japan. If any one country drops out, that's it. Now, the Japanese government clearly is pushing very strongly and wants to ratify this, if only because of the question of face: the Kyoto Protocol does have Japan's name on it. On the other hand, the Keidanren has already complained that if the United States does not ratify, this will put Japanese industry at a competitive disadvantage. So that's the forces that we're going to be watching over this spring, to see whether Japan really does go through and ratify Kyoto.

CURWOOD: Mark Hertsgaard is Living on Earth's political observer. Thanks for coming in, Mark.

HERTSGAARD: You're welcome.

[Kodo Drummers of Japan, "Drums of Thunder", KODO LIVE]



Living on Earth wants to hear from you!

P.O. Box 990007
Prudential Station
Boston, MA, USA 02199
Telephone: 1-617-287-4121
E-mail: comments@loe.org

Newsletter [Click here]

Donate to Living on Earth!
Living on Earth is an independent media program and relies entirely on contributions from listeners and institutions supporting public service. Please donate now to preserve an independent environmental voice.

Living on Earth offers a weekly delivery of the show's rundown to your mailbox. Sign up for our newsletter today!

Sailors For The Sea: Be the change you want to sea.

Creating positive outcomes for future generations.

Innovating to make the world a better, more sustainable place to live. Listen to the race to 9 billion

The Grantham Foundation for the Protection of the Environment: Committed to protecting and improving the health of the global environment.

Energy Foundation: Serving the public interest by helping to build a strong, clean energy economy.

Contribute to Living on Earth and receive, as our gift to you, an archival print of one of Mark Seth Lender's extraordinary wildlife photographs. Follow the link to see Mark's current collection of photographs.

Buy a signed copy of Mark Seth Lender's book Smeagull the Seagull & support Living on Earth