Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Japan and the Environment

Everyone knows that the Japanese have a special relationship with nature and the environment. We've heard it a million times. Ask an Japan apologist/explainer or any nihonjinron true believer. After all, this is where the great Kyoto treaty to fight global warming was signed.

Unfortunately, you could never tell that this is the case by talking to Japanese citizens or observing their, or the government' actions. You very, very, very, very---did I say very?---rarely ever hear of pressure to conserve, preserve, or protect the environment come from citizens, or citizen groups. It comes from business for economic purposes, or from the government for similar reasons. The government has most often pushed any conservation efforts by increasing costs to consumers and households. They surely don't want industry to bear much of a burden.

  • Japanese homes and apartments have little (or no) insulation. Double-paned glass windows? Forget it. Imagine the energy loss from this. Instead of telling offices to raise or lower thermostats to uncomfortable levels to save energy, perhaps forcing builders to improve insulation would be more effective. Even a tax break to subsidize homeowners who do insulate their homes might help.
  • Plastics bags for everything. Recently businesses have found the cost of plastic increasing rapidly, so they are trying (not very hard) to reduce the number of plastic bags consumers supposedly demand. Everything is wrapped. Go to 7-11 and buy a yogurt. You will get a plastic spoon and a bag. Include a juice and you'll get a straw too. Buy a pre-cooked food, salad or whatever and get another spoon, fork or chopsticks. They may even wrap it in a separate smaller plastic bag. Why not just stop? Well, it's a Japanese tradition! I actually read that in the newspaper a few months ago. Yes sir, it's rude to give someone a carton of orange juice without a bag and a straw. Japan appears to be the only modern country in which tradition excuses everything.
  • Air conditioning outdoors. Ye, we do it here. It has decreased to some extent, but you can go to some shops in Tokyo---Akihabara used to be really good at this---and they will have the shop doors wide open with the AC going full-blast. Feels really nice when you are outside on the sidewalk walking by, but I am pretty sure this has a less than wonderful effect on greenhouse gases.
  • Whaling and using some of the meat for dog food. Yea, this ia a Japanese tradition, too, even though consumption has always been rare.
  • Doing laundry every day whether it is needed or not. Full loads? Forget it. One dirty sock is enough.
There are tons of other things, most of the rivers dammed, native forests decimated and replanted with cedar trees to provide the timber industry with profits, but which have instead caused serious and increasingly common allergy problems in the spring and more. It is all old news, written about in the book Dogs and Demons by Alex Kerr about 4-5 years and, much of it was known earlier.

There are some very rural, natural areas in Japan, of course. But you can bet it isn't because Japan is protecting or preserving it or would even do so if it were threatened. (unless by evil foreigners, of course) Frankly, most people don't really care enough to do something about it. And, citizens really are not going to be activists for much of anything in modern Japan. We'll all wait for the government to tell use what to do, and even better yet, do it for us.

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