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Story Publication logo November 21, 2019

The Hottest Day: The Complicated Fight for Climate Action in Japan

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A sign next to a newly repaved road in Kumagaya explains how lighter asphalt reflects solar radiation and lowers temperatures in the city center. During the 2018 Heatwave, Kumagaya City recorded the highest-ever temperature in Japan at 41.1 degrees Celsius (106 degrees Fahrenheit), and its residents and government are adapting to the hotter world. Image by Daniel Merino. Japan, 2019.
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In summer 2018, much of East Asia experienced an extreme heat wave that broke records across the...

Two women walking in Tokyo with umbrellas. Image by Daniel Merino. Japan, 2019.
Two women walking in Tokyo with umbrellas. Image by Daniel Merino. Japan, 2019.

From a climate change perspective, Japan is a country of contradictions.

In some ways, it is a living proof of concept where low-carbon behaviors, designs, and ways of life are the norm. Solar panels share the land with rice paddies, the train system is extensive and affordable, and packages are delivered by bicycle in city centers.

In other ways, the people and the country fall far short of what they could easily and quickly accomplish if a lower-carbon society was made a priority. Plastic bags are given out with every purchase and recently, the government has been investing heavily in overseas coal powerplants.

In July 2018, a heatwave struck the country unlike any seen before. It smashed temperature records across the nation, led to the highest electricity and food prices seen in years, and sent tens of thousands to the hospital due to heat-related illnesses. Officially, 1,032 people lost their lives from the heat.

Kazuo Ogawa, 65, landlord in Tokyo (and his Golden Retriever, Balu)

Signs warning about heatstroke in a hotel elevator in Tokyo. Image by Daniel Merino. Japan, 2019.
Signs warning about heatstroke in a hotel elevator in Tokyo. Image by Daniel Merino. Japan, 2019.

Dr. Asuka Suzuki-Parker, professor and climatologist, Rissho University Kumagaya Campus

It was declared a natural disaster by the Japanese Meteorological Agency on July 24, 2018, the day after the all-time temperature record in the country was broken.

In May 2019, a study was published that in a fundamental way challenges the declaration of the Japanese Meteorological Agency. It doesn't challenge that the heatwave was a disaster—it calls into question whether it was a natural one.

Dr. Yukiko Imada, researcher, Japan Meteorological Institute

The paper published by Imada et. al., May 2019.
The paper published by Imada et. al., May 2019.

Using a young branch of climatology called Attribution Science, Dr. Yukiko Imada and a team of Japanese researchers found that the 2018 Japan Heatwave would not have been possible in a world without climate change. In today's world with climate change, events like that are possible, are happening, and they are killing people. The cause is human-induced climate change.

Dr. Asuka Suzuki-Parker, professor and climatologist, Rissho University Kumagaya Campus

The Kumagaya weather station is the site of the highest temperature ever recorded in Japan. Image by Daniel Merino. Japan, 2019.
The Kumagaya weather station is the site of the highest temperature ever recorded in Japan. Image by Daniel Merino. Japan, 2019.

But despite this position and the country's commitment to the Paris Agreement, Japan is far from a leader on climate. According to the non-profit Climate Action Tracker, Japan's current plans and actions are "Highly Insufficient" to reach the Paris Agreement goal of 2 degrees Celsius of warming above pre-industrial levels.

Why? Japan used to be a climate leader. It has the resources, ability, and gumption to do this. Why has it abdicated its responsibility?

Dr. Asuka Suzuki-Parker, professor and climatologist, Rissho University Kumagaya Campus

Sign explaining how newly repaved roads are designed to reduce heat in Kumagaya, Saitama, Japan. Image by Daniel Merino. Japan, 2019.
Sign explaining how newly repaved roads are designed to reduce heat in Kumagaya, Saitama, Japan. Image by Daniel Merino. Japan, 2019.

There is a necessity for adaptation.

Dr. Asuka Suzuki-Parker, professor and climatologist, Rissho University Kumagaya Campus

A man with an umbrella avoiding the heat in Tokyo, Japan. Image by Daniel Merino. Japan, 2019.
A man with an umbrella avoiding the heat in Tokyo, Japan. Image by Daniel Merino. Japan, 2019.

According to Suzuki-Parker and most people I spoke with, adaptation rules the day. But as she says, mitigation is a crucial step for the future, just not high on the priority list for the Government. There are certainly people who are trying to reduce their carbon footprint in the small ways they can, but on the whole, the issue of climate change is not of dire concern to the public. Some people are working to change that, though.

Marchers at the Tokyo Climate March, September 20, 2019 in Tokyo. Image by Daniel Merino. Japan, 2019.
Marchers at the Tokyo Climate March, September 20, 2019 in Tokyo. Image by Daniel Merino. Japan, 2019.

Yuki Minami, retired Tokyo resident at the climate march

Gaku, Nao, and Goh, college students at the climate march

Jefferey Char, founder of a solar energy retail company in Tokyo

The September 20 Global Climate Strike event in Tokyo attracted around 3,000 participants. It was a good gathering with motivated individuals, but a small number in the context of Tokyo’s 9 million inhabitants. But protests and actions that “rock the boat” are culturally difficult to achieve in Japan. Groups like Social Innovation Japan, founded by Robin Lewis, Keiko Ono, and Mariko McTier, are creating spaces and hosting events that allow for discussion and action in a much more relaxed setting.

Robin Lewis, co-founder of Social Innovation Japan

When talking to the people who are trying to start a discussion about climate change in Japan, this is an incredibly bright spot, and one so very different from the culture around climate change in the United States. People are willing to listen and learn from those they disagree with.

Dr. Asuka Suzuki-Parker, professor and climatologist, Rissho University Kumagaya Campus

It was surprising to hear that from a climatologist in Japan. It was inspiring, and incredibly hopeful, to get asked it myself.

Kazuo Ogawa, 65, landlord in Tokyo (and his Golden Retriever, Balu)

It is true. And when there are people willing to ask and there are people to answer, things can change.

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