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Story Publication logo September 26, 2019

Understanding the Japanese Perspective on Climate Change

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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...

A complicated relationship with climate change and nature in Japan. A bridge over a channelized river in Naka-Meguro, Tokyo. Image by Daniel Merino. Japan, 2019.
A complicated relationship with climate change and nature in Japan. A bridge over a channelized river in Naka-Meguro, Tokyo. Image by Daniel Merino. Japan, 2019.

Narita Airport sits about 50 km from downtown Tokyo in Chiba, a rural prefecture to the west of the sprawling metropolis of Japan's capital. For myself and most travelers, the first views of the country are from the train that connects the airport to Tokyo's web of rail and subway lines. It is a beautiful landscape of small farms, quintessentially Japanese-looking homes, rivers, and patchwork forests. And, surprisingly—and, for a climate change reporter, inspiringly—mixed into the landscape of flooded rice paddies, developments, and small stands of trees were solar panels. And lots of them.

Coming to Japan, I knew the scientific position on climate change: It is real, it is affecting people's lives, and things need to be done to mitigate it. What I didn't know was what the public felt about climate change. As is all too well demonstrated in the United States, scientists knowing what should be done about climate change is a far cry from the acceptance of that science, much less the political or social change actually happening. To walk out of customs and be greeted by solar panels spread across the countryside suggested that, on the whole, Japanese people were taking climate change seriously and doing things to deal with it.

But after a few days spent walking around Tokyo speaking with people from older generations, young college students, and world-renowned Japanese climate scientists, that initial hopeful enthusiasm has worn off a bit. At every store, I am offered a plastic bag even if I am buying a single bottle of green tea or onigiri snack. Frequently I pass cars with people napping inside while the engine runs. There are some electric cars here, but not nearly as many as can be seen on roads in California. More than 80 percent of electricity in Japan is still produced using fossil fuels, and when I spoke with Kazumi Ogawa, a 65-year-old landlord in Tokyo, he echoed something I hear often back in the U.S.

"I am not a scientist, I don't know about the CO2 creating the temperature increases. Maybe I have to study a little more, but maybe it's a global cycle, cold every 100 or 200 years, then it cycles back."

But then Ogawa asked me a sincere question. A question that in my 10 years either in school or working in science and science journalism, I don't think I have ever been asked.

"Is that true? 100 percent true that more CO2 makes the temperature go up?"

Last summer, Japan suffered the most extreme and deadliest heatwave to ever hit the country. Temperature records were surpassed at hundreds of weather stations. Tens of thousands were hospitalized due to heat stress and more than a thousand died. Ogawa and his golden retriever, Balloo, were forced inside from sunrise to sunset by the heat during the month-long period of high temperatures last year. He says that 30 years ago, he had never heard the Japanese word for heat stress but now it is on the lips of his friends and neighbors every summer. In the elevator of my hostel is a sign, warning about the risks of heat stress and how to avoid it. The awareness of the effects of climate change is there, the connection to climate change… not so much.

Earlier this year, a team of Japanese scientists showed that the heatwave of July 2018 could not have happened without climate change. I told Ogawa as much. I explained the scientific consensus in support of human-induced global warming, and he listened.

The climate crisis facing Japan is much the same as everywhere else in the world, but the reasons for lack of action to meet it are in some ways wildly different from the roadblocks in the U.S. This afternoon I am going to the Tokyo event of the Global Climate Strike and will talk to young people who are motivated to do something about the climate crisis.

As I report this story, the questions that keep bubbling up are these: The reasons for inaction on climate change in Japan are different than in the U.S., but the result is the same. Why? With the clock ticking, what can be learned from this difference? And, is there a universal human truth underlying the obstacles that stand between climate activists, climate scientists, and the actions that need to be taken that are bigger than the narrative of corporate greed, lobbyists, and a changing job market?

More questions to be answered, certainly, but there are many people to ask.

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