Where are Japan’s climate strikers?

Climate Change Mount Fuji

Japan felt the impact of climate change in floods and heatwaves this year – but few Japanese people joined the environmental protests which swept the globe.

Image by Nanashinodensyaku on Wikimedia Commons

In late September 2019, an estimated 6 million people joined climate strikes across the globe, demanding urgent action to address the climate emergency facing our planet. Rallies in global metropolises such as London and New York saw hundreds of thousands take to the streets. Meanwhile in Japan, a country of 126 million people, marches drew a combined total of less than six thousand. After the country had suffered months of record-breaking rains, floods and heatwaves – where were Japan’s climate strikers?

Among those scratching their heads at Japan’s relative placidity was Peter Cave, senior lecturer in Japanese studies at Manchester University, who put the question to a mailing list of Japan-oriented social scientists. Typically a less-than-eventful platform for academics to circulate promotions for conferences, jobs, and funding opportunities, Cave’s question sparked a lively debate that saw Japan scholars from around the world share their research and speculations on why climate activism in Japan is so muted.

“When I look at the Asahi Shimbun’s Japanese website, there does not seem to be any mention of climate strikes, even overseas. The same goes for the NHK top page. UK reporters also report that not much is happening in Japan. Why not?” Cave wrote on September 20, when climate strikers were marching in cities around the world.

Many responses pointed to familiar problems with Japan’s media landscape: excessive government influence over the national broadcaster NHK, a press club system encouraging collusion with officials at the expense of critical reporting, and TV advertising oligopolies that keep broadcast media dominated by risk-averse conglomerates. “If the government does not plan to set an environmental topic on its agenda, the mainstream media will not actively do so,” suggests Yosuke Buchmeier, a doctoral student researching Japanese media.

Are there no climate strikes in Japan simply because the problem is seen as being actively addressed?

But others drew attention to evidence that climate change reporting in Japan is not in short supply. Environmental and political sociologist Jeffrey Broadbent shared results from his comparative research showing that the volume of Japanese media coverage of climate change is about average among the 17 countries studied. Whatever fault we find with the media, most Japanese people are well aware of the problem posed by climate change, denialism is unheard of, and new sustainability initiatives are constantly touted by the government and corporate sector. Perhaps, then, there are no climate strikes in Japan simply because the problem is well understood and seen as being proactively addressed?

Andrew DeWit, an expert on Japanese energy and disaster resilience policy, notes how relatively strong public support for spending on climate adaptation has “helped policymakers at all levels implement measures that promote adaptation and mitigation simultaneously, something the IPCC stressed long ago.” He suggests that a lot of what Japan is actually doing is underestimated by the metrics we use.

“This is not to say that Japan is doing anywhere near enough,” DeWit ended his otherwise optimistic reflection. The Climate Action Tracker, an independent scientific analysis measuring government actions against the Paris Agreement’s aim of limiting warming to well below 2 degrees Celsius, rates Japan’s climate targets as “highly insufficient.” “Japan’s current policies, if practiced around the world, would heat the climate to levels incompatible with present human civilization,” says Charles Cabell, a Toyo University professor who has been working to facilitate social justice and environmental activism at the university.

“By constantly talking about climate change, Japanese corporations have successfully co-opted the issue in ways that avoid questioning mass- and over-consumption. As a result, many people have convinced themselves they are actually fighting climate change when they buy a new appliance, as long as it is ‘shо̄-ene’ or ‘energy saving’,” says historian Nick Kapur.

Protest on the streets – and even on social media – has been delegitimized and even stigmatized

What Japan appears to be missing, then, is not so much volume of media coverage, but a sense of urgency and crisis in proportion to the seriousness of the problem and the woeful inadequacy of Japan’s existing policies. But critiques of Japanese media can certainly help explain why the insufficiency of government and corporate measures may not be so aggressively pursued.

If the Japanese media is shy of confrontation then so too, it seems, are Japanese citizens. Kapur says that since Japan’s last major student led protest movements in the 1960s, both the state and broader public have collaborated “to delegitimize and even stigmatize street protest, especially strikes, and even ‘politics’ in general.” Indeed, Japan’s organizers for the September climate strike translated the action in Japanese as “climate march” to appear less confrontational. Saki Mizoroki, a journalist and doctoral student at Tokyo University, also notes how social media has been comparatively less significant in Japan for catalyzing social movements: “It’s not common to see a Japanese person publicly post anything political on social media”.

An aversion to the political confrontation at the heart of climate protest is compounded by a general political apathy. Broadbent says that the “soft paternalism” of the Japanese state, in aiming to create placid and obedient citizens, has also made many Japanese disillusioned and distrustful of their democratic and governing institutions – far more so than in other developed nations, according to the World Values Survey. “There is a lot of shikataganai (“there’s nothing you can do”) and akirame (“giving up”), you can’t fight city hall,” he says.

Responses to Cave also highlighted what some describe as a relatively “authoritarian” education system that gives little value to critical thinking and prizes perfect attendance instead of skipping class to make a point about environmental issues. Although there are exceptions, even many universities seem thoroughly cowed and depoliticized: “among the most politically sterile of all the communities in Japan” says Cabell, who described an incident at his university where a student had been threatened with expulsion for holding a sign and handing out flyers on campus to protest the teachings of a professor. The university had not objected to the content of his protest, but simply to the act of political expression on campus, saying that it “disturbed the order of the university”.

Japan’s inadequate response to climate change is not unique – but protests will become more urgent as the impact of climate breakdown is increasingly felt

As with media coverage, the way climate change and green issues are addressed in education may be an inadvertent cause of complacency. The science of climate change is taught in textbooks, separating garbage and looking after the environment is learned as a matter of good citizenship, and universities build new brands around green tech research agendas. If you squint your eyes, it may well look like Japan is very much on top of things.

Japan is not unique in its inadequate response to climate change. The carbon commitments of most other developed nations are just as insufficient. Nor is Japan alone in having a public discourse simultaneously awash with sustainable brands, initiatives, and innovations – many of which are not superfluous, but simply pale in comparison to the scale of the problem at hand.

So where are Japan’s climate strikers? There are many fronts in the war on climate change, but the quietness of this front is likely best explained by the gradual delegitimization of citizen-led confrontational politics. This process, highlighted in the discussion by Kapur, has also been explored by others such as the anthropologist Akihiro Ogawa, who pessimistically characterizes contemporary Japanese civil society – as well as notions of socially engaged citizenship – as having been largely depoliticized and co-opted by the state.

When even countries that saw massive climate protests are struggling to produce adequate climate policy, it is fair to ask if the radical demands of Japan’s nascent climate strike movement stand any chance in such challenging circumstances. But the planet will not stop warming until global carbon emissions end. Unlike the brief revivals of Japan’s protest tradition witnessed after the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster, which eventually fizzled out in face of government intransigence, the demands of the climate movement can only become more immediate and pressing as the coming decades of sustained and unpredictable climate breakdown make themselves felt across society. The time for apathy and complacency will come to an inevitable end, and the time for radical action will be upon us.  

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Sakari Mesimäki is a PhD student at the Department of Social Anthropology at the University of Cambridge conducting research on political subjectivity in Japan. Sakari previously worked in business and communications consulting in Tokyo and holds degrees in anthropology and Japanese studies from the University of Helsinki and the University of Cambridge.

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