Environmentalist David Suzuki has words of warning for ancestral homeland

by Kris Kosaka

Long before baseball’s Ichiro moved to the northwest coast of the United States of America, another Suzuki had made a name for himself higher up, across the border in British Columbia, Canada. Dr. David Suzuki, environmentalist, scientist, TV producer and writer, was voted, in a nationwide poll in 2004, the No. 5 “Greatest Canadian” of all time.

Sponsored by Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, with over 1.2 million votes cast for 10 Canadians, Suzuki took first place among living Canadians.

Suzuki admits that, in his ancestral homeland of Japan, it is his daughter Severn who is far better known — as the little girl who spoke at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. She is now a recognized environmentalist in her own right.

Not that Suzuki minds; the title he feels most proud of is — father to his five children (three from a previous marriage, two from his current marriage to wife, Dr. Tara Cullis). “It is the most important thing I have done, the most important job I’ve had, my life’s work to protect the future for my children and grandchildren.” That future includes the planet as a whole, and his children’s cultural inheritance includes the nature of rural Japan.

Intent on escaping poverty and deprivation, Suzuki’s grandparents emigrated to Canada from Aichi Prefecture and Hiroshima. Their struggles in turn paid off for Suzuki’s parents — until World War II broke out, and Japanese families throughout the province were sent to internment camps deep in the mountains of British Columbia.

It is a story known to many Japanese-Canadians: a story of exile within their adopted country. Suzuki’s own memories are mixed. “Even when my father was sent away to a camp, and my mother and sisters and I were left, and then had to take a train to the camps without my father, I never really thought much about it . . . my mother was very good about not showing she was upset,” Suzuki remembers.

“But it was in the camps that I first realized I was different, not because of the white people, but because of the Japanese.”

Since most of the children in the camp were nisei, or second-generation Canadians of Japanese ancestry, they bullied the sansei third-generation Suzuki for not speaking Japanese.

Despite the hardship, it was also a time to value the natural world. “I was up in the mountains, wandering around, fishing, gathering matsutake mushrooms. So, for me as a boy, it was heaven. The important part of that time was falling in love with nature.”

That love became his vocation, and is a major theme of “The Sacred Balance,” what Suzuki considers his most important work. The book, translated into a number of languages, including Japanese, focuses on man’s interconnectedness with nature.

“The first thing you have to realize is that you are an animal, and as an animal if you do not have clean air and clean water and clean energy than you’re dead, so surely that should be your highest priority.” Suzuki emphasizes.

“In big cities it becomes very easy to think we’re not like other creatures, we’re so smart that we can build our own habitats; we don’t need nature except for a few parks to go enjoy nature. . . . That is the biggest challenge, to break through that urban sense, that we are so smart, we do not need nature, we will just create our own world. It has become very destructive on the planet.”

Suzuki feels Japan plays a special part in this destruction. “Japan is one of the major predators of the oceans, and Japanese ought to be scared stiff about the future of that important food source . . . 90 percent of the big fish, the swordfish, the blue-finned tuna, the sharks, the northern cod, they’re gone. And when you look at the pollution that’s going on in the oceans, the over-fishing . . .the oceans are in terrible shape. Yet, go down to Tsukiji any day and see the fish that are coming out of the ocean to feed Japan. That is terrifying to me.

“Japan is living under a terrible illusion that the oceans can continue to supply fish the way Japanese are eating them now, but it is impossible.” Despite Japan’s massive consumption, Suzuki asserts: “I don’t see Japan leading the way on conservation.”

He also believes Japan should lead the way with cleaner energy. “In terms of industry and technology, Japan is a world leader. Why can’t Japan take on energy and do the same thing? There are huge opportunities there.” Japan is doing some things right, according to Suzuki’s research. In his documentary, “Fisheries That Work,” the Inland Sea fisheries were prominently featured. Still, “Japan has a long way to go. (It) produces half the garbage per person that we do in Canada, yet there is still a large amount of waste . . . congestion in the streets, tremendous consumption.

“I find Tokyo an impossible place, as there are so many people and cars. Any river in Tokyo is just black with pollution, all the rivers are tamed with concrete blocks, nothing is let run wild, everything is controlled and tamed.”

On a personal level, Suzuki admits to mixed feelings about Japan. “I love the Japanese attention to detail, I love the pride there is in whatever anyone is doing . . . the aesthetic sense, it is all very impressive, the sense that beauty is a part of the presentation. There is so much I admire because of the long cultural tradition.”

Suzuki also loves the food. Many of the traditional methods of preparation, from his grandparents’ time, are employed in the Suzuki household. When friends visited from Japan, they were surprised at the authentic futomaki prepared by his British wife, and at their daughters’ ability to cut and skin the fish they caught.

Another cultural point is the Japanese language. Suzuki notes, “the language is interesting, because it is like a museum language, as my grandparents came in the early 1900s and a lot of the words they used, Japanese don’t use any more. When I was growing up, I was taught to say ‘O-benjo doko desu ka,’ “ which would now elicit laughter in Japan.

Suzuki had a chance to practice his language skills while visiting Japan several times over an 18-month period while researching a book he wrote with Yokohama University professor Keibo Oiwa. “The Japan We Never Knew” took Suzuki from Okinawa to Hokkaido, from Osaka’s Korean community to areas populated with burakumin (Japan’s “untouchables”), met and interviewed people from the varied, diverse strains of Japanese society.

“Keibo came to a speech I gave in Yokohama, and he said to me after, ‘The trouble with you is you think Japan is homogeneous, when in fact, there is a great deal of diversity within the country. If you want to learn about that, come to Japan, and I’ll show you. ‘ ”

Suzuki relished the opportunity to learn more about the homeland of his grandparents. Unfortunately, although “The Japan We Never Knew” reached No. 1 in Canada, the book has not been published in Japanese due to the chapter on burakumin.

Suzuki comments on this cultural difference — the Japanese dislike of controversy. “There’s a tremendous sense of social conformity, a reluctance to say anything that might get someone upset, or to disagree; that kind of conformity is crippling, because it does not give you an opportunity to change or try other things, when that change is needed.”

Another cultural shock for Suzuki arose from the Japanese loyalty to the company. When Suzuki was promoting one of his first books published in Japanese, “Inventing the Future,” he met with several NTT executives to discuss it. As Suzuki explains: “One of the executives said, ‘Ah, a very interesting read. As a father, I am very worried about these issues, but then, as an executive for NTT, I don’t know, I just can’t . . .’

“So he was torn, because as a parent he understood the dangers I was talking about, but as an executive for a corporation, it was a different agenda, and I was shocked.

“It seems to me that the most important thing is not the company. It is being a parent.”

For Suzuki, it always comes back to family. In the last months before his father passed away in 1994, Suzuki moved back into his parents’ home. “In all the time I stayed with him . . . all we talked about were family and neighbors and friends.

“All he said, over and over again, was, ‘I am a rich man. I die with no regrets,’ and it was such a powerful reminder of what really matters in life. As my father was dying he showed the really important things in life are about people.”

Suzuki dismisses all the awards and recognition in his own life, his numerous honorary degrees and international accolades. His voice reverberates clearly through the phone line, asserting repeatedly it is family that matters the most; it is what we leave to our children and grandchildren that will truly measure a man’s success.

And Suzuki, like his father, seems a very rich man indeed.