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Silent spring in Tokyo

Dear Environment Minister Tetsuo Saito,

In her groundbreaking work “Silent Spring,” American writer Rachel Carson lamented a lack of birds and wildlife in her neighborhood one year. That spring, she thought it strange that no birds were singing or animals chattering. Later, Carson discovered that the wildlife had disappeared following a massive pesticide-spraying campaign. The silence prompted her to write one of the most important books of the 20th century.

This spring, my first in Japan, it is a similar story.

I live in a Tokyo suburb, about an hour by train from midtown. Although plants and flowers are plentiful here and there are a few birds, there are no animals of any kind. No squirrels or chipmunks, raccoons, skunks, rabbits, foxes or deer. It’s an eerie scene. Walk outside in the morning and you hear few sounds of living beings other than those of cars, planes and other human activities. Where are the sounds of nature?

Growing up in Canada, I have been spoiled by the abundance of wildlife. At our old home near Toronto, my son and I would look out the back door and see chipmunks haggling over pinecones. We would chase rabbits into the forest and clean up garbage ransacked by raccoons. One year, an enterprising squirrel even set up a winter nest in our barbecue. Foxes, skunks and deer were also spotted in our area. My son loved it and it was a great educational experience.

However, here in the Tokyo area there is none of that. My son has seen no wild animals save the few behind cages or stone walls at the local zoo. The educational experiences have been lost.

In his book “Dogs and Demons,” Alex Kerr argues that environmental degradation has been one of the byproducts of Japan’s relentless postwar pursuit of economic growth. In the last half-century, Kerr suggests that the Japanese have dammed up most rivers, scarred many mountains and uprooted trees, all to make way for urban growth. In the course of this expansion, much of Japan’s natural habitat has been lost.

Kerr points out that this lack of regard for nature contradicts the traditional world view of the Japanese. In most Western writing, the Japanese are portrayed as nature lovers, with a spiritual, almost mystical connection to their environment. Japan’s indigenous Shinto religion even puts a reverence for nature at the core of its beliefs.

However, as Kerr points out, this Western view of Japan is a myth. Yes, the Japanese enjoy their cherry-blossom parties each year. But in reality, the Japanese see nature as something to conquer rather than preserve.

If Kerr is right, then that is a shame. The Japanese people that I know love nature and are concerned about environmental damage. They do their best to recycle and protect areas where they live. However, the average people here are not the problem. It is the massive construction and urban renewal projects that do the most damage.

Unfortunately, in my Tokyo suburb, a lack of natural activity is not peaceful. It’s depressing. As more and more buildings go up, the sounds of nature are extinguished. And the silence of spring here is deafening.

Submissions to Hotline to Nagatacho should address issues that affect your life in Japan or be in response to government policies. Please imagine you are actually writing to a government official — be it a local school board head or the prime minister himself — to bring attention to an important matter. Send submissions of between 500 and 700 words to community@japantimes.co.jp