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Asia’s first lady of the environment

by Stephen Hesse

If Barak Obama is serious about developing proactive environmental policies that are international is scope, he would do well to work closely with Japan.

But for the inside scoop on Japan’s most creative initiatives, I suggest he bypass the bureaucrats and the prime minister. The person to talk to is Junko Edahiro.

Edahiro is widely known in Japan as the translator of Al Gore’s book “An Inconvenient Truth,” but that’s just one tip of her professional iceberg.

Besides translation, Edahiro, 46, is perhaps Japan’s most dynamic and prolific environmental writer and speaker, and a valued adviser to top corporations, civic organizations, local and national bureaucrats and the prime minister. She is also Executive Director of Japan for Sustainability (JFS), which oversees a network of more than 400 volunteers across Japan who search for environmental news and draft articles that are posted on the JFS Web site in Japanese and English.

In an interview earlier this month, Edahiro explained that she sees herself as an agent for environmental and societal change, her goal being to share information and translate awareness into action, both nationally and internationally.

Last month, for example, she was in China to address government leaders on the history of NGOs and civil society in Japan, but she also learned about encouraging changes taking place in Chinese environmental policy.

This week she is in Bhutan at the International Conference on Gross National Happiness (GNH), where participants are discussing alternative ways to quantify and measure economic activity, environmental health and human well-being, in contrast to the widely used, but myopic and outdated, Gross National Product (GNP).

Talking with Edahiro and Noriko Sakamoto, the JFS communications director, offers a refreshing glimpse of Japanese civil society. Too often in the past, Japanese NGOs have tended toward exclusiveness and self-absorption, hesitant to cooperate with others and more concerned about ideology than impact.

Edahiro and Sakamoto couldn’t be more different. Well aware of the daunting challenges facing Japan and the planet, they dedicate long hours to their work; but they are also upbeat and outward looking, laugh easily, and are driven by an empowering combination of idealism and pragmatism.

I last spoke with Edahiro in 2003, so I asked her how things have changed since then.

“In recent years, especially last year, there have been many changes, and what is going on in Japan is similar to what is going on in the world as a whole. Since the most recent U.N.-IPCC report on Climate Change was released, and following Al Gore’s movie (“An Inconvenient Truth”), awareness among the general public and politicians is increasing,” she said.

“The Government of Japan does not usually take the lead, but they are very good at following suit. Many Japanese companies, too, are finding that the rules defining competitiveness are changing, so government and corporations are gradually changing,” she added.

Edahiro noted that corporate environmental activity used to be limited to philanthropy, but environmental action is now becoming a core part of corporate culture. “The bottom line has changed, especially for companies that are involved in overseas operations,” she said.

Change comes more slowly to domestic firms, but she was pleased to see a variety of interesting initiatives surfacing in local markets, particularly in the banking and finance sectors.

“Small banks are very eager to help local companies reduce their carbon-dioxide emissions. For example, some banks are offering special reduced-rate loans to help businesses invest in emissions reductions. Others, such as Shiga Bank and Biwako Bank, are offering savings accounts with interest rates that rise as reductions are made in community CO2 emissions. Similarly, other banks are tying higher interest rates to reductions in the amount of garbage generated by the community,” she said.

At the local-government level, Edahiro noted the use of incentives in Nagoya City to get city employees to ride bicycles rather than drive. While car drivers are paid a flat rate monthly for travel expenses, bicycle riders are paid a variable rate that begins higher than cars and rises with the number of kilometers traveled. As of 2003, car use was down 25 percent, bicycle riding up 50 percent.

(For more information on these and other initiatives across Japan, visit the JFS Web site (www.japanfs.org), scroll down to the index in the right-hand margin, then search more than a dozen topic choices, from energy and transportation to manufacturing industry and NGO/citizen activities.)

Hundreds of volunteers scattered across Japan are the eyes and ears of JFS, providing information on these and other local initiatives from Hokkaido to Okinawa.

This enviable grassroots network, providing Edahiro with a unique perspective on Japan’s environmental landscape, has not been entirely lost on the central government.

Last February, former Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda appointed 12 individuals from various fields to serve on an advisory committee, the so-called Panel on a Low-Carbon Society, in an effort to address the problems of global warming and climate change. Edahiro was selected to represent Japanese civil society and now sits on the panel with representatives from Toyota, Japan Steel, TEPCO and academia.

Edahiro believes that the appointment is proof that the government is finally opening its doors, however little, to direct cooperation with civil society. “To put someone like me on a panel at this level would have been unthinkable just three or four years ago. It reflects change at the highest level,” Edahiro noted.

As one government official confided to her, working with NGO people in the past has been difficult because they tended to be quite confrontational. Edahiro hopes that by listening and discussing problems and solutions in a more cooperative spirit, she and representatives of government and industry can find shared goals and means to achieve those goals.

Recently she was even invited to speak at an annual training seminar offered to executives of the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transportation and Tourism — the ministry that sits at the heart of Japan’s concrete and construction culture. This is the first time an environmentalist has been asked to address the executives, according to Edahiro, and represents a symbolic step forward in awareness.

However, the real problem in Japan is not awareness. Surveys consistently show the Japanese are well aware of environmental problems — as much as 96 percent of the population is concerned about global warming and climate change. Edahiro attributes this high level of shared concern to Japan’s homogeneity.

The challenge now, for Edahiro and JFS, is to convert awareness into sustained action.

JFS is a nonprofit organization established in 2002 to share Japan’s societal and environmental progress with the wider world. Its Web site is bilingual, it distributes weekly digests and monthly newsletters to more than 7,000 subscribers in 179 countries and it invites foreign researchers to speak in Japan.

Edahiro shares oversight of JFS with a brains trust of colleagues that includes co-CEO Hiroyuki Tada, 47, General Manager Riichiro Oda, 41, and Manager Kazunori Kobayashi, 32. However, the day-to-day operations are in the hands of just two full-time office employees: Sakamoto and Nobuko Saigusa, the JFS general administrator and accountant.

Other staff include a Web-site administrator, an information administrator and project staff in charge of the Daiwa-JFS Sustainability College research and educational programs.

At JFS, however, size belies impact.

Asked about the future, Edahiro has her sights set on taking JFS to the regional level. “I’m hoping that in the future we can shift from JFS to AFS — Asia for Sustainability — then to WFS, or World for Sustainability. First, though, we would like to create a platform so that other Asian countries, such as Korea and China, can send out their information to the world in English,” she said.

Last month, she took part in a conference in China titled “Learning from Japan,” which was sponsored by the Chinese Government and supported by Hitachi Corporation. Other Japanese speakers were from government, academia and Hitachi, with Edahiro representing the NGO sector.

Her talk on the development of civil society in Japan was well received by Chinese officials, and she feels they appreciate that cooperation among government, industry and citizens is key for progress on environmental issues.

She also spoke informally with officials about the importance of information dissemination and was very impressed by the ambitious goals China is setting for energy efficiency and for the introduction of renewable energies, “a goal much higher than Japan’s,” she said.

Another initiative that impressed Edahiro was a change in the government’s policy for civil servant promotions. Traditionally, central government officials would be promoted after being sent to work in local areas. In the past, the sole criteria for evaluation, and promotion, was economic growth in the local region.

That is changing. Now environmental criteria are being included, such as better energy efficiency and water quality. If a civil servant does not show progress on these criteria, despite good economic performance, the chance for a promotion to a prestigious central government position is lost, says Edahiro.

Even more exciting for Edahiro, Chinese officials agreed to let JFS publish the contents of their discussions with her.

With Asia for Sustainability on the horizon, Edahiro is even more focused on the biggest challenge of all: translating widespread awareness into widespread action. Being a translator, it’s a challenge to which Edahiro is perfectly suited.

Stephen Hesse can be contacted at stevehesse@hotmail.com