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‘Sustainability’ in a Japanese way

by Stephen Hesse

Takeshi Hara is an accomplished journalist, author and educator, and at 70 years of age he could easily choose to rest on his laurels.

But with the energy of a teenager and a “Never give up!” motto, he is dedicated to promoting environmental sustainability based on Japanese history and culture.

As fate would have it, Hara contacted me while I was writing my January column about environmental education and social change. He asked if I was interested in hearing about his latest project — and piqued my interest with mention of what he calls “Environmental Japanology.”

Hara graduated from the Waseda University law faculty and became a career journalist with the Mainichi Shimbun newspaper. He has published numerous books in Japanese on the environment, and in 1993 he won a United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) Global 500 Award for his work in broadcasting. In 1998 he became a professor in Waseda’s Graduate School of Asia-Pacific Studies, and is now a visiting professor there and at the Tokyo University of Agriculture.

These days, however, Hara’s passion is Waseda Kankyou Jyuku. The English name, Waseda School of Environment (WSE), has a slightly different meaning than the Japanese, so when we met at his office I asked him why he called it a juku (cram school) rather than a Japanese equivalent of “institute” or “school.”

“The term juku is known commonly in China and Japan as a place where students study with a founder and study the founder’s philosophy,” explains Hara, who heads the school. “The idea is that it is a private school independent from societal constraints and restrictions. Our juku receives corporate support but it is nonprofit and transparent.”

The goal of WSE is to educate and inspire “active leaders” who are committed to innovation in order to promote the sustainability of Japanese society and the planet.

“Over the past 50 years, industrial Japan has gone through periods of destruction and renaissance, and WSE hopes to establish ‘Environmental Japanology’ as a means of uniting Japan’s modernization and cultural traditions, in pursuit of a sustainable society,” says Hara.

He believes that Japan can offer the world a valuable paradigm for sustainable development based on Japan’s own, often contradictory experience, including traditions of nature conservation and the modern challenges of severe industrial pollution.

WSE seminars are based on Hara’s belief that a sustainable society will need to synthesize three elements — nature, human beings and culture — and his students explore approaches to social development that harmonize with the natural environment, he explains.

“Communities consist of citizens, local governments and companies, and we need to infuse life into international efforts, such as the now-floundering Framework Convention on Climate Change, with help from our communities,” he notes.

Hara is proud of many Japanese cultural traditions, such as frugality and respect for nature, but he is quick to admit that Japan — like the rest of the developed world — has lost touch with many traditions of conservation that can help us deal with contemporary problems of waste and overconsumption.

“Humans are social creatures and our environment comprises the natural systems in which we live, human relationships that develop through industry in each local area, and our culture — which is most important, because without a clear sense of identity regarding our habitat and community, we cannot maintain values that are key to societal sustainability.

“Over the last half century, the Japanese have lost their identity and culture in chaos,” Hara says.

Most would argue that Japan is still far from “chaos,” especially in comparison with other societies around the globe that are crumbling under war, debt, drought and disease. Still, I understand his point that, often, local traditions offer sustainable alternatives to modern society, with its ethos of consumption, disposal and degradation.

The most common term used when talking about the creation of a sustainable society is “sustainable development.” As I wrote last month, the term is still debated by environmentalists, economists and scientists, because it is an attempt to reconcile the seemingly irreconcilable: environmental protection and economic growth, technology and nature, the different conditions of developing and developed nations and of women and men, and the different beliefs and philosophies of peoples across the globe.

The term is usually traced back to the World Commission on Environment and Development, and a book the commission published in 1987, “Our Common Future,” which is also known as the “Brundtland Report.” WCED defines sustainable development as: “Development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

Today the Brundtland definition is most commonly used, but there are numerous others. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has defined the term as:”Improving the quality of human life while living within the carrying capacity of supporting ecosystems.” This definition appeared in IUCN’s 1991 report, “Caring for the Earth: A Strategy for Sustainable Living.”

IUCN is a global environmental network based in Gland, Switzerland, with members representing both governments and nongovernment organizations.

The Global Footprint Network offered this definition in 2007: “Sustainable development occurs when all human beings can have fulfilling lives without degrading our planet.”

Big ideas, mammoth challenges. Still, however it is defined, it is always about balancing human societies and the natural environment.

For this reason, Hara uses the environment as a starting point for study, discussion and action on sustainability at WSE. “Using the environment as a platform, the WSE program offers students a chance to examine how Japan and the Japanese have come to their present condition, in terms of human relationships, relationships with the environment, culture and traditional values. Environment is a good foundation, because it can be objective, scientific and firm, so it is easy to study and use as a basis for cooperative discussion among diverse people,” he explains.

The first term, which began in November and ends next month, covers five themes: What is the environment? — A look at local communities; The history of industrial pollution; Minamata disease; Ideas of nature — Environmental protection in Shintoism and Buddhism; and, from next month, The thoughts and actions of environmental volunteers.

Hara especially enjoys talking about environmental philosophies and culture in relation to sustainable development. From his work as a journalist, his academic research and his studies and travels, he has an amazing cache of experience and knowledge.

Comparing the environmental philosophies of Japan, Europe and the United States, he becomes quite animated.

The U.S. has primarily dealt with environmental issues from an economic viewpoint, manipulating the market to deal with problems. Europe has included the dimension of culture in dealing with environmental issues, focusing on lifestyle approaches, he believes. Japan got stuck somewhere in between.

“Japan did not adopt economic rationality like the U.S., nor did it adopt cultural aspects like Europe. Japan worked on environmental issues in half measures. Eventually we reached the point of thinking that even if environmentalism, green technology and environmental law prosper, the environment, practically, has been destroyed. We had shallow knowledge and unclear understanding of the environment,” he declares.

Waseda Jyuku is Hara’s effort to educate and inspire a new generation of activists who can move the nation forward. “Finally, Japan has started to recognize its faults and correct them,” he says.

If even a handful of WSE students have Hara’s energy and determination, then Japan has a fighting chance.

Stephen Hesse can be reached at: stevehesse@hotmail.com