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Time for Japan to realize it really is the canary in the mine

by Stephen Hesse

This Christmas Day column is a book review, but it is also a wish and a prayer.

The wish is that the book might, even in some small way, contribute to the development of robust and open debate over Japan’s energy future, the options available, and the hard choices that must be made by Japanese citizens, politicians, bureaucrats and corporate executives.

It is also a wish that the right choices will be made so that, decades from now, residents of Japan and the planet can look back and view March 11, 2011, as the tragic day that inspired Japan to change — and the world to follow suit.

And it is a prayer for all those who died; who lost family, friends, homes and livelihoods; and those, too, who continue to be robbed of their health, safety and their peace of mind by the ongoing fiasco at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant operated by Tokyo Electric Power Co. (Tepco).

The book, titled “Japan’s Tipping Point: Crucial Choices in the Post-Fukushima World,” is a short paperback by a U.S. journalist named Mark Pendergrast about his travel through Japan in early summer, 2011. It begins and ends with Chiaki Kitada, Pendergrast’s research assistant and translator during his visit. It opens with a dedication to Kitada and closes with her words of resilience and encouragement: “The kind of Japanese collective creativity in the face of daunting challenges seen after World War II did not appear overnight; nor did that capacity simply vanish.”

In between, Pendergrast — who was born in 1948 and is the author of several highly rated books — offers a very readable and engaging tale of his visit to Japan. The story reveals the author’s keen journalistic eye and his resulting deep ambivalence about Japan’s future. “A strange combination of critical analysis, travelogue, absurdist nonfiction, and call to action,” is how he characterizes his own book.

More than a year ago, Pendergrast was drafting a proposal for a book on the impacts of population growth, climate change and fossil-fuel depletion, and that piqued his interest in renewable-energy approaches.

One thing led to another, and he applied for and was awarded an Abe Fellowship for Journalists, which gave him an opportunity to spend six weeks in Japan. His plan was to study Japan’s Eco-Model City Project (ECMP), which began in 2008.

“Thirteen Japanese cities had been designated as ECMPs, and they were using various renewable strategies, including solar panels, micro-hydro generators, wind turbines, electric vehicles, hydrogen power, biodiesel, wood pellets, and geothermal systems. Perfect,” Pendergrast writes of his decision to visit Japan.

His proposal to the Abe Foundation calls for him to interview government officials, academic experts and renewable advocates, and to visit four Eco-Model Cities. The ensuing six-week dash through Japan, in which he covers too much territory too fast, took the author to Kitakyushu, Yusuhara in Shikoku, Kyoto, Toyota City in Aichi Prefecture, Yokohama and Tokyo.

But what will surprise readers who are long-time residents of Japan is how much he gets right in such a short time.

Pendergrast is incessantly on the move, tracking down unique projects and pointless government programs and interviewing an array of knowledgeable Japanese who seem quite willing to confirm what the author begins to suspect: Japan’s oft-vaunted claim to alternative-energy leadership is an emperor bereft of clothes.

He soon finds out that surface and substance in Japan are often at odds. During one interview — with Tsuyoshi Fujita, a professor at Toyo University and one of the planners of the ECMP — he is told that “the Eco-Model Cities [were] chosen in a huge hurry at the request of then-Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda of the Liberal Democratic Party, who wanted to announce the program at the Group of Eight summit held in Hokkaido in July 2008.”

As Fujita wrote in the October 2008 issue of the government’s online monthly magazine Highlighting Japan, the cities applying for Eco-City status had a “rather short application period spanning some 40 days.” Just enough time for bureaucrats to draft a cut-and-paste vision of the future.

Throughout his travels, Pendergrast uncovers ironies and absurdities that mar policymaking in the world’s third-largest national economy.

“Japanese trains run to the minute, and the country’s businesses pride themselves on energy-efficiency. The Japanese boast of their eco-services for eco-products in eco-cities. Yet they rely primarily on imported fossil fuel and nuclear power, live in energy-wasteful homes, and import 60 percent of their food,” he writes in the opening lines of the book.

Nevertheless, Pendergrast offers glimmers of optimism as well, and he sees a larger picture in the challenges Japan faces.

Japan “may be changing in the wake of the Fukushima nuclear disaster. Maybe,” Pendergrast observes.

“Japan is at a crucial tipping point. As an island nation, it offers a microcosmic look at the problems facing the rest of the globe. And as Japan tips, so may the world.”

But his disappointment builds quickly. “It turned out that I was incredibly naive about the Japanese situation. I soon learned that Japan lagged far behind Europe, the United States, and even (in some respects) China in terms of renewable-energy efforts. Although there is enormous potential for geothermal, wind, and biomass, it has not been utilized. When I arrived in Japan, there was only a federal subsidy for solar photovoltaic panels on residential homes, reinstated in 2009 after an ill-planned suspension. Even solar hot water — a venerable, proven technology — is not popular. And Japan is mired in bureaucracy, political in-fighting, indecision, puffery, public apathy and cultural attitudes that make rapid change difficult,” he writes.

Pendergrast learns about the cozy relationship that central government bureaucrats have with the nation’s power utilities, such as Tepco. He finds out, too, that those utilities routinely place those same bureaucrats in cushy retirement positions, a practice known as amakudari (literally, “descent from heaven”).

“Many top METI (Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry) officials have been hired by electric companies as high-paid executives or consultants. Thirteen former ministry bureaucrats currently serve as executive directors or corporate advisers of power companies. Tokyo Electric Power Co. (Tepco) employs five of them,” he dryly observes.

And he is told that change will come slowly — if at all.

Indeed, in one painfully illuminating vignette, Pendergrast reports: “Although METI sponsors some worthwhile renewable-energy and conservation efforts, the ministry exists primarily to support the status quo. Yukari Yamashita, a senior research fellow in the Institute for Energy Economics, Japan, was quite frank. ‘We try to be objective, but we are part of METI, which supports gas, oil, and nuclear energy, as well as industry as a whole.’ “

As is so often the case around the world when there are cozy ties between industry and governments, bringing about change in Japan will be next to impossible as long as the foxes are watching over, well, the foxes in the henhouse.

But the book is not just about Japan’s shortcomings. It is about honest and dedicated people, about a nation that is blessed with splendid natural beauty, and about its limitless potential for generating alternative energies.

Still, over and over, Pendergrast is taken aback by Japan’s failure to develop its potential, allowing politicians, bureaucrats, and business interests to dominate the energy dialogue — one that should be guided by citizens and good science.

Looking back, he admits that his trip was a whirlwind and there is much he has missed. But he trusts what he has seen — and so he should.

“I fear that Japanese leaders and bureaucrats will continue to give lip service to eco-cities and eco-lives, or the new buzzword, smart-communities, smart-services. They will pass nice-sounding legislation without real teeth or sufficient budgets (unless the new Feed-in Tariff law, to take effect on July 1, 2012, really works). But there may be no systemic change until another crisis precipitates drastic moves to avert disaster. And by that time it may be too late,” he warns.

“Yet Japan is also one of the most beautiful countries in the world, with friendly, resilient people who can, when motivated, pull together to accomplish incredible things. I happened to land there at a crucial time for Japan, when the country has an opportunity to rethink its energy policy and entire future. It could show the way to create an ecologically sustainable world.

“In a way, Japan is the proverbial canary in the coalmine. As an industrialized island country, it is facing the same issues as the rest of the globe, only sooner and more urgently,” reflects Pendergrast.

If he is right in observing that as tips Japan, so might the world, there is no time to waste, and no better time for the birth of a 21st-century Japanese miracle.

“Japan’s Tipping Point: Crucial Choices in the Post-Fukushima World” is available in paperback from Amazon.co.jp (¥921) and as an ebook from www.barnesandnoble.com ($2.99). Mark Pendergrast can be contacted via www.markpendergrast.com. Stephen Hesse is a professor in the Law Faculty of Chuo University and director of the Chuo International Center. He can be contacted at stevehesse@hotmail.com.