Lena Lindahl has for the past two decades produced environment-related events in Japan in an effort to apply her home country Sweden’s notion of sustainable society here. And she believes the key is education to encourage children to develop and express opinions about issues that concern their own future.

Fluent in Swedish, English and Japanese, the Tokyo-based Lindahl works as an interpreter for environmental experts and gives lectures herself, and arranges tours to take Japanese tourists to Sweden to experience nature and study about the environment.

Aside from giving lectures at universities, municipalities and businesses, she used to publish a newsletter in Japanese that showcased Sweden’s environmental conservation activities and policies. She also serves as a board member of Sustainable Sweden Association, a Swedish-based NGO that promotes exchanges with other countries to spread the country’s knowhow in the field of sustainable development.

Lindahl says that when aiming to solve environmental problems, Japan can learn from Sweden’s educational system. Education in Sweden tries to foster children’s ability to form opinions and express them, she says, adding the focus of education appears different in Japan.

Also in Sweden, children are taught about nature from an early age, she says. There are nature schools, which are specialized programs that takes children outdoors to experience and learn about nature, and these can be part of the school curriculum. Similar programs exist in Japan but they are mostly detached from school education, she added.

“When I came to Tokyo 20 years ago, I was very worried, because I thought that if children grow up in Japan not knowing what nature is, then when they become powerful people in the government or big private companies, they might destroy nature. Not because they are mean, but just because they don’t understand what they’re destroying. They think, ‘OK, we cut down this forest, and if we want it back, we can plant it.’ It doesn’t work like that. Nature is much more complicated,” she said.

Lindahl says that she wants to support young people trying to express their opinion and who are thinking about sustainability and want to take part in building a safer Japan. “It’s their society. They have to have the right to say how they want to live,” she said.

Sweden held a referendum on nuclear power in 1980 following a national debate triggered by the 1979 Three Mile Island accident in the United States. As a result of the vote, it was decided that no new nuclear reactors will be built in Sweden and that nuclear power will be phased out while taking into consideration the need for electric power.

People in Japan, she said, appear to have left it in the hands of the government to decide the country’s energy policy. It is against this background that the nuclear crisis unfolded at the Fukushima No. 1 plant following the March 11 earthquake and tsunami, she added.

“It was a surprise for me, coming from a country where they asked an 18-year-old to say what she thinks about nuclear power,” she said of the 1980 referendum.

Lindahl first came to Japan in 1982 after becoming friends with a couple of Japanese students in France where she was studying. She was fascinated by the Japanese people and culture, and became interested in Japanese crafts and design. Her first intention was to study graphic design in Japan, but ended up teaching English and learning Japanese at a language school in Kyoto for 2 1/2 years.

It was after she returned to Sweden that she experienced the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster. She said she was “both angry and upset” as a 25-year-old at that time because the radiation fallout from the plant in the then Soviet Union spread to other countries, including her own. Since then, researching and addressing environmental issues through writing and talking has been the central theme of her work.

While studying Japanese at a university in Sweden and working as a guide for Japanese tourists, she took part in NGO activities dealing with environmental issues.

Lindahl said she was particularly inspired by the notion of “sustainability” that was promoted by one of the NGOs, The Natural Step. “The previous approach was that we have all these problems and we have to solve them. They said that now, we are going to create a society where these problems don’t occur, and that the direction is to create a safe and good society where we also don’t destroy nature. That was a positive image for me,” she said.

She returned to Japan in 1989 with an urge to take part in efforts to solve environmental problems in Japan, using the knowledge gained in her home country.

She worked for environmental NGOs in Japan, and then worked for five years as a staff for Diet members who were taking part in the Global Legislators Organization for a Balanced Environment.

Lindahl says after two decades here, she now considers herself a part of Japanese society. “I met so many different people (here). I’ve been dancing on the street, been in demonstrations, been working in politics, been to meet businesspeople, farmers and preschool teachers. I’ve been able to see Japan from so many perspectives, because of my varied travel in the society,” she said. “This is my asset that I want to somehow share. If I have the opportunity, I would love to lecture in other countries or talk to the foreign community in Japan,” she added.

Lindahl noted that what she loves most about Japan is its rich culture. “Japan is part of the Western industrialized world, but it’s also part of the Asian (culture). This fantastic mixture makes it very unique,” she said.

“I hope to see a culturally rich and international Japan in the future — maybe not as a big economy as before — but (one that) has its own unique products and contributions to the international world as it has (done in the past). Also, I hope to see the country with various and beautiful nature, and a population that cares about that. A population that recognizes that all this wonderful culture is actually built on that nature.”

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