If you’re new to Nagoya and in need of community, you might want to try picking up some trash.

In fact, community service is how many new residents have started their lives in Nagoya since 2019, when the international social group Small World first started holding monthly pick-ups. In Japan’s fourth-biggest city, a center of industry and jobs that attracts workers from all over, Small World is one of the biggest and most diverse social groups in the city, with a network of over 3,000 people. While known more broadly for being a place to meet international and Japanese folk alike, the organization has a decisively environmental mindset.

“Whatever event we’re doing, we try to leave as little of a footprint as we can,” says Matt Chima, an English teacher from the U.K. and one of the group’s organizers. “We use reusable or biodegradable products and serve vegetarian food at our social events.” In addition to trash pick-ups, Small World runs Clean Cuisine, a vegan food event, and promotes climate events and marches in Nagoya.

Since 2019, Small World has picked up nearly a ton of trash in downtown Nagoya. But the work of Small World is just the tip of the iceberg in an international community that is highly engaged in environmental field work and activism.

For Katrin Funk, a German employee at NGK Spark Plug and a Nagoya resident, participating in Small World’s trash pick-up ended up launching a career in sustainability.

Funk says she grew up in Germany assuming that politicians and companies would solve society’s environmental problems. But after coming to Japan, a country behind Germany in terms of sustainability according to the Sustainable Development Index by the Sustainable Development Report, and meeting more environmentally conscious people, she grew determined to act. She started by helping organize the city’s Fridays for Future team, part of the global climate movement started by Swedish activist Greta Thunberg. She runs climate marches, gives public lectures on environmental issues and organizes large-scale charity events around sustainability.

“I didn’t want my future children to ask me, what did you do when we still had a chance to change?” Funk says. “I love how the international community gets so active here even though it’s not their home country. It’s the perfect partnership between doing something good for the environment, having fun and connecting with different cultures.”

Hello work: Katrin Funk took what she learned from climate activism and brought it to her company. | COURTESY OF SMALL WORLD
Hello work: Katrin Funk took what she learned from climate activism and brought it to her company. | COURTESY OF SMALL WORLD

Funk became so involved that she had decided to quit her job at NGK Spark Plug to focus on activism, but instead she was offered a position running sustainability training for the entire company.

“Now I run a mandatory two-hour training for all employees,” Funk says. “These people in my company never got to know about the climate crisis. They just assumed somebody else would do something about it. I get a lot of comments from people saying that they want to act now.”

Leaders such as Funk and environmentally focused groups like Small World have churned out a lot of green-conscious individuals in Nagoya’s international community. Vegans have a place to make friends and discover the area’s under-the-radar vegan food scene with Clean Cuisine events, and Small World’s trash pick-ups always end with Chima, Funk, and others sharing an eco-habit for the community to try, like using zero-waste magnesium pellets instead of detergent for laundry.

Nagoya’s environmental events focus on both individual action as well as broader social change. Funk’s Happy Planet charity events, most recently held in October, involve eco-friendly DIY workshops that focus on skills like how to make a shopping bag out of an old T-shirt, while local activists from Japan and abroad give talks on pressing climate and social issues.

These events have drawn in members of the international community who wouldn’t have otherwise considered themselves activists. Shehran Azim, a British engineer at JTEKT Corp., first went to the trash pick-up to make friends. But by the end of the year, he was participating in climate protests, trying out vegan food and running a workshop on how to turn old laptops into cameras and TV screens.

“I’m not vegan, not zero-waste. I’m just a guy who wants to do a little bit for the planet — but a lot of people are also like me,” Azim says. “When you’re a foreigner, you need a community and, in Nagoya, Small World is the best community to be a part of. A lot of foreigners here go to Small World for the community, and through that get involved in climate activities because of their friends.”

Mindful meals: Clean Cuisine is a vegan food event that is run by the environmentally minded Small World group. | COURTESY OF SMALL WORLD
Mindful meals: Clean Cuisine is a vegan food event that is run by the environmentally minded Small World group. | COURTESY OF SMALL WORLD

Environmental activism among the international community has also helped support Japanese activists. Miho Murata, a college student from Miyoshi, Aichi Prefecture, has been extremely active in organizing climate demonstrations in Nagoya, and says that international participation is key.

“We need to get to a tipping point where Japanese people think, ‘I’m going to do something good for the Earth because other people do it too,’” Murata says.

The trash pick-up is an ideal starting point to gather like-minded people, capable of making change together.

“You know you’re meeting kindhearted people,” says Chima. “These people are devoting time on their weekends to clean up the streets.”

Both Chima and Funk had plans for large-scale events in 2020 that were partially derailed by the coronavirus pandemic. But with such enthusiasm from the community, new initiatives are still in the works. Small World plans to collect data on the most polluted areas of the city. Meanwhile, on the trendy social app Clubhouse, Funk started an environmental-conscious hangout that has already attracted thousands of participants, including politicians and CEOs.

“Making a difference doesn’t have to be life-changing,” Chima says. “We just need to make smarter choices.”

For more information on Small World, follow the group on Instagram, Twitter or Facebook.

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