Tokiko Kato

Tokiko Kato is every bit as energetic and candid in person as she appears on stage. Best known as a singer and musician, Kato is also a poet and painter, and serves on the board of the World Wide Fund for Nature Japan. Though her schedule is hectic, it is by choice, and she has energy to spare. This autumn Kato became Japan’s first “Special Envoy” to the United Nations Environment Program.

Last month, a day after Kato returned from appearances in Moscow, and a day before beginning concerts in Japan, we had a chance to talk. In an interview that ranged from nature to poetry and music, Kato proved sensitive to the complexity of environmental problems, and eager to be an informed and effective envoy. Below are excerpts of our conversation.

Why were you chosen?

“They were looking for someone who would be able to go anywhere, willing to visit places where important UNEP projects are taking place. They wanted someone who wouldn’t mind [hardships] and was willing to travel.”

Where would you like to visit and why?

“Particularly in Asia, I hope to visit places where people work in very hard conditions, such as Sumatra and Syria. Environmental issues, I believe, depend on each person’s effort and cumulative effects. Though the U.N. is really a big operation, at the sites of their projects, what really matters may not be the rationale but individual people and their relationships. Projects planned to deal with environmental problems may invade cultures different from our own and destroy their lives and traditions. [Awareness of this] is really crucial.”

What global problems concern you?

“Regarding global warming, I think tree planting projects are worth considering. I was shocked, however, to find that these afforestation projects may sometimes destroy native plants, in order to make it easier to plant a single kind of new tree. I was shocked that planting trees could be disastrous depending on the way projects proceed, like afforestation projects which took place in Japan after the war.”

(Note: Following World War II, Japan undertook a nationwide reforestation program. Cedar was planted on a vast scale, leaving Japan with serious pollen problems and forests void of the biological diversity found in indigenous forests.)

What other concerns do you have?

“When things become too big, they can go badly wrong. I am afraid that as solutions are sought on a large scale, human sensitivity can be overlooked, causing negative impacts. Till now, I have been in contact with people who are involved with nature on a small scale, and getting involved with UNEP, a large organization, I remind myself that I should be careful about this. Individual initiative is very important, far more important, even though environmental problems are dealt with on a large scale.

“Recently I gave a lecture to young people participating in volunteer activities, such as UNEP. I told them that there are no straight lines in nature. Straight lines are only human-made, something unusual in nature. We should have sensitivity about these lines, if we want to build something in nature. But people build bulky concrete buildings and roads with no consideration for nature.

“So I am afraid that when people get involved in environmental projects they may forget how wonderful natural creations are and start working on projects just to attain certain numbers, for example the Kyoto protocol on climate change.

“I am a singer and a poet. I don’t know much about policy, but I know what should be valued today, that is, to enjoy being next to nature and appreciate the joy of life.”

What problems concern you in Japan?

“A particular issue I have been involved with is Shiraho. As UNEP envoy, I am not concerned with projects inside Japan, so I would like to comment from my private point of view. In the ’80s they planned to build an airport in Shiraho [by reclaiming coastal land], and many people fought the plan.”

(Note: Opponents argue that building an airport in Shiraho, on Ishigaki Island, will damage coral reefs.)

“After that, the new airport was canceled as the Japanese government faced international pressure, such as from the Duke of Edinburgh, a WWF representative. Recently, however, a new plan to build an airport on the coastline near Shiraho was announced.

“To make matters worse, a government list of 200 canceled public works projects includes the former Shiraho project which was canceled. People who see the list misunderstand, and think that the new project for Shiraho airport has also been canceled. I have received many e-mails saying ‘Congratulations’ from those who saw the list and thought the problem had been solved. I have to let them know their misunderstanding of the issue.”

When did you first become interested in environmental problems?

“In the early ’70s. My husband was a leader of the student movement during 1968-1969. Environmental problems had already become serious in the 1960s, but the students were foolish. They hardly did anything to work on pollution problems. He was shocked by this and became interested in environmental issues as a fundamental theme. He said we should reform our way of thinking based on the relationship between human beings and the earth. That was when we started valuing ecology.”

What can schools do to educate children about the environment?

“Children used to learn about how to live and enjoy life in nature and the woods just by playing. I wish they did the same today. Schools should include work in the woods, such as thinning forests, in school curricula, particularly at elementary and junior high schools during compulsory education on forests.”

What are the benefits of being the UNEP envoy?

“It has been my pleasure that more people have recently contacted me and let me know about their projects, and problems happening around them. I always felt I should have known more about these things, so I am pleased to have people now sending me messages.”

As envoy, do you have a message for the world?

“I would like to say , ‘Please take care of your life. Be more sensitive to what you need for your life and live your life with greater care for life.’ “

Any message for the Japanese?

“I believe that, most importantly, people should have respect for their own lives. I am concerned that Japanese people have gotten a little apathetic; they should be more proud of themselves and their own country. Japan is a beautiful country where people have great nature as not seen in other parts of the world. It is crucial for people to love and care for the land where they live. Even if the world becomes a single unit, and international communication systems develop, what matters for each person to hold power for enjoying their lives is to be able to love the place where they are. l would like them to become able to have pride in their country, Japan.”