UNEP envoy strikes the right eco-chord


Tokiko Kato has been popular in Japan for decades as a singer and songwriter who is passionate about people and the planet. Two years ago, when the Environment Ministry asked her to act as a Special Envoy to the United Nations Environment Program it was a natural fit. Since then she has established herself as a tireless ambassador, bringing her message of environmental conservation and traditional values to Japan and much of Asia.

When I first spoke with Kato before her duties began, she was eager to undertake the role of envoy, but felt she had much to learn about the environment. That was more than a year ago.

Last month we spoke again and she had clearly been doing her homework: exploring social and environmental concerns firsthand, and learning from sources as diverse as English environmental textbooks and residents of Bangkok’s slums.

This month, at the ministry’s request, Kato and her musicians will travel to Johannesburg, South Africa and join local musicians for concerts on the occasion of the World Summit on Sustainable Development being held there, including on its designated Japan Days of Aug. 28 and 29. Earlier this year, she attended a WSSD preparatory meeting in Bali.

The following are excerpts from our recent talk about her work, Bali, sustainability . . . and where Japan should go from here. It’s very sad to have to report that this interview took place before the death of her husband, Toshio Fujimoto, from cancer on July 31.

What have you learned since becoming an envoy?

While traveling around Asia, I have found that rapid economic development has caused a loss of 50 percent of forests and destroyed village livelihoods. Management of rural development has failed, as traditional agricultural lands have been cleared for the sake of “development.” This sounds much like our own failure in Japan. In their case, though, the speed of change has been even faster. I have seen these rapid changes result in serious degradation of nature.

What have you particularly enjoyed?

Interestingly, I enjoyed spending three days in the Bangkok slums. I found their lives quite humane. I understand that people living in slums are considered a problem of poverty, however, I do not agree that their lifestyles are all bad. Their lives and the atmosphere among them felt good to me, and the real problems are a lack of residential rights and the possibility of being evicted.

In Bali, there was a man on a beach making salt from seawater by drying it under the sun. I realized that this is a sustainable life; a model representing relationships between people and nature, people working hard to gain from nature. However in “development” discussions, this kind of lifestyle will probably not be protected any longer. We talk about how to help people attain economic development and overcome poverty, but I feel strongly that we should recognize there are still simple lifestyles well balanced with the environment and these should not be destroyed. I think we should protect people’s lifestyles, as well as the environment, just as we spend money to protect national parks.

What were your impressions of the Bali meeting?

I heard that developing countries want to get as much aid as possible for further development, and insist that developed nations should be responsible for cleaning up the environment. At the same time, developed nations demand that developing countries take more responsibility and have stricter regulations and standards, even though these may slow development. This polarization is a major cause of difficulties.

Personally, I am worried that developing nations do not have plans for the future to guide problem-solving . . . I would like to see [them] learn from the mistakes of Japan, which used to hold Asian values, but due to rapid economic development and postwar westernization suffered great environmental destruction.

What role would you like Japan to play in coming years?

I think it is important to change our focus from GNP numbers to the creation of laws that support people who live in balance with the environment. There should be policies and strategies to support organic farming. We need systems and reforms so consumers are motivated to buy organic products even if the prices are higher. In fact I see some progress. For example, there is a movement promoting the recycling of wastes produced by urban residents for use in organic agriculture. I feel strongly that the government has to proceed step by step to change the laws.

What are you doing personally?

I have had a chance to farm in Kamogawa, Chiba Prefecture, and I am still learning, but at least I know how hard organic agriculture is. Without using chemicals to stop weeds you have to take extra care and need wisdom to do so. It’s important to know where foods come from, how they are produced, and what influences our own wastes have. We really need environmental education for adults.

What’s your view on environmental education for children?

The Ministry of Education and Science has just started a new part of the curriculum called sogo-gakushu no kikan [time for interdisciplinary learning]. I think this could be environmental education. It is a shame that children even in rural areas have very little knowledge of agriculture. It is said that [formal] education is most important, but I’m not so sure, because the wisdom that used to be handed down from generation to generation in workplaces and on farms is not taught in today’s schools, and is lost to the next generation.

In the old days — and now in villages in Bali — parents have felt inferior because they didn’t go to school. Society tells them they are ignorant, though they have great knowledge gained through their lives. I am afraid children may lose their respect for elders’ wisdom as they start going to school, as is happening in Japan.