Saving our environment one step at a time


Having ended 2005 with a rant (see below), let me begin 2006 on a more positive note by introducing some valuable environmental education resources.

As an educator, I am a great fan of knowledge, and though, in unguarded moments, I occasionally let slip the phrase “Ignorance is bliss,” for the most part I favor the axiom “Knowledge is power.”

Whatever the concern, be it human rights or the purchase of an iPod, I believe that the more we know, the better equipped we are to deal with the issue successfully.

The environment is no exception. Issues of environmental protection and conservation are often so complex that we need knowledge of science, law and human nature just to understand commonly debated concerns, such as toxins in food and the societal costs of fossil-fuel dependency.

Unfortunately, however, sometimes the more we learn the less we understand. Still, all of us can benefit from having a better grasp of the environmental problems that are shaping our future, and the best place to begin is with knowledge of the terminology and key players involved. For students, this may come in the classroom, but for the rest of us it requires self-study.

To that end, let me share with you two useful environmental resources, one for English teachers and the other for anyone interested in learning more about environmental issues in English and/or Japanese.

The first is a new series of English textbooks published by Macmillan Language House. The series, titled “Looking Back, Moving Forward: An Environmental Course for the Next Generation,” comprises two texts, one containing listening and speaking activities, and the other aimed at reading and discussion. Both are intended for students of English at the intermediate level or above.

The second resource I would like to introduce is a non-governmental organizations’ Web site maintained by Japan for Sustainability (SFJ), which offers a broad range of environmental information from both the private and public sectors, including business news, NGO/NPO information, and the texts of selected laws.

Before discussing the textbooks, though, I have a confession: I wrote several of the passages that appear in the reading text. However, as they were given gratis, this is not shameless self-promotion. That said, if you are an English teacher looking for environmental theme-based textbooks that cover the four skills (listening, speaking, reading and writing), these books are worth a look. They are systematically structured for teacher and student ease and, from the very first pages, students will begin discussing their own lifestyles and concerns, while picking up vocabulary, phrases and information from reading passages and listening activities (on CD and MP3).

Chris Summerville, the author, spent 16 months developing the texts, and he has piloted the materials with more than 300 of his own students at Ritsumeikan U niversity in Kyoto and the University of Hyogo. He has found that the texts even engage lower-intermediate students, allowing sustained English discussion with partners.

“I believe these textbooks are unique in that they allow students to approach the topic of environmental issues through their own daily lives and personal experiences, Summerville observed. “The chapters are not organized by specific environmental issues, as is found in most global issue texts, but by more familiar topics such as shopping, food, health and travel. So these familiar activities are the starting point for English study, rather than distant and complex issues, such as global warming and rainforest destruction.

“In short, the students’ lives are connected to environmental issues rather than vice versa,” Summerville explained in an e-mail.

In the first chapter of the reading text, for example, students are asked to answer a series of five questions and then compare their answers with a partner. The first question is, “Where do you buy your clothes? Why do you shop there?” The last question asks, “Do you know any stores that sell organic clothes?”

The reading passage that follows then explains that the clothing industry is one of the world’s top polluters, and introduces organic cotton as a less harmful alternative.

Summerville noted that although the theme is environment, the texts allow students to constantly practice everyday expressions, such as statements of frequency and preference, expressing likes and dislikes, and stating levels of interest and concern — thus improving fluency.

Students and teachers alike will find some of the listening exercises particularly interesting, since they are short interviews with known personalities, including Fukushima Mizuho, the leader of the Social Democratic Party, Ken Noguchi, the famous mountain climber, Safia Minney, founder of the Fair Trade company People Tree, and Alex Kerr, author of “Lost Japan” and “Dogs and Demons.”

Last but not least, the books are printed on recycled paper using soy ink, so teachers can spend money where their hearts are.

Like the textbooks, the second resource I would like to highlight, the SFJ Web site, is better seen than read about. There are English and Japanese pages that have similar or identical content, allowing users to see the same information in both languages. This is an obvious boon to language learners, but also a valuable resource for researchers, business people and everyone else interested in learning more about Japan’s environmental community.

I have used the SFJ Web site with university students in my environment-policy seminar, and they find it a useful tool for picking up specialized terminology and for comparing sources in English and Japanese.

Several years ago, I spoke with Junko Edahiro, one of SFJ’s founders, and she explained why they created the Web site. “In the field of environment, there are wonderful achievements, inspiring initiatives and grassroots activities at all levels in Japan, including government, companies, nongovernmental organizations and citizens,” she explained, “but many of these good examples and models have not been presented to the wider world, which is a great shame.”

She calls the SFJ Web site a “one-stop shop” for legal issues, corporate activities, local government initiatives and NGO activities, adding, “We are an independent NGO, so we can put any information we find interesting and stimulating on the Web.”

From the homepage, a few mouse clicks will take you to, among other sites, the latest corporate environmental reports (alphabetically listed from Ajinomoto Co. to Yamatake Corp.); selected Japanese laws in English (such as Japan’s Basic Environmental Law, the Beef Traceability Law and the Wildlife Protection and Hunting Law); and an Information Center that allows users to search for information by category, by player, by word search and by number of viewers. I clicked on the latter to see what others had been interested in and found an article on Toyota’s fuel-cell hybrid vehicles at the top of the list. Other articles talked about car-sharing at Kyushu University; a company that rents, rather than sells, heaters; the commercial potential of hemp; and Japan’s PET bottle recycling rate (40 percent).

The site also has links to English-language Web pages that are maintained by Japanese local governments, companies and NGOs, as well as to a very informative companion Web site for children, called “Create Your Future.”

The children’s site, which is only in English, provides easy-to-read essays that offer eco-friendly perspectives on the status quo. One essay, titled “How to Have a Car Without Owning It,” introduces children to car-sharing in Europe and the United States. Another, “How We Can Learn from Nature,” tells the story of how burrs from wild burdock inspired a man to invent Velcro-like loop-and-hook fasteners.

So take a look at both the textbooks and the SFJ Web site if you’re interested, since ignorance may be bliss — but what you don’t know can hurt you.

More information on the Summerville texts can be found at: www.mlh.co.jp/text_detail_e.cfm?lang=e&uid=365 The SFJ Web site in English is at www.japanfs.org and in Japanese at www.japanfs.org/index_j.html Stephen Hesse welcomes readers’ questions and comments at stevehesse@hotmail.com Also, please send your feedback on the Nature/Science page to: natsci@japantimes.co.jp

Sleazy snappers just tip of a volcano, say readers

Last month in Our Planet Earth I went on a bit of a rant about the sleazy photographers I saw at Eco-products 2005, a trade fair held at Tokyo Big Sight in December. Those men (no women in evidence) were hustling around the exhibits taking photos of the “campaign girls” who were handing out brochures and samples.

As I noted in that column, which was headlined “Sleazy snappers turn eco-show sour,” those men were not after casual snapshots. They were standing within arm’s reach of the women and taking numerous shots. The more brazen were down on the floor taking shots of legs and miniskirts.

Women in slacks and jackets were immune, while those in vinyl outfits and high heels attracted a steady stream of photographers.

Many of the women were clearly uncomfortable with the men zooming in so close, but they were doing their best to grin and bear it.

So, rather than writing about the eco-products, I wrote how disturbing it was to see these women being objectified and sexualized at a trade fair that was attended by families and school groups, and was sponsored by the business community and government.

It seemed particularly egregious at a time when women and girls in Japan are subject to a sickening upsurge in molestations, assaults and killings.

I wondered whether I was being too sensitive, but the overwhelming response I got from readers reassured me I was not. Below are some of the notes I received, edited for space and relevance.

Dear Mr. Hesse,

I quite appreciate your bewilderment and your criticism. It might not be a matter of surprise, since it’s based on a normal disgust to shameless behaviors. But in my 58 years of life, I rarely met a person who shared my contempt of the sex-driven male chauvinism that dominates this society. On countless occasions, in conversation and in letters to the editors of newspapers and magazines, I denounced the leniency of Japanese society to shameless men who regard women as the objects of their base desire. But almost without exception, the other end of the communication remained silent.

In the recent spate of words calling for the protection of school children, especially girls, I sent letters to the editor of Asahi Shinbun calling for soul searching by grownups, particularly those in responsible positions, to reflect on what kind of society they have created. They were ignored, though the newspaper carried numerous readers’ opinions proposing cheap and ready-made solutions, such as patrolling of the children’s routes to school.

Most of the Japanese media publish increasingly sensationalistic articles, and people are satisfied with these sensational accounts of tragedies and crimes, self-righteously accusing those assumed to be responsible. They never think that ordinary people like themselves have been building such an ugly society.

I can’t happily hand over such a society to my son and daughter. So I would like to seek persons of reason and cooperate with such people, in order to check the departure of the society from reason as far as possible. I would be very grateful to you if you persuade people around you to raise voices against male chauvinism and the hypocrisy of grownups.

Thank you for your candid account of your experience and criticism.

(a Japanese man)

Dear Steve,

I felt compelled to write to you after reading your sensitive article about the Eco-products 2005 exposition in The Japan Times. I appreciate very much your insight into this aspect of Japanese culture, and would like to affirm to you how very correct your observations are.

I was born in Tokyo in 1954, and from the time I was big enough to walk down the street I was subjected to sexual harassment of every conceivable nature. Perhaps I can forgive these men, perhaps they did not notice that I was only 10 years old. Perhaps the sexualization of foreign women in the media was to blame. But how would a 10-year-old know this at the time? Was it my fault I had blond hair and was considered kawaii [cute]?

So, your reaction was appropriate and correct, and I thank you for this observation, reflecting a sensitivity I find so lacking in this country, especially by men.

I survived my 18 years of upbringing here in Tokyo, and am by chance visiting for a week after moving away as soon as I was old enough to in 1972. Hence, I read your article on this trip. I have no intention of ever living here again, for the very reasons you mention in your article. What a shame, as I could speak Japanese like a native and could easily blend into this country.

It was reassuring to read your comments, as it shows that perhaps things are changing a bit. Perhaps?

(name not for publication)

Dear Mr. Hesse,

I work for a foreign government here in Japan and read your article in The Japan Times about the Eco-products 2005 fair with great interest. I too visited the exhibition, and my report was quite similar to your article, at least in part. I was very relieved that my impression of the big polluters trying to wear an eco-friendly mask was not totally wrong. I was wondering why all those big companies who had nothing to do with protecting the environment got all that space. The contradiction came to my mind when I saw a certain paper manufacturer known to have destroyed countless precious ancient trees (in a foreign country, of course) posing as an environmentally responsible enterprise.

Having been here probably too long, I found the “campaign girls” only hilarious. Instead, I was impressed by some of them who were making the demonstrations: they were really professional. It is funny that those campaign girls are used only at trade fairs that are considered “mannish,” like machinery or heavy-duty stuff. You never see them at other exhibitions considered “feminine,” like interiors or giftware. I wonder if some pretty boys in tight costumes would be appreciated.

You were totally right in pointing out that a very wrong message is given to children. I wonder if the mothers and teachers bothered to explain this to the little ones? Probably not — but what could they say anyway, without putting the whole system into question?

However, any time that we gaijin [foreigners] point out these things, it is received as “us & them,” and Japanese feel they are criticized as a whole. Even women sometimes feel the urge to find some explanation.

On my part, I’d like to speak out about things that aren’t right, not from an external point of view, but as someone who is part of this community. I pay taxes here and contribute to the well-being of the people around me. Why should I keep silent?

Thanks for your article. I enjoyed it very much!

(a foreign resident)


No, you were not being overly sensitive, Japan is a male-dominated reactionary country where women are socialized to be mere (sexual) playthings. Also, my son was chased by a molester in Ikebukuro in Tokyo’s Toshima Ward, so now we walk him to school every day (no shortage of sick weirdos in Ikebukuro however!). What a sad statement on the pathetic “environmental movement” in Japan when a bunch of phony eco products receive the main focus. Of course I agree, something is better than nothing (maybe). However, this reformist tactic is too slow and too late in my opinion.

(a foreign resident)