Language | BILINGUAL

Going green with your Japanese vocabulary

by Kaori Shoji

Contributing Writer

Australia is burning, glaciers are melting, we’re only a couple of weeks into the new year but it feels like the end of the world. In Japan, however, the media seems more interested in everything Ghosn than anything green.

Perhaps language has something to do with it. News outlets were quick to make the switch from 地球温暖化 (chikyū ondanka, global warming) to 気候変動 (kikō hendō, climate change) a few years back, but they have been less willing to deploy 気候危機 (kikō kiki, climate crisis), a term that is now used in The Japan Times and some publications in the West.

The word 環境 (kankyō, environment) is one that everyone knows, but the extent of most people’s 環境保護 (kankyō hogo, environmental protection) is often the purchase of a マイバッグ (mai baggu), which literally translates as “my bag” and is used for reusable bags that you take with you when shopping. The “my” prefix is currently in vogue, some of my friends are also using マイ箸 (mai hashi, reusable chopsticks), マイボトル (mai botoru, a reusable bottle) and マイストロー (mai sutorō, a reusable straw). And while using your own reusable bottles and straws may not seem like much, I like to think that it gets people into a more environmentally friendly mindset.

Speaking for myself, I’ve been using the same bag to do my shopping for years. I’ve had it since “エコ” (“eko,” “eco”) was the trendy prefix and what I was carrying was more commonly referred to as an エコバッグ (eko baggu, eco bag). Store clerks were less aware of the importance of recyclable bags back then and would automatically pull out a ビニール袋 (binīru bukuro, vinyl/plastic bag) until I’d beseech them with a “袋はなしで大丈夫です” (“fukuro wa nashi de daijōbu desu,” “it’s OK if I don’t get a bag”). Nowadays, clerks are more likely to ask, “レジ袋はいりますか” (“reji bukuro wa irimasu ka,” “do you need a [plastic] bag?”) or, if the item I’m buying is small, “テープでよろしいですか” (“tēpu de yoroshii desu ka,” “is it OK to just put a piece of tape on this?”), to which I can reply, “テープだけで大丈夫です” (“tēpu dake de daijōbu desu,” “just tape is fine”).

Two people have stood out with regard to all things green in the past year: Shinjiro Koizumi and Greta Thunberg. Koizumi is Japan’s 環境相 (kankyō-sho, environment minsiter) and as head of the 環境省 (kankyō-sho, environment ministry) he has to tackle 公害防止 (kōgai bōshi, pollution prevention) and 原子力安全規制 (genshiryoku anzen kisei, regulations that oversee nuclear power safety). Koizumi’s tenure isn’t off to a great start as he was mocked for saying, “気候変動のような大きな問題への取り組みは、楽しく、かっこよく、セクシーであるべきだ” (“Kikō hendō no yō na ōkina mondai e no torikumi wa, tanoshiku, kakkoyoku, sekushī de aru beki da,” “On tackling a big-scale issue like climate change, it’s got to be fun, it’s got to be cool. It’s got to be sexy, too”), and at the COP 25 environment talks held in Madrid in December, Japan received two 化石賞 (kaseki-shō, Fossil of the Day awards) for not phasing out 石炭火力発電 (sekitan karyoku hatsuden, coal-fired power generation) and failing to step up their 温室効果ガス (onshitsu kōka gasu, greenhouse gas) emissions targets to cut carbon.

Koizumi is a part of the 安倍政権 (Abe seiken, administration of Shinzo Abe) and as such many critics believe he should curb Japan’s reliance on 化石燃料 (kasekinenryō, fossil fuels). The numbers are certainly dismal: Japan is nearly 90 percent reliant on 化石燃料, of which around 20 percent are LNG (liquefied natural gas) imports from the Middle East. You’d be forgiven for calling Japan a 環境後進国 (kankyō kōshinkoku, ecologically underdeveloped nation).

On the other hand, young people worldwide seem to be head over heels for 17-year-old Swedish environmentalist Greta Thunberg, and while Japanese youth may seem less active when it comes to 環境保護, they haven’t been immune from the グレタさん効果 (Gureta-san kōka, the Greta effect), who gave a riveting speech at the 国連気候行動サミット (Kokuren kikō kōdō samitto, United Nations Climate Action Summit) last September.

Japanese social media teemed with accolades for Thunberg while mainstream media focused on what to call her. In the end, they settled for グレタさん (Greta-san, Ms. Greta). Had she been under 15, it would have been グレタちゃん (Greta-chan, Miss Greta) and if she were over 20, トゥーンベリさん (Tōnberi-san, Ms. Thunberg). That such a debate went on at all, though, shows how deeply the ostrich has its head buried in the sand.

グレタさん was able to heighten awareness of CO2排出 (CO2 haishutsu, carbon emissions), プラゴミ (puragomi, plastic waste) and the whole 飛行機は環境に悪い (hikōki wa kankyō ni warui, planes are bad for the environment) controversy. Some older Japanese were resentful of that third point, with Takafumi Horie of Livedoor bemoaning the fact in weekly Playboy magazine in December. He said a ban on air travel would be like “人間が人間であることを否定することになる” (“Ningen ga ningen dearu koto o hitei suru koto ni naru,” “Denying humans to be humans”). Horie shot himself in the foot with that remark. Social media turned on what it thought were clueless comments.

In September, the island of Iki in Nagasaki Prefecture issued a 非常事態宣言 (hijō jitai sengen, climate emergency declaration), which has been followed by similar declarations from Kamakura, Kanagawa Prefecture, and even the entire prefecture of Nagano. While this all seems pretty overwhelming, it’s good to remember that 塵も積もれば山となる (chiri mo tsumoreba yama to naru), which literally translates as “let the dust pile up and it’ll become a mountain” or, in other words, “every little bit counts.”

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