Compared with constitutional revision, the economy, celebrity gossip and pontificating (if not panicking) over geopolitical changes in East Asia and Japan’s role in those changes, Japan’s mainstream media and politicians had, until recently, given environmental issues less attention.
Suddenly, though, the environment is back on the agenda. A record-hot summer and natural disasters in Kansai and western Japan, including the flooding of Kansai airport, drove home the importance of dealing with climate change. But in cities like Kyoto, where international tourism drives large sectors of the local economy, waste and garbage and the environmental challenges it presents are the more immediate, pressing problems.
Japan’s ubiquitous use of plastic and the environmental problems it creates has long been noted by those from countries with strict local ordinances or national legislation to control it. Related to the plastic waste problem is one that shocked visitors from countries where food shortages and starvation remain issues: Japan’s huge volume of wasted food that often comes in plastic containers.
The Environment Ministry estimated food loss at about 6.46 million tons in 2015. That’s more than double the nearly 3.2 million tons of food assistance that was distributed worldwide in 2014, according to the United Nations’ World Food Programme.
Local governments around the country are making efforts to reduce food loss and food waste, and Kyoto recently announced it will make reducing food loss a top priority. Earlier this month, Mayor Daisaku Kadokawa cited the 6.46-million-ton food loss figure in announcing new efforts. The city’s calculations are that food loss in Kyoto, with a population of 1.4 million, is about 64,000 tons annually — 1 percent of Japan’s total. Kyoto’s goal is to reduce food loss to 50,000 tons by 2020.
To achieve that goal means pressuring food sellers and distributors to revise the so-called one-third rule, whereby the period from when a food product is produced to its designated “sell by” date is divided into three shorter periods. The first is the amount of time for food manufacturers to get the food to retailers. The second is the period in which retailers are supposed to sell the product. The end of the remaining period is by when consumers are recommended to eat it.
Missing one of these arbitrary “deadlines” can mean food is thrown away, despite the fact that it remains safe to eat.
Some supermarkets in Kyoto have responded to efforts to change the rules, and Kadokawa says they have the backing of most Kyoto residents. But the tougher problem, not limited to Kyoto, is getting convenience stores to rethink the way they operate so as to reduce food loss.
There were more than 55,000 convenience stores nationwide as of August, according to data from the Japan Franchise Association. Kyoto Prefecture had just over 1,000, and unofficial estimates from Kyoto-based environmental activists say the city of Kyoto has at least 600 convenience stores.
Aware Kyoto’s international reputation could take a serious hit if environmentally conscious customers, regardless of nationality, don’t see more efforts to combat food loss in restaurants, supermarkets and convenience stores — which is increasing due to the tourist boom — Kyoto at least recognizes food loss reduction is now a pressing economic, political and public relations, as well as environmental, issue.
The next step is enacting even tougher legal measures of the kind found in other countries on food suppliers and retailers to control food and plastic waste. Japan’s convenience stores have benefitted from the tourism boom in Kyoto and elsewhere. They are politically powerful and will fight hard to ensure reduction policies are as voluntary as possible. However, if Kyoto is serious about becoming a role model for the rest of the nation in reducing food loss, the mayor and the city know that it’s now time to take that next step.
View from Osaka is a monthly column that examines the latest news from a Kansai perspective.