Around the world, young people are leading the fight against climate change. But in Japan, a conservative culture of restraint and the stigmatization of public demonstrations are making it difficult for the movement to take hold.
During the global climate strike in September, 7.6 million people gathered across 185 countries in what organizers called one of the largest coordinated protests in history.
About 5,000 people in Japan took part, more than half of whom marched in Tokyo. In comparison, more than 1.5 million people took to the streets in Italy, 1.4 million in Germany, 800,000 in Canada and more than 500,000 in the United States, according to local reports.
Despite the low turnout in Japan, organizers were encouraged — surprised, even — and believe a steady increase in attendance at climate protests in the country signals growing concern about climate change.
“I genuinely didn’t expect that many people to show up. Seeing that crowd gave me goose bumps,” said 22-year-old climate activist Eri Okada. “In Japan, public demonstrations are seen as radical or dangerous, which might explain why people distance themselves from protests and marches.”
Okada is a member of Fridays for Future Tokyo, or FFF Tokyo, the local chapter of an international group created in 2018 shortly after 16-year-old environmental activist Greta Thunberg began sitting in front of the Swedish parliament to protest the lack of action being taken against the global climate crisis.
When FFF Tokyo first hosted a protest in March, no more than 100 people showed up. But that number grew to about 250 people for the second gathering in May. In September, however, more than 2,800 parents, children, students, professionals and foreign residents took part in a student-led march through the streets of Shibuya Ward in Tokyo. The big turnout last month was an encouraging sign for the group, whose members said they often have difficulty finding family or peers who share their concern for the climate. They hope that, leading up to the next march in Tokyo on Nov. 29, this trend will continue.
“A lot of people are still afraid to speak out against things they believe are wrong and unjust,” Okada said. “As an industrialized country, Japan needs to take responsibility for contributing to climate change and help rectify the situation.”
In an online survey conducted in February, 52 percent of respondents in Japan said they felt global warming and climate change were “serious issues” — the most out of any of the 28 countries surveyed, according to global research agency Ipsos.
In June, Japan vowed as a nation to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to zero in the second half of the 21st century. And here, as around the world, local municipalities are leading the fight against climate change.
In May, Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike said the capital would aim to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to zero by 2050. Tokyo also plans to make the capital free of carbon dioxide emissions during the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics by offsetting emissions during those four days with donated emissions credits. The credits are being acquired through a cap-and-trade program for big companies that the metropolitan government launched in fiscal 2010.
“Throughout Japan, the country is experiencing life-threatening weather the likes of which we’ve never seen before,” Koike said during a speech at a two-day climate leadership training event organized by former U.S. Vice President Al Gore in Yokohama in October. “Climate change is no longer a subject of debate, it’s part of our reality.”
Since September, two massive typhoons — Faxai and Hagibis — tore through the country within weeks of each other, bringing record-breaking rainfall, strong winds and extensive flooding. In both cases, homes were destroyed, families were displaced and lives were lost. A growing body of research says the frequency and severity of typhoons and other natural disasters will increase due to climate change.
According to a landmark 2018 report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or IPCC, human-induced warming reached approximately 1 degree Celsius above pre-industrial levels in 2017. To avoid altering the climate beyond repair, the report said, carbon emissions need to be reduced by at least 45 percent by 2030 and to zero by 2050.
Seita Emori, deputy director of the Center for Global Environmental Research at the National Institute for Environmental Studies, said Tokyo’s zero emissions goal are praiseworthy so long as they’re followed up by concrete action. “There are, of course, critics who say it’s not enough to be in line with the goal to avoid global warming of 1.5 degrees Celsius,” he said. “At the very least, Tokyo is trying to be a leader among the world’s megacities.”
Other municipalities are also working hard to curb greenhouse gas emissions.
In September, the island city of Iki in Nagasaki Prefecture became the first municipality in Japan to proclaim a Climate Emergency Declaration, or CED. The nonbinding proclamation commits the city to take action at the necessary scale and speed to reduce carbon emissions, pursue renewable resources and do everything within its power to address climate change. The city of Kamakura in Kanagawa Prefecture made the declaration in early October.
Outside of Japan, 21 countries including the United Kingdom, France, Canada and Ireland and nearly 1,200 local and regional municipalities, including New York and San Francisco, have made such declarations.
But despite the measures being taken by the central government and municipalities, climate change advocates still feel Japan is lagging far behind.
Climate change is a low priority among politicians at local and national levels because pressure isn’t being applied by voters, Emori explained, and until that happens, the country will remain “slow” in its efforts to reduce carbon emissions, divest from fossil fuels and invest in renewable energy.
Still, awareness is growing among younger generations.
“Climate change will affect us all someday,” said 16-year-old FFF Tokyo member Saori Iwano. “We have no option but to take action and make our voices heard. Our own lives and those of future generations depend on it.”