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Okinawa’s famed coral reefs, bleached by a rise in sea temperatures; Kyoto’s geisha collapsing from the heat; and Tokyo’s landmark Skytree submerged in water — the future World Wide Fund for Nature Japan paints for this country isn’t kawaii in the slightest.

The 1964 Tokyo Olympics laid the groundwork for what the capital would look like in the decades that followed. However, it is the vision of environmental stress presented by the WWF — and not the 2020 Games — that is likely to weigh on Tokyo’s future.

Like many environmental warnings, however, the group allows for some hope: If we change our ways then things won’t be as bad as they could be. In Tokyo, that hope is personified by teenagers like Daiki Yamamoto.

People in Tokyo join a rally to demand action on climate change. | RYUSEI TAKAHASHI
People in Tokyo join a rally to demand action on climate change. | RYUSEI TAKAHASHI

The 17-year-old Yamamoto shares the activist traits of his Generation Z counterparts abroad, harboring an acute concern that climate-related disasters are imminent.

“If global warming continues unabated, rising sea levels could inundate Tokyo’s bayside area,” he says, adding that he became a vegan last summer.

Just before Japan declared its first state of emergency over COVID-19 last spring, Yamamoto joined the Tokyo branch of Fridays for Future Japan, a global youth-led movement launched in 2018 when a then 15-year-old Greta Thunberg began a school strike to bring attention to climate change.

He attended rallies and helped organize online petitions. In April, he took three Fridays off from school to demonstrate in front of the Diet and trade ministry. While his parents were supportive, he admits his teachers were somewhat apprehensive over his turn toward activism.

“Tokyo is the center of Japan both economically and culturally, but it’s a giant carbon emitter sucking up energy and resources that should be allocated more evenly to other regions in Japan,” he says. “I think we need to instigate change that would direct this city down a more ecological path.”

Yamamoto is one of just over 1.3 million people between the ages of 16 and 25 living in Tokyo, a new generation that will define the course the capital takes in the decades to come.

“You can’t lump our generation into a stereotype, though,” he cautions. “There are climate change deniers among my age group, while I know older people who are genuinely concerned about global warming. It really comes down to each individual.”

He has a point, but one thing that definitely unites both activists and deniers is that they’re all experiencing a once-in-a-century pandemic at the moment. They’re all living in a country suffering from decades of economic stagnation and facing heightened geopolitical risks. And whether they choose to believe it or not, the climate has begun to change.

The challenges in store

Japan has long had to deal with earthquakes, typhoons and volcanoes. In the 21st century, however, it has begun experiencing more frequent bouts of extreme weather such as intense heat and “guerrilla rainstorms” — sudden, localized downpours.

Tokyo Skytree stands submerged in water in a poster that the World Wildlife Fund for Nature Japan has posted to its website. The group has illustrated a climate disaster for each of the country’s 47 prefectures including extreme heat in Saitama Prefecture and mosquitoes that carry tropical diseases into Akita Prefecture.   | COURTESY OF THE WORLD WILD FUND FOR NATURE JAPAN
Tokyo Skytree stands submerged in water in a poster that the World Wildlife Fund for Nature Japan has posted to its website. The group has illustrated a climate disaster for each of the country’s 47 prefectures including extreme heat in Saitama Prefecture and mosquitoes that carry tropical diseases into Akita Prefecture.   | COURTESY OF THE WORLD WILD FUND FOR NATURE JAPAN

The metropolis of Tokyo — home to nearly 14 million people and situated on a floodplain crossed by numerous rivers — has experienced a 50% increase in typhoons since 1980, according to the Meteorological Research Institute. It has responded with the construction of dikes and floodgates along those rivers and coastlines, with retention basins being built to manage storm runoff in order to prevent flooding.

In May, a report by research firm Verisk Maplecroft evaluating environmental and climate-related threats facing the world’s urban centers said Tokyo is among the cities that are most vulnerable to natural disasters. Experts warn that the concentration of people here — coupled with a complicated web of roads, tunnels, overpasses and underpasses that could inhibit an escape — will pose a substantial risk if the electricity were to be knocked out in a disaster.

In such a hypothetical — or eventual — disaster, most of those escaping would likely be older. While Tokyo’s population has been trending upward as the rest of the nation shrinks, it’s still expected to peak at 14.23 million in 2025 and fall to 11.98 million in 2060. On the other hand, those 65 and over are projected to account for 25.4% of the city’s population by 2035, while those younger than 15 and the working age population (15 to 64) are forecast to fall by about 30% and 20%, respectively, by 2060.

“These are some of the issues we plan to address going forward,” says Yoshimasa Komatsu, an official at the Tokyo Metropolitan Government who worked on compiling “Future Tokyo: Tokyo’s Long-Term Strategy,” a 390-page booklet released in March that outlines the capital’s initiatives to “become a sustainable city that balances maturity and ongoing growth” by 2040.

While some of the proposals raised in the publication are vague when it comes to details, the plan envisions a green, compact and competitive city with cutting-edge technology and renewable energy at its core. One of the main projects will see reclaimed islands in Tokyo Bay — currently the site of many Olympic venues — transformed into a startup hub and testing field to roll out initiatives such as wind power and floating solar power systems.

“I think the pandemic has revealed the risks associated with excessive concentration of population. At the same time, suburbs such as the Tama area in western Tokyo are expected to experience depopulation,” Komatsu says. “So rather than focusing on city centers, we want to see necessary service functions consolidated in each neighborhood. The rise in remote working will likely support such endeavors.”

To enhance disaster resilience, the city plans to remove Japan’s ubiquitous overhead utility poles along primary disaster response routes and in areas around major stations. It has pledged to increase open green spaces and waterside areas while reconfiguring roads and station fronts to enhance walkability. Meanwhile, the city envisions itself as Asia’s top financial hub, and it aims to make the transition to renewable energy and achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 under what it calls the Zero Emission Tokyo Strategy.

Asked whether these ambitious goals are achievable, Komatsu says the hurdle is definitely higher compared with past city development strategies Tokyo has released. “But we will do our best so this won’t be a pie in the sky goal.”

However, speaking to The Japan Times for a previous article, cultural sociologist Shunya Yoshimi warned, “The city has approached that phase when it needs to slow down. It needs to pursue quality of life, resilience and sustainability — not speed.”

Willing to speak up

Whether or not the capital focuses on developing infrastructure or slowing things down, green consciousness and gender equality are increasingly important to younger Tokyoites, according to Kyoko Tominaga, an associate professor of sociology at Kyoto’s Ritsumeikan University and an expert on social activism.

“Protecting the environment, for example, appears to have become a concept naturally accepted among students,” she says.

“And our research suggests that enthusiasm toward social activism is rising among youths, albeit in a milder fashion and often in the form of ‘hashtag activism,’” she adds, referring to the type of activism organized and performed via social media platforms.

Daiki Yamamoto, 17, is taking an active role in environmental groups such as Fridays for Future, a youth-led movement connected to climate activist Greta Thunberg. | COURTESY OF DAIKI YAMAMOTO
Daiki Yamamoto, 17, is taking an active role in environmental groups such as Fridays for Future, a youth-led movement connected to climate activist Greta Thunberg. | COURTESY OF DAIKI YAMAMOTO

Sakura Tanaka, 23, majored in gender and sexuality studies at International Christian University in Tokyo. She wanted to work in the beauty or maternity industry with the hopes of “producing goods that might prompt more men to experiment with cosmetics and help with child-rearing.” Last April, she landed a job with a supplements maker.

“My father is very traditional when it comes to gender role expectations,” she says. “After meals, for example, he would expect me to bring him coffee. It’s not his fault, but that led me to pursue studies in that field.”

The pandemic and decades of economic stagnation appear to be feeding a feeling of being stuck in a rut, which causes some young people to seek stability and some to want to make real changes.

“Compared with past generations, today’s youths aren’t that shy about voicing what they think is right,” Tominaga says. “The stigma that used to be attached to being labeled an ‘activist’ no longer seems to exist.”

A fork in the road

Gakuto Sato, a fourth-year Waseda University student, is one of those who just wants a steady job. COVID-19 has ruined his social life, and the cafe where he worked part-time closed amid the first state of emergency last year. On-campus activities have come to a standstill, and drinking parties are a thing of the past.

The 23-year-old has been through dozens of online job interviews for after he graduates, but has yet to receive any offers.

“It’s difficult when everything is done via video chat, but it’s not just me. My classmates are also having trouble landing jobs,” he says.

 

Gakuto Sato, 23, says he is having trouble finding a job during the pandemic.   | ALEX K.T. MARTIN
Gakuto Sato, 23, says he is having trouble finding a job during the pandemic.   | ALEX K.T. MARTIN

According to the education ministry, the proportion of new university graduates who had secured jobs as of April 1 stood at 96%, down 2 percentage points from the year prior as companies hit by the pandemic curbed new hiring. The drop was the-second largest since the survey began in 1997, after a 3.9-point year-on-year decline recorded for students who graduated in March 2010 amid the global financial crisis.

“I’ve read that the public pension system won’t be enough to sustain our standard of living in old age,” Sato says. A government report in 2019 estimated that a couple who will live until 95 years old — 30 years after retirement — will need at least ¥20 million more than what their pension benefits will provide as the nation rapidly ages, though the government has played down this number. “I want to earn enough money to support myself.”

Can Tokyo deliver on that dream? The city is crowded, expensive and a sitting duck for a climate-related disaster. If it can only offer new shopping centers and Michelin-starred restaurants, then its residents may start voting with their feet and moving elsewhere.

On Monday, Yamamoto, the teen climate activist, will turn 18 and earn the right to vote in actual elections. He says he doesn’t have rosy expectations of his future, but is nonetheless determined to play his part in bringing about change in his city and his country.

“I assume climate change and other sociopolitical issues will only get worse as I grow older,” he says. “What we need now aren’t strong, authoritarian leaders, but a focus on a civil society and how we can improve our lives from the ground up.

“That is the kind of city I want to live in.”

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