Japanese trains run to the minute, and the country’s businesses pride themselves on energy-efficiency. The Japanese boast of their eco-services for eco-products in eco-cities. Yet they rely primarily on imported fossil fuel and nuclear power, live in energy-wasteful homes, and import 60 percent of their food. That may be changing in the wake of the Fukushima nuclear disaster. Maybe.

Japan is at a crucial tipping point. As an island nation, it offers a microcosmic look at the problems facing the rest of the globe, including peak oil and climate change due to greenhouse gas emissions. And as Japan tips, so may the world.

I landed at Narita airport on May 11, 2011, two months after the magnitude 9.0 Great Eastern Japan Earthquake triggered a devastating tsunami that killed an estimated 20,500 people on the coast of northeastern Japan’s Tohoku region and left a swath of destruction up to 10-km inland. That zone included the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, where a loss of electric power led to a full meltdown of three out of six reactors.

In the same way that people in the United States refer to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, simply as “9/11,” the Japanese shorthand for March 11, the day of their triple disaster, is “3/11.”

Before 3/11, as an American writer I had been awarded an Abe Fellowship for Journalists to visit five out of 13 so-called Eco-Model Cities. I figured that because the Japanese import virtually all of their fossil fuel and are technologically sophisticated, that they must be doing innovative things with renewable energy.

And indeed, during my six-week odyssey, which took me to Tokyo and the Eco-Model Cities of Kitakyushu, Yusuhara, Kyoto, Toyota and Yokohama, I saw solar panels, micro-hydro generators, wind turbines, electric vehicles, hydrogen power, biodiesel, wood-pellet factories, compost made from human excrement, geothermal systems, and model sustainable homes.

But … I had been naive. The Eco-Model City program was thrown together in a hurry so that then-Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda could announce it at the Group of Eight summit held in Japan in July 2008, and the cities received very little funding. They are doing some interesting piecemeal things, but not enough.

Japan lags far behind Europe, the U.S. and even (in some respects) China in terms of renewable energy efforts. Currently only photovoltaic panels receive a central government subsidy. And Japan is mired in bureaucracy, political infighting, indecision, puffery, public apathy, and cultural attitudes that make rapid change difficult.

Yet Japan is also one of the most beautiful countries in the world, with friendly, resilient people who can, when motivated, pull together to accomplish incredible things. I happened to land there at a crucial time for Japan, when the country has an opportunity to rethink its energy policy and entire future. It could show the way to create an ecologically sustainable world and, in the process, rejuvenate its economy. In a way, Japan is the proverbial canary in the coal mine. As an industrialized island nation, it is facing the same issues as the rest of the globe, only sooner and more urgently.

In 2010, Japan’s total energy consumption derived primarily from imported fossil fuels: 45 percent oil, 19 percent coal and 14 percent natural gas. Nuclear power accounted for 15 percent and renewable energy 7 percent. Almost all of that small renewable share came from large hydropower dams built a half century ago. In 2010, the Japanese government announced plans to build 14 more nuclear reactors to boost the country’s nuclear share of electrical generation to 50 percent .

Now that plan has been scrapped. In addition to the Fukushima reactors, the Hamaoka nuclear power plant’s five reactors, which are located near a fault line 201-km southwest of Tokyo in Omaezaki, Shizuoka, have also been closed. So what will happen next?

Tetsunari Iida, the former nuclear engineer who heads the Tokyo-based Institute for Sustainable Energy Policies (ISEP), has a plan. Formerly a lone voice crying in the wilderness against nuclear power, he is now a media star and consultant to the country’s leaders. Iida sees Japan’s nuclear power and fossil fuel use gradually dwindling to nothing by 2050, while renewable energy swells to account for 50 percent of current use. The other 50 percent will be covered by energy savings and efficiencies, he says.

Prime Minister Naoto Kan has apparently been listening to Iida and is now a born-again renewable energy advocate. Yet because of political in-fighting and a looming no-confidence vote, Kan announced that he will resign soon — the sixth Japanese prime minister to do so in six years He says he won’t go until the Diet votes for renewable energy subsidies for wind, biomass, geothermal, solar hot water, micro-hydro and so forth.

But the bureaucrats of the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry (METI) really run the country, in league with the electricity monopolies.

Each of the 10 regional utilities jealously guards its borders, so that there is limited cooperation between them, and they don’t like the fluctuating levels of renewable energy. Worse still, the northeastern half of Japan uses a 50-hertz frequency, while the southwest operates at 60 hertz, making it impossible to share power between them without huge transformers.

METI has funded a program to dabble in smart-grid technology in four test cities, but Japan needs a drastic overhaul of its electric grid and massive support for renewable energy. Building codes and renovations must support well-insulated homes styled after traditional machiya, with natural ventilation. Home gardens and large-scale greenhouses need to provide more domestic food.

Fallow rice paddies can grow abundant strains for bioethanol. Rural inhabitants could heat with wood. The country could take advantage of its huge untapped potential for geothermal and wind power. And surely its electric vehicles and plug-in hybrids could predominate.

The whole world is watching Japan in its post-3/11 struggles. Let us hope that we see a true eco-model country rising from the nuclear meltdowns and devastation.

Mark Pendergrast is the author of “Inside the Outbreaks” and other books. He is writing a book called “Japan’s Tipping Point.” Pendergrast can be reached through www.markpendergrast.com.

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