Commentary / Japan

Setsubun: Killing two birds with one bean

by Yoko Ishikura

Last Sunday was Setsubun, which literally means the day that separates seasons. This year’s Setsubun was a good reminder of the interconnectedness of global issues and the small steps that individuals can take to help solve them. Two global issues that are linked to Setsubun are climate change and a food problem.

How are they linked with each other and relevant to Setsubun? First, Setsubun assumes that we have seasons. We have four seasons and therefore we have four Setsubun. The best-known one, however, is the day before the start of spring in the traditional calendar. This year it fell on Feb. 3.

Despite the advantage of having four clear and distinct seasons in Japan, the past few years have seen the clear transition of seasons disappearing. The nice spring season seems to have been cut short, causing cherry trees to bloom earlier than before, and the summer has become longer and hotter these past few years. In fact, the high temperature in recent summers has become a topic of heated debate, as Tokyo prepares to host the 2020 Summer Olympic Games from late July to early August next year, leaving people concerned about the effects of scorching heat on the health of the athletes, especially marathon runners.

The average temperature has inched up by 0.4 degree in five decades, and we have some natural phenomenon indicating that the seasons as we know them are disappearing in Japan. For example, the surface of Lake Chuzenji in Nikko, Tochigi Prefecture, used to freeze in winter, but it has not done so since 1984. Flowers unique to the season such as senryo, a must for New Year’s decorations, are becoming harder to source. The availability of foodstuff — fish and vegetables in particular — has been affected by climate change. These things make us realize that seasonality has changed.

Throughout the world, we are seeing more extreme weather incidents — extreme cold in North America and Europe, and extreme heat in Australia in recent months. It is generally agreed that climate change is the primary cause of these phenomena and measures to mitigate climate change have been discussed at international conferences and make headlines almost daily.

The other issue that Setsubun reminds us of is food waste. Since the late 1990s, the eho-maki “lucky” sushi roll has become quite popular in this country as the special food we eat on Setsubun. In addition to the traditional throwing of soybeans (mamemaki) to drive away the devil and bring good luck, the practice of eating eho-maki — facing that year’s lucky direction — has become a huge hit. The rule is that you have to finish the whole roll without speaking so as to not lose the luck.

Now you see aggressive campaigns by retailers of eho-maki, almost right after the New Year’s holidays. (These days we see these sudden surges around special days in Japan, such as the Halloween chaos in Shibuya in the past few years, as people jump on the bandwagon when they find out about new trends through social media.) There is nothing wrong with the eho-maki campaign in itself, as it is one more event to bring people together. The problem is the food waste.

As eho-maki is a special food for Setsubun and people tend to buy it that day (unlike the osechi New Year’s food that is made to last a few days), a huge volume of food waste has resulted. According to a study, the value of unsold and wasted eho-maki throughout the country has reached ¥1 billion, not counting the manpower required for disposal. Because of the massive volume of the waste, the Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Ministry made an urgent request to retailers a few weeks earlier to not overproduce or over order eho-maki. Some retailers asked consumers to make advance reservations for eho-maki so they will have a more accurate estimate of demand. It’s not clear yet whether these actions reduced food waste this year.

Now that Setsubun reminds us of the global issues such as climate change, can we see any action taken to resolve them? When it comes to the actions of the government and business sectors to combat climate change, not much has been done, although the issue is frequently discussed at international conferences. Despite the recent report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change urging immediate action, international cooperation, such as under the framework of the Paris accord, remains slow. As for private sector initiatives, little serious action can be found. International organizations, governments and the private sector see difficulty in developing and implementing specific solutions because of the interconnectedness of the problem that goes beyond geographical scope.

How is climate change connected to other global agenda? It affects the production of food and can result in higher prices and possible restrictions on the availability of food. That impacts poor people first, possibly placing them below the poverty line. Food waste — which in itself is a serious global problem — does not help. In other words, climate change and food waste are connected and exacerbate the poverty problem.

Social issues of global scale such as poverty and food require the collaboration and coordination of efforts of various parties, including the private sector, governments, international organizations and so on. It may appear that it is beyond the capability of individuals and seem like there is nothing we can do to resolve these issues. But there are steps individuals can take to address a small part of the link — food waste.

People should be made aware of the interconnectedness of climate change, food and poverty — and the small steps they can take to contribute to addressing these problems. At least in Japan, the links among these issues are not frequently discussed. We can begin by choosing topics and events that we can find relevant in our their lives — such as eating eho-maki on Setsubun. Once people become aware of the link, they may think twice before consuming or wasting eho-maki.

What we need to do is to take a moment to think through and consider the implications of our own behavior instead of just following a routine or whatever is “in.” It is a long shot, but changing consumption patterns does take time, and weighing the significance of Setsubun can trigger the first step forward.

Yoko Ishikura is a professor emeritus of Hitotsubashi University and serves as an independent consultant in the area of global strategy, competitiveness and global talent. She is a member of the World Economic Forum’s Expert Network.