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Outnumbered but unafraid: Japanese climate activists confront society to save it

  • May 12, 2020
  • , The Japan Times
  • English Press



It takes a village to raise a child. But sometimes that child will come back and change the village.


Mika Mashiko was on her own when she started an environmental advocacy group eight months ago in her hometown of Nasu, a small agrarian town of 25,000 people in Tochigi Prefecture.


A plan is underway to install 350,000 square meters of solar panels on a mountainside near her family’s house. Though she was encouraged at first by the seemingly green initiative, Mashiko quickly discovered that the project required clear-cutting a large forested area, and some residents opposed the installation for fear that most of the energy was going to be sold elsewhere and pass over the local economy.


The plan continues to move forward despite resistance from residents and even the mayor.


As she watched the matter unfold, Mashiko felt the town she grew up in being appropriated by forces beyond her control.


The 20-year-old had attended high school in Utsunomiya where she was introduced to life in the city, a stark contrast from her upbringing in Nasu. Upon returning to Nasu before leaving for college, she saw the town as a treasure for the first time, as well as the powerful corporate interests trying to defile it.


“I couldn’t stand by and watch,” she said. “I needed to figure out how I could help.”


And so it was in September 2019 that Mashiko created Fridays for Future Nasu, the local branch of an international climate group established by teenage activist Greta Thunberg.


FFF Nasu has only a few regular members, all of whom are more than triple Mashiko’s age.


“It can be hard to keep in touch with everyone because not everyone knows how to use a smartphone,” she said with a laugh. “But we make it work.”


Mashiko is studying sociology at Tohoku University in Sendai, but she makes frequent trips back to her hometown. During her studies she has deepened her knowledge about global warming and climate justice, and participated in a public demonstration for the first time.


Depopulation is a growing issue in Nasu. A conservative culture, she said, has also made residents hesitant to speak out about climate change.


But with the support of her fellow members and other elderly neighbors, Mashiko spreads the word about climate issues in Nasu by distributing pamphlets, organizing marches and supporting local groups doing similar work.


So far, it appears to be working.


In February, Mashiko submitted a petition to the Nasu assembly demanding that it declare a climate emergency, take decisive action against climate change and reduce the town’s carbon footprint.


A month later, Nasu announced a Climate Emergency Declaration and set a goal of reducing carbon emissions to net zero by 2050.


According to a number of environmental groups, FFF Nasu is the only group in Japan to elicit a CED from a local municipality.


The challenges overcome by Mashiko, one of the newest additions to a growing number of climate advocacy leaders among Japanese youth, are being faced by activists throughout the country.


From reducing plastic waste and mitigating natural disasters caused by global warming to replacing coal with renewable energy sources and convincing a historically unresponsive country to tackle the climate crisis, activists in Japan have a long road ahead of them.


But their numbers are growing, and with the help of scientists, experienced environmentalists and other veterans of the old guard — which the young activists affectionately refer to as “the adults” — the future seems promising. Recent events suggest that their efforts might be paying off.


In April, Sumitomo Mitsui Financial Group Inc. and Mizuho Financial Group Inc. announced they would stop lending money toward the construction of new coal-fired power plants or projects involving coal. SMFG and Mizuho are among the world’s biggest lenders to coal-fired power.


Mizuho said it would halve its ¥300 billion in loans to coal power projects by 2030 and then to zero by 2050. It also said it would abolish new investments in and loans to construction projects for coal-fired plants with high carbon dioxide emissions effective June 1.


While the megabanks stopped short of divesting from past and ongoing coal projects, the announcements are proof that the country’s economy is being swayed by growing demand for sustainable energy, said Takayoshi Yokoyama of the nongovernmental organization 350 Japan.


That demand often starts with activism, he said.


Yokoyama, having been an active member of the Japanese climate movement for longer than some FFF members have been alive, provides guidance by sharing his experience and knowledge with them.


Young climate activists today have a mindset that’s more global and collaborative than any of their predecessors, Yokoyama said, and that will impact society as they move into adulthood and enter the world of politics and business.

“Change is inevitable,” he said.


Climate activists around the world came together for the latest Global Climate Strike on April 24. The event was held virtually due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, but that didn’t seem to get in the way of their enthusiasm.


In Japan, 60 representatives from 21 FFF groups nationwide joined a virtual meeting to discuss plans. Their primary objective this time around was to call on the Japanese government to raise its Nationally Determined Contributions, which is the country’s intended reductions in greenhouse gases in accordance with the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.


Leading up to the 2019 U.N. Climate Change Conference, or COP25, Japan announced it would reduce greenhouse gases by 26 percent by 2030 compared to 2013 levels.


Member nations were supposed to revise and resubmit their NDCs leading up to COP26, but the conference was canceled because of the coronavirus. In March, Japan quietly announced that it would neither raise nor lower its NDC.


According to a report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, all countries need to reduce their carbon emissions by 45 percent by 2030 to prevent the average global temperature from rising more than 1.5 degrees Celsius compared to preindustrial levels.


The report says all nations need to achieve net zero by 2050.


Japan’s NDC will remain low until the government starts having serious conversations about reducing carbon emissions, said Seita Emori, deputy director of the Center for Global Environmental Research at the National Institute for Environmental Studies.


“It’s proof that climate change is not a priority for the Japanese government,” he said, adding that the country’s NDC should be around 55 or 60 percent due to the added fact that Japan is heavily industrialized and consumes fossil fuels at a higher rate than most countries.


Experts and activists are skeptical the government will act on its own, so they are looking to the public to apply pressure and spark change from the ground up. Getting people to understand the severity and urgency of the climate crisis, and then act on that impulse, however, seems to be an uphill battle.


Since FFF Tokyo was established in February 2019, local branches have been created by likeminded youth from Hokkaido to Kagoshima.


While youth climate activism in Japan has begun to mature over the past year, low public awareness and the stigmatization of demonstrations in the country present a unique challenge, said Hanae Takahashi, 26, of climate NGO Friends of the Earth Japan.


“Climate change is still too political for people to adopt the movement on an individual level,” she said. “That’s why activists are trying so hard to make it accessible and fun for the average person.”


Most young activists have only begun to acquire the knowledge and wisdom that scientists typically accrue over the course of decades. That, along with the country’s distaste for public demonstrations, has made it harder for this generation of climate activism to take hold in Japan compared to the rest of the world.


While protests and marches abroad often overshadow those in Japan, attendance at such demonstrations in the country is going up and young activists are becoming increasingly well organized.


Barely a dozen protesters gathered for FFF Tokyo’s debut demonstration, which was held in front of the Diet in February 2019. A month later, nearly 300 showed up in Tokyo for the Global Climate Strike. Almost 450 joined their ranks a few months later.


In September, more than 5,000 protesters took to the streets in Japan for the second global climate strike, 2,800 of whom gathered in Tokyo.


Then in February, dozens of representatives of FFF groups from all over Japan gathered in Tokyo for the country’s inaugural Climate Crisis Youth Summit.

But the coronavirus pandemic has thrown a monkey wrench into Japan’s climate movement amid signs of progress.


COP26 was postponed and Environment Minister Shinjiro Koizumi warned last month that prioritizing economic recovery in the aftermath of the coronavirus could spell death for the Paris climate accord.


Furthermore, countries often experience a temporary increase in energy consumption immediately following a national crisis.


And yet, at a time when optimism feels naive and hope is in short supply, Japanese climate advocates still see an opportunity in the silver lining of this global pandemic.


“Reopening society is a chance for Japan to capitalize on these positive changes,” Takahashi said. “And a real opportunity for the country to set itself on a path toward a more sustainable future.”


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