August 31, 2004


JFS - Platform for International Youth Discussions onSustainable Society

Keywords: Newsletter 

JFS Newsletter No.24 (August 2004)

Japan for Sustainability (JFS) shares information on environmental initiatives in Japan while it also carries out various projects, for example, a project for defining sustainability indicators in order to create a vision of sustainability for Japan. JFS also set up the "U.S.-Japan Student Environmental Program" for college students in Japan and the United States to stage information exchange and discussions about their own efforts and the activities of their colleges, communities and countries aimed at achieving a sustainable society. The following is a report by Japanese students who participated in this program.

The meeting of US and Japanese students was held on June 6, 2004 with the cooperation of JFS and the University of Kansas. The event was initially triggered by an e-mail from Professor Patricia Graham of the University of Kansas, a subscriber to JFS's monthly newsletter, to JFS about her plan to visit Japan with nine of her students in June 2004. In her email, she suggested an exchange of ideas with JFS staff members.

The University of Kansas students were selected for The Kansas/Asia Scholars program, which explores changing lifestyles in today's Japan as well as its culture and history. The 14 Japanese students who also took part in the program were majoring in fields other than the environment, but all were interested in the concept of "a sustainable society," and were enthusiastic about exchanging opinions with students in the United States.

JFS organized the program in order to facilitate an exchange of opinions about a sustainable society from the viewpoint of students, to share information on initiatives that may lead toward sustainability and to help create a vision. During the program, students from both countries gave presentations on efforts toward a sustainable society at the national, community, and college levels in their countries, followed by three group discussions.

What we learned from the presentation by Kansas students

The Kansas students introduced examples of efforts at all levels and from a diversity of perspectives. One of the striking ideas presented was Smart Growth. Smart Growth means developing a society wisely by increasing the efficiency of public transportation and by utilizing locally available resources instead of accelerating urban sprawl. The term, Smart Growth, is not widely known in Japan, but the Kansas students believed it was essential for a sustainable society. One of the examples of Smart Growth was an elementary school in Lawrence, Kansas, where the University of Kansas is also located. The school was designed to utilize natural lighting as much as possible and was built using mostly discarded material generated in the mass production of wheat.

The Kansas students' presentations also included the results of a survey on sustainability, "KU Students' Perceptions and Behaviors," to which over 200 KU students had responded. The survey found that 17 percent of respondents usually commute by public transportation, while over 70 percent do so by car, indicating that students in the US are more car-dependant than students in Japan. Also, 80 percent of respondents thought global warming was an issue, and about 70 percent support US ratification of the Kyoto Protocol.

Presentations by the Japanese Students

Following the presentation by the American students, the Japanese students started off with an overview of Japanese history, geography and culture, etc., with the focus of attention on the Japanese phrase "mottai-nai" or "what a waste," which was explained verbally and through a skit. The Japanese word "mottai" signifies the intrinsic state, value and mission of any given thing, and the negative suffix "nai" denies the preceding word. In short, "mottai-nai" means to ignore or deny the inherent state and value of a thing. Although this word was born in former ages when people strove to maximize their limited resources, the Japanese students made the point that people should respect this word especially now when we are inundated with material things.

After this introduction, the Japanese students reported on the efforts being made at different levels, giving examples of partnerships formed among governments, NGOs, businesses and citizens that are working to achieve a sustainable society. They also reported that at universities, in 1990 there were only about 10 extra-curricular clubs engaging in environmental activities, whereas recently the number of such clubs has snowballed to more than 200. These groups are also networking to make their activities more effective and to increase their societal influence. Also, in introducing efforts carried out at the community level, examples were given of revitalization of local areas through the introduction of natural energy using local resources.

During the group discussions after the presentation, the students split into three groups to discuss the following themes: "vision for a sustainable society 50 years ahead," "community-level initiatives for a sustainable society," and "college-level initiatives for a sustainable society." On the theme of "vision for a sustainable society 50 years ahead," a broad-based discussion took place on the relationship between humans and nature, on mass production and mass consumption, on the global economic system and the North-South divide. With respect to the global economic system, the issue of the exploitation of the resources of the developing countries was discussed, and ideas were explored about a social system where economy and environment are balanced.

This discussion highlighted the different perceptions of developing countries among Japanese and U.S. students. Many of the students from the University of Kansas thought that developing countries have poor economies because of their various problems, and that they need to redress these problems in order to improve their economies. On the other hand, many of the Japanese students did not think that developing countries are not simply inferior, and may not need to accelerate improvements aimed at prioritizing their economies. One of the participating Japanese students said, "I felt strongly that you need to know about your own country first in order to understand your counterparts from other countries. I realized that there was a gap in our perceptions, but it was interesting to know that students in both countries share doubts about the current state of the world."

In the group that discussed "community-level initiatives for a sustainable society," one familiar phrase was identified as a keyword for community-level efforts - "Nice to meet you." Students in both countries agreed that face-to-face meetings are essential for community-level initiatives. Some students also pointed out that the decline of local shopping arcades is a problem, because such arcades are where local residents gather and socialize with one another. This problem needs to be addressed in order to protect regional character.

A Kansas student also noted that "Nice to meet you" is an important keyword, saying, "We need to continue to battle apathy and protest the mistakes made by the government. In doing so, what we have to do first is to meet in person and have a talk. Let's start with the greeting, 'Nice to meet you,' and a handshake." In the "college-level initiatives for a sustainable society" group, the students discussed various aspect of this theme. For example, they found one interesting difference between what happens in the U.S. and Japan when calling on others to act: in the U.S., people become motivated when told "You can make a difference," while in Japan they are motivated when told "Let's act together." This discussion illustrated that people in the U.S. tend to act individually, while Japanese people act in a group.

Another Kansas member who joined the college-level session said, "I noticed that the Japanese students were thorough and organized, and I think these traits will definitely help create change. I think that future challenges will involve large-scale coordinated efforts both domestically and internationally." Through the presentations and group discussions, many students learned that they need to gain a good understanding of their own county's culture, history and characteristics in order to consider sustainability issues at the global level. Understanding one's own country is also indispensable for recognizing the fact that there are diverse cultures and social backgrounds all over the world.

The fruits of this meeting were the discoveries made by the young people, who will bear responsibility in the future, through preparing for their presentations and communicating with each other. Another valuable outcome was the process of thinking about a sustainable society together and exchanging opinions, which will eventually lead to future growth. Hopes run high for how they will act after the meeting and also for their further cooperation in future.

(Staff Writer Yoichi Komatsu)