August 18, 2009


A Brief History of the Environmental Movement in Japan (Part II)

Keywords: Newsletter 

JFS Newsletter No.83 (July 2009)

In the previous issue, we looked back on the history of citizen movements and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in Japan, and introduced two major historical trends in their development: a general shift away from activities focused on opposing something to activities supporting something; and a shift from a minority of people with a heightened awareness of issues engaged in activities to ordinary citizens joining in a broad range of activities. This month's article introduces the various types of NGOs and their activities and roles in Japanese society.

A Brief History of the Environmental Movement in Japan (Part I)

NGOs can be classified in several ways. For example, we saw them first expanding regionally. Many Japanese NGOs were launched to engage in locally based activities, such as protecting one's hometown or certain nearby rivers or mountains. Recently, we've seen groups engaged in similar activities begin to form regional networks to jointly establish larger NGOs, with the aim of expanding their activities nationwide. The number of this sort of NGO has been gradually increasing.

More extensively, although there are some NGOs working beyond national borders, the number in Japan is relatively low. At the same time, some international NGOs, such as the World Wide Fund for Nature and Greenpeace, have offices in Japan, but relatively few Japanese NGOs have succeeded in expanding their activities from Japan to the world. (We hope that JFS will be one that has an impact globally!)

NGOs can also be classified by the major participants involved. Needless to say, most consist of citizens, but there are some comprised of multiple companies, something quite unique to Japan. Some NGOs, made up of various regional businesses, work together to change their regions for the better. Others are comprised of companies in the same industry. The members of the latter type of NGO exchange information and their opinions to work out the role or roles they should play in addressing issues they face as an industry, such as the computer and information technology industry, or the construction industry.

A recent trend is that a variety of individuals and entities jointly work on NGO activities. This kind of NGO is made up of not just citizens, but also combinations of citizens, companies, and local governments. The number of this type of NGO is also gradually increasing.

Another new trend is that, increasingly, more celebrities, who rarely commented on environmental issues or performed at environmental events in the past, have begun to get involved in environmental issues with NGOs. Examples include one NGO composed of famous athletes in various sports; another is made up of distinguished musicians. For instance, three Japanese musicians, Ryuichi Sakamoto -- a world-renowned musician -- along with Takeshi Kobayashi and Kazutoshi Sakurai, established an NGO called "ap bank" that provides low-interest financing for environmental activities, with a view to shifting from conventional energy sources to renewable ones.

ap bank

Japanese Musicians Establish Eco-Friendly Bank

Artists' Movement for a Better World

By witnessing the actions of celebrities, who can easily draw public attention to an issue, an increasing number of people, particularly the young, are thinking it's cool to be involved in environmental activities.

Celebrities have so far greatly contributed to improving public awareness of the environment in Japan.

Next, Japanese NGOs can be classified by their type of activity. The first type is the policy-proposing NGO. These make proposals on what Japan should do to address environmental issues such as energy choices and global warming, and work on influencing politicians to adopt forward-thinking policies or educate more people on existing policies. Although the number and social influence of these NGOs is still small compared with those in Western countries, there are some doing very effective work, such as the Kiko Network, which puts forward proposals on global warming countermeasures, and the Institute for Sustainable Energy Policies, which offers up proposals on renewable energy development.

The second type is the activist-based NGO. These aim to conduct high-profile activities to attract public attention to issues and thereby increase public awareness of the environment. One example is Greenpeace Japan, which conducts conspicuous activities that attract the attention of media such as newspapers and TV to let the public know about various environmental issues.

Their activities are not always meant to accuse or confront errant companies either. A good example of this is a campaign by Greenpeace Japan some ago regarding refrigerator technology, which ended up directly affecting the marketing strategy of Panasonic, a major home appliance manufacturer.

In 1999, Greenpeace Japan first mounted a protest against Panasonic, saying that it should sell CFC-free refrigerators in Japan, as is the case in Europe, where CFC-free refrigerators were already being manufactured and sold. Both parties had many discussions together, and finally Panasonic developed and began to sell CFC-free refrigerators for the Japanese market. Currently, most refrigerators sold in Japan are now CFC-free. Some say that this change was the result of the working partnership between an NGO and a company.

The third type of NGO specializes in interfacing. For example, some work to connect educational institutions with citizens or companies by sending people from local NGOs or companies to elementary or junior high schools to provide environmental education. Other NGOs run city-wide campaigns to address global warming by encouraging municipal governments, schools, and citizens to work together. The number of these "interfacing" NGOs is also increasing.

The fourth type is the networking NGO. These work to establish a network of NGOs that work on the same issues, so that their collective influence will be most effective. For example, if Japanese NGOs that work on global warming or garbage reduction network together, then members can share information and skills, and then affect citizens and companies much more effectively.

The fifth type of NGO is the support-type of group. These are engaged in supporting the activities of other NGOs and thereby bolstering their power, rather than approaching citizens or corporations directly. They provide other NGOs and citizens with expertise, including how to operate a stable NGO and how to approach corporations and governments, through capacity building of NGOs and citizens.

Another type of NGO recently appearing aims to create social movements. One example of this is "Candle Night," for which I serve as one of the key promoters. Candle Night is a movement to encourage people to turn off their lights and spend some quality time together, by candlelight, for two hours every summer and winter solstice. The main message is: "Let's turn off the TV and lights for at least two hours and slow down the pace of our busy everyday lives, so that we can become more aware of and appreciate the important things in life." The event has become quite a phenomenon, with governments and corporations participating, along with eight, even ten million people each time.

Candle Night

2008 Summer Solstice Marks Candle Night's Fifth Anniversary of Sending a Message to the World

What are the impacts of the activities of such a wide variety of NGOs? One is an increase in public awareness of the current conditions of the global environment and the possible impact of people's behavior on the environment.

An example of this awareness-building is the many NGOs and corporations in Japan engaged in distributing "eco-accounting" books to households, so they can record their monthly consumption of electricity, gas, water, and so on, as well as the amount of garbage they generate. This enables them to calculate their total monthly carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions by multiplying each recorded value by its CO2 emission coefficient.

The eco-account book is an initiative to reduce household CO2 emissions by enacting an ongoing plan-do-check-act (PDCA) cycle in each household -- knowing the current conditions by measurement, thinking about how to decrease consumption and emissions by the whole family, putting it into practice by all members, and then making measurements again the next month. Citizens can become more aware of many things by keeping their own eco-account book. Some come to realize that they consume a lot of electricity, and others come to understand how they can reduce their consumption.

Take Action Now! -- Make Your Life More Eco-Friendly to Create Low-Carbon Society

Nation's First CO2 Emissions Calculation System Using Shopping Receipts Launched in Okinawa

* There are many related articles, please try search box on the top right corner of the JFS website.

NGO activities can also provide a vision on a "long clock," or long timeframe, which is something usually difficult to propose to corporations and governments, because they tend to attach more importance on what they can do in the short term. Taking brand-new positions and using novel methods that aren't meant to stay the same is another important function of NGOs.

For example, there is an NGO working to create a vision of a sustainable Japan in 2050 and convey it to citizens and corporations. In addition, many NGOs make and distribute lists of environmentally friendly products to citizens, and a movement to avoid the use of plastic bags is now widespread throughout Japan, one also helped by NGOs that engage corporations and governments to participate.

As explained in the previous issue, NGOs in Japan have a relatively short history and are still in the early stages of development; I think they need to engage in more activities and also be proud of their achievements at the same time. One thing is certain: NGOs have steadily become rooted in Japanese society and are gradually playing an important role that can't be achieved alone by governments or corporations. They are changing people's environmental awareness and promoting ways to protect the environment, so keep your eyes on the future development and movements of Japanese NGOs!

Written by Junko Edahiro