Where are the Japanese climate strikers?

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At the end of September 2019, it was estimated 6 million people have joined climate strikes around the world, demanding urgent action to address the climate emergency facing our planet. Rallies in global metropolises like London and New York have seen hundreds of thousands of people take to the streets. Meanwhile, in Japan, a country of 126 million people, the marches drew a combined total of less than six thousand. After the country suffered months of record rains, floods and heat waves, where were Japan’s climate strikers?

Among those scratching their heads at Japan’s relative placidity is Peter Cave, a lecturer in Japanese studies at the University of Manchester, who posed the question to a mailing list of Japan-oriented social scientists. . Typically a quiet platform for scholars to post promotions for conferences, jobs, and funding opportunities, Cave’s question sparked a heated debate that saw Japanese scholars around the world share their research and speculation. on why climate activism in Japan is so low-key. .

“When I look at the Asahi Shimbun, there doesn’t seem to be any mention of climate strikes, even overseas. The same goes for the NHK homepage. British journalists also report that not much is happening in Japan. Why not?” Cave wrote on September 20, as climate strikers marched through cities around the world.

Many responses pointed to familiar problems with the Japanese media landscape: excessive government influence over national broadcaster NHK, a system of press clubs encouraging collusion with officials at the expense of critical reporting, and television advertising oligopolies that keep the broadcast media dominated by risk-averse conglomerates. “If the government does not consider putting an environmental topic on its agenda, the mainstream media will not actively do so,” suggests Yosuke Buchmeier, a doctoral student in Japanese media research.

Aren’t there climate strikes in Japan just because the issue is seen as being actively addressed?

But others have drawn attention to the evidence that reports on climate change in Japan abound. Environmental and political sociologist Jeffrey Broadbent shared the results of his comparative research showing that the volume of Japanese media coverage of climate change is in the average of the 17 countries studied. Whatever fault we find in the media, most Japanese are well aware of the problem posed by climate change, denial is unheard of, and new sustainability initiatives are constantly being touted by government and the corporate sector. Perhaps then there is no climate strike in Japan simply because the problem is well understood and considered to be proactively addressed?

Andrew DeWit, an expert on Japanese energy and disaster resilience policy, notes how relatively strong public support for climate adaptation spending has “helped policymakers at all levels to implement measures that simultaneously promote adaptation and mitigation, which the IPCC pointed out long ago”. It suggests that much of what Japan actually does is underestimated by the metrics we use.

“That doesn’t mean Japan is doing enough,” DeWit concluded in his otherwise optimistic reflection. The Climate Action Tracker, an independent scientific analysis measuring government actions against the Paris Agreement goal of limiting warming to well below 2 degrees Celsius, rates Japan’s climate goals as “very insufficient.” “Japan’s current policies, if applied worldwide, would heat the climate to levels incompatible with current human civilization,” said Charles Cabell, a professor at Toyo University who has worked to facilitate social justice. and environmental activism at the university.

“By constantly talking about climate change, Japanese companies have managed to capture the issue in a way that avoids challenging mass consumption and overconsumption. As a result, many people have convinced themselves that they are actually fighting climate change when they buy a new device, as long as it is ‘shо̄-ene‘ or ‘energy saving’,” says historian Nick Kapur.

Protest in the streets – and even on social media – has been delegitimized and even stigmatized

What Japan lacks, then, is not so much the volume of media coverage, but a sense of urgency and crisis commensurate with the seriousness of the problem and the woeful inadequacy of existing Japanese policies. But criticism from the Japanese media can certainly help explain why the inadequacy of government and corporate action may not be pursued so aggressively.

If the Japanese media are afraid of confrontation, it seems Japanese citizens are too. Kapur says that since the last major student-led protest movement in Japan in the 1960s, the state and the general public have collaborated “to delegitimize and even stigmatize street protests, especially strikes, and even the” politics in general. Indeed, the Japanese organizers of the September climate strike translated the action into Japanese as “climate march” to seem less confrontational. Saki Mizoroki, a journalist and doctoral student at the University of Tokyo, also notes how relatively less social media has been in Japan in catalysing social movements: “It’s not common to see a Japanese person posting anything publicly. or politics on social networks”.

An aversion to political confrontation at the heart of climate contestation is compounded by general political apathy. Broadbent says the “soft paternalism” of the Japanese state, in aiming to create placid and obedient citizens, has also made many Japanese disillusioned and distrustful of their democratic and governmental institutions – far more so than in any other. other developed countries, according to the World Values ​​Survey. “There is a lot of shikataganai (“you can’t do anything”) and akirame (“give up”), you can’t fight the town hall,” he said.

Responses to Cave also highlighted what some describe as a relatively “authoritarian” education system that places little value on critical thinking and prioritizes perfect attendance over skipping class to make a point on environmental issues. . Although there are exceptions, even many universities seem completely intimidated and depoliticized: “among the most politically sterile of all communities in Japan,” says Cabell, who described an incident at his university where a student had been threatened with deportation for holding a sign and distributing flyers on campus to protest a professor’s teachings. The university did not oppose the contents of his protest, but simply to the act of political expression on campus, saying he was “disrupting the order of the university”.

Japan’s inadequate response to climate change is not unique – but the protests will grow more urgent as the impact of climate breakdown becomes increasingly felt

As with media coverage, the way climate change and ecological issues are addressed in education can be an unintended cause for complacency. The science of climate change is taught in textbooks, waste sorting and environmental protection are taught as a matter of good citizenship, and universities are creating new brands around green technology research programs. If you squint, it just might give the impression that Japan is on top.

Japan is not unique in its inadequate response to climate change. The carbon commitments of most other developed countries are equally insufficient. Nor is Japan alone in having a public discourse simultaneously awash with sustainable brands, initiatives and innovations – many of which are not superfluous, but simply pale in comparison to the scale of the problem at hand.

Where are the Japanese climate strikers? There are many fronts in the war on climate change, but the calm on this front is probably best explained by the gradual delegitimization of adversarial citizen-led politics. This process, highlighted in Kapur’s discussion, has also been explored by others such as the anthropologist Akihiro Ogawa, which pessimistically characterizes contemporary Japanese civil society – as well as notions of socially engaged citizenship – as having been largely depoliticized and co-opted by the state.

While even countries that have seen massive climate protests struggle to produce adequate climate policy, it is fair to wonder if the radical demands of Japan’s nascent climate strike movement stand a chance under such difficult circumstances. But the planet won’t stop warming until global carbon emissions stop. Unlike the brief revivals of the Japanese protest tradition seen after the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster, which ultimately failed in the face of government intransigence, the demands of the climate movement can only become more immediate and pressing as the next decades of lasting and unpredictable climate degradation will make themselves felt in society. The time for apathy and complacency will inevitably come to an end, and the time for radical action will be upon us.


Sakari Mesimäki is a PhD candidate in the Department of Social Anthropology at the University of Cambridge and conducts research on political subjectivity in Japan. Sakari previously worked in business and communications consulting in Tokyo and holds degrees in anthropology and Japanese studies from the University of Helsinki and the University of Cambridge.






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