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Japan mortgages its future, choosing growth over environment

Flooding in a subway station in Nara, Japan, as a typhoon approaches in 2014. This year Japan experienced a record-breaking season of typhoons with flooding and destructive storms that battered much of western Japan over the course of three months. PHOTO: James Gochenouer (CC BY 2.0)

This past summer, amidst fears that summer temperatures throughout the country might rise to an unheard of high of 45 degrees, the Japanese prime ministerial race proceeded on its conservative course.

For incumbent Abe Shinzo, the process was necessary to affirm the Liberal Democratic Party's loyalty. He needed to make sure that the allegiances of factions had not shifted as a result of the numerous scandals associated with his inner circle during his second term of office. But apparently, the Moritomo Gakuin scandal, in which the prime minister was believed to have secretly supported the building of an ultra-right-wing school in Osaka created to revive fanatical emperor worship and militaristic education, had lost its sting. And despite the polls and surveys showing that the public suspected the prime minister had compromised his principles in the Moritomo and other scandals, Abe won by a significant margin.

A few days after he secured his victory, Abe published an article in the UK-based Financial Times. Entitled “Join Japan and act now to save our planet”, Abe's piece invited readers to start tackling climate change, even as his administration paradoxically moved ahead to set up hazardous coal-fired power stations.

Both domestically and abroad, the Abe administration has been criticized for its lack of environmental awareness and for its ruthless exploitation of scarce resources. Over the summer, while Abe’s colleagues were addressing each other in politely coded language, the rest of the country was beginning to demand a more effective response to the natural catastrophes that now seem commonplace in Japan. A June earthquake in Osaka that left five dead set the stage for a record-breaking season of typhoons and extreme flooding and destructive storms that battered much of western Japan over the course of three months. Kansai International Airport, the second largest in the country, was knocked out of commission for days due to extensive runway flooding and the collapse of a bridge.

Prioritizing climate change

Even in the face of undeniable climate change in Japan, the Abe administration’s agenda is unwaveringly fixed on the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, constitutional reform, and, of course, economic growth. While there is serious criticism about hosting the Olympics in August due to high temperatures and humidity, Abe's Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) has vowed to maintain the status quo, because changing the timing of the summer games could have adverse economic effects in Japan. This is an ironic position considering that the 1964 Tokyo Olympics took place in October, when Japanese sports festivals (undokai) are traditionally held.

Climate change (kiko hendo) and global warming (ondanka) are familiar words in Japanese, of course, but the causes of temperature rise have not sufficiently been linked to unrestricted economic growth and corporate greed. Two decades ago, Japan presented itself as an eco-conscious nation by proposing the Kyoto Treaty, but as Abe and his neo-conservative clique took over the cabinet the party’s priorities once again shifted toward free trade and less restricted economic growth. Despite the LDP’s vision of “taking Japan back” (Nihon wo torimodosu) to its pre-bubble era level of economic ascendency, the gap between the rich and poor is becoming harder to ignore.

Choosing economic growth over the environment

From predictions that malaria and dengue fever will spread quickly once the temperature rises a few more degrees, to the even more devastating thought that the main island of Honshu will become uninhabitable unless the population is cloistered in perpetually air-conditioned buildings, perhaps the most common response in Japan is to maintain a stubborn reticence, or to shrug one’s shoulders and utter the hackneyed phrase shikataganai (there’s nothing to be done).

As in other European and North American countries, many citizens of Japan seem to think that the retired workaholic generation, known as the dankai sedai, achieved an astonishing economic miracle as they rebuilt a country left totally devastated by war. Left unexamined is the reality that this “miracle” resulted in promoting an excessive lifestyle of over-consumption that—as the global population increases ever more and as natural resources are depleted, corrupted or destroyed—is clearly unsustainable. One could speculate that the Japanese militarism of the early Showa period has simply been channeled into fanatical devotion to the principle of economic growth.

What will future generations think?

How will future generations ultimately judge “Abenomics” that prioritized economic growth at the expense of the natural environment? Will Japanese businesses pay the price for creating ever greater economic inequality while simultaneously demanding more long hours of work of those of both genders, single or married and regardless of familial commitments, in return for minimal salaries? Will the ultimate destruction of numerous animal and plant species in just a few decades be an acceptable price for economic growth? 

Even in a nation that clings to the status quo, there are occasional protests. During the Meiji Restoration beginning in the late 1860s, and before and after World War II, there were watershed moments when the public blamed Japanese leaders and economic magnates for nearly destroying the social fabric.

Will there ever come a point at which the younger generation will hit the streets in anger and rail against the hazards of over-consumption?

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