Japan – Environmental Sustainability and Efforts to Go Green

Posted By Jim Kersey

Japan’s attitude towards environmental sustainability has changed dramatically since the late 1980s, both at a governmental and corporate level.

While the country has been criticised in the past for its extraordinarily high use of plastics and its dependence on fossil fuels, we’ve also seen Japan try to carve out a new global image for itself by investing in greener technologies, reducing its carbon consumption and tackling global environmental issues through cooperation with other nations in Asia and beyond.

We explore where Japan now stands within the context of rising concerns over climate change, loss of biodiversity, rising sea levels, deforestation and other key environmental issues

Table of Contents

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Criticisms of Japan’s Approach to Environmental Sustainability

Japanese fishing market showcasing weaknesses of environmental sustainability in Japan

Like many other developed countries, Japan has achieved much of its recent wealth and prosperity at the expense of the planet.

While many were reluctant to acknowledge this fact, we now know that industrialization is one of the main causes of global warming. Larger populations lead to increased demand for products, higher levels of consumption and elevated levels of greenhouse gases.

Throughout the 1970s and ‘80s, Japan became one of the biggest consumers of meat, fish, oil, minerals and wood in the world. And with limited resources of its own, Japanese entities ventured into countries such as Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines to gather what it needed — all this contributing to a leading cause of climate change: deforestation.

Damage was also dealt to wildlife in Japanese waters as well as those belonging to its neighbours due to rampant fish consumption and the activities of the Japanese fishing industry, which has been at the centre of several controversies over the years.

Several NGOs launched longstanding campaigns targeting Japanese companies for the methods used to extract natural resources, deemed as highly destructive and unnecessary.

Many of the country’s biggest Japanese companies such as Mitsubishi were directly criticized for their role in the rapid deforestation of countries throughout SouthEast Asia and considered responsible for exporting pollution overseas by moving manufacturing bases to areas where labour was cheaper and regulations surrounding pollution were less strict.

In summary, this was a period when Japan’s reputation for being environmentally sustainable was incredibly poor.

A Turning Point for Japanese Environmental Policies

Improved environmental sustainability through manufacturing efficiency at Mitsubishi

A combination of things lead to Japan introducing a wave of new measures aimed at domestic and international environmental protection.

Environmental scandals, improved awareness of the negative impacts of climate change, growing sentiment internationally to stop corporations from damaging the planet, transforming consumer preferences, and the need to revamp the nation’s image globally prompted a new approach to environmental policy.

The fact that forests were dying, the discovery of a hole in the ozone layer, and explanation from scientists that unabated fossil fuel usage was directly leading to global warming and a multitude of destructive outcomes for the planet set the context for many important changes for Japan, and indeed the whole world, at this time.

In 1992, the world came together during the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), also known as “Earth Summit”, which was the largest gathering of world leaders at that time and included 117 heads of state and representatives of 178 nations.

Several treaties and key documents were signed committing attendees to pursuing economic development in ways that would protect the Earth’s environment. And at this key event, Japan announced its intentions to the world to step up as a leader in environmental protection.

New ideas and principles centred around environmental sustainability and protection then became integrated into Japanese domestic and foreign policy in a way they never had before. And the world then saw Japan, which had long suffered from image problems globally, push for a new identity as a force for positive change.

Japanese businesses were largely in step with this change, jumping on the opportunity to fix their credibility issues as well as strive for the efficiency and cost-reduction benefits that would stem from more sustainable practices.

For instance, Japanese automotive manufacturers like Mitsubishi and Tokota eventually became world renowned for their energy efficiency improvements and pollution control technologies, especially concerning their low emission vehicles that required less gas than American cars.

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A New Era

Flags of global leaders in environmental sustainability

In keeping with this new mood, Japan established several new environmental laws in the 1990s while establishing brand new institutions such as the global climate change division set up within the Environment Agency.

New laws and policies included:

  • An Environmental Basic Law was passed in 1993 replacing the Environment Basic Law of 1967 (as amended in 1970) placing responsibility on the government to protect not just Japan’s environment, but the global environment.
  • A new passage of the Environment Basic Plan was added, which established new policies and measures for reducing Japan’s environmental impact.
  • Japan introduced an Environmental Impact Assessment Law in 1997.
  • Several laws promoting recycling were passed, including a packaging recycling law, a home appliances recycling law and the construction materials recycling law.
  • A Global Warming Prevention Law was introduced in 1998, outlining measures for reducing Japan’s greenhouse gas emissions.

Finally, Japan hosted the Kyoto Conference in 1997 where the Kyoto Protocol was formulated. This was an agreement for developed nations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and a time when Japan committed to providing increased aid for global warming programs in developing countries.

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Leading the Region in Environmental Initiatives

Japanese diet house setting policy for regional environmental sustainability

Japan is now considered a leader in promoting environmental initiatives in Asia. Contrasting it’s history of causing damage to its neighbours through resource extraction, it is now part of several environmental networks with other countries in the region.

The International Environmental Symposium in Northeast Asia was set up in 1999, which brings together environmental experts from China, Japan, Mongolia, Republic of Korea, and Russia to discuss environmental conservation efforts in each country and the future of environmental cooperation in the region.

Collaborative work has also taken place with scientists in China and throughout Southeast Asia to reduce environmental damage. And the Japanese government has provided finance and new technologies to developing countries to help them as they try to phase the most harmful carbon-dependent processes while they industrialize.
Japan also became one of the leading donors of Official development assistance (ODA) designated specifically for environmental matters, focusing on Asia as the key target for this aid.

No doubt, this was prompted by a certain level of self-interest too, with the nation experiencing the consequence of China’s non-environmental activity through acid rain, caused by pollution, and depleted fish stocks, from excessive fishing in shared waters.

So How Environmentally Sustainable is Japan?

Power plant in Japan representing challenges with achieving environmental sustainability

Similar to many developed nations, Japan has a complex identity when it comes to environmental sustainability. Certain independent measures like the Climate Action Tracker deem the country’s efforts to curb climate change and protect the environment as ‘insufficient’ and many believe it hasn’t done nearly enough to make up for its historical abuse of natural resources and destruction of forests in neighbouring countries.

However, it’s recent record in improving energy efficiency and controlling pollutants has been praised too. Especially when viewed next to other nations such as the US or China.

According to the OECD’s peer review of Japan, which evaluates the country’s engagement and leadership on global public challenges such as the climate and environment, “Japan’s presidencies of the G7 and G20 enabled it to promote issues of importance to sustainable development globally – including universal health coverage and responding to public health emergencies, quality infrastructure investment and gender equality – and to advance environmental and climate issues.”

Yet, despite all it has done to improve its environmental image, Japanese companies and the government continue to be criticized for certain policies such as its stance on whaling and dolphin hunting, as well as how it continues to fund the development of incinerators overseas.

The Future of Japanese Environmental Sustainability

Japanese whaling boat representing obstacles Japan’s future of improved environmental sustainability

The environmental challenges faced by all nations are very real. As well as mitigating damage to individual populations and economies, many are concerned that lack of action now will result in severe damage to their reputations as pressure mounts from NGOs, the general public and other nations for change to be made.

Japan is well placed as a leader to promote positive environmental initiatives and lead by example, both at the global level and within the Asian region.

Yet, whether it is truly doing enough is debatable and it’s important that all developed nations continue to improve their approach to environmental sustainability as well as live up to the multitude of promises and claims outlined in summits such as COP26.

If you’re a business thinking about setting up shop in Japan, we’d happily help you explore how the choices your brand makes and the methods you use to communicate your values and goals to customers will be viewed within the context of local markets, competition, and consumer attitudes.

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