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Japan and the Environment in 2010

By Steven M. Hoffman, Ph.D., President, Hoffman and Associates


            How are we to think about the environment and Japan in the year 2010?

            Well, first we need to avoid common misconceptions, such as:

            Misconception #1:  “The Japanese are not at all environmentally aware.”

            If you have followed recent news about Japan, you know that Japan experiences the gamut of environmental difficulties:  acute waste disposal problems, lack of natural resources, groundwater pollution, density of economic activity over 15 times that of the U.S., and much more.  Most of these are covered closely by Japan’s scoop-hungry media.  Numerous polls show that a majority of Japanese citizens are concerned about nuclear accidents, in a small country with over 50 nuclear plants.  Dioxin contamination from waste incinerators is also the focus of intense concern.

            Have “environmentally sound alternatives” surfaced in Japan?  Yes.  “Pesticide-free golf courses” are fairly well-developed.  “Pesticide-free foods” and “environmentally-friendly products” are increasingly popular and profitable.  The list of environment-friendly options is growing longer.


            Misconception #2:  “Virtually all Japanese are environmentally aware.  Isn’t it in their culture?”

We have also heard this “positive stereotype” many times over the years.  It’s understandable – you can get this impression from exquisite Japanese paintings and gardens, or from how the seasons are reflected in fine Japanese cuisine.

            However, of course, many Japanese are primarily concerned with making a living or accumulating wealth, and basically indifferent to environmental concerns.  Much research, including our own, demonstrates this.

Misconception #3:  “There is no environmental activism in Japan.”

Since the 1970s, due to severe environmental problems and rapt media attention, many Japanese have come to see environmental issues as crucial.  New NPO (nonprofit organization) and freedom of information laws, though imperfect, have made it easier for concerned citizens to take action.  In recent years, we have often heard of “the difficulty of siting new waste treatment facilities” in Japan, similar to the United States and elsewhere.  Dams and golf courses are also magnets for opposition. 

            The largest U.S. environmental groups have 60-70 times as many members as their Japanese counterparts – but Japanese environmental groups are both numerous and dedicated.   Environment- conscious Japanese consumer groups are also a force to be reckoned with. 

A Japanese foreign minister was recently fired, partly because she appeared to snub nonprofit organizations.   This event symbolizes the enormous change in a nation where NPOs and “nongovernmental organizations” (NGOs) have long been seen as "foreign," and where "civic activism" has not been encouraged in the political culture.


Misconception #4:   “The Japanese economy is bad, and trying anything environment-related there is a bad risk.”

Actually, the economy is improving;  and even during Japan's lengthy recession, good environmental ideas were needed and often successful.  Environment-friendly products and services enjoy a sizable competitive advantage in today's Japanese economy.  Many Japanese businesses have embraced the environment to increase competitiveness at home and abroad.  For instance, Sony pays homage to the environment to improve its image, and tries to raise awareness by distributing information about the environmental character of its products.

It’s no accident that Japan is where fuel-efficient hybrid cars are most advanced.  Toyota and Honda are intensely aware of environmental issues, and are taking proactive steps to “beat the environmental competition.”

            And Japan continues to change quickly!  The pace of change is quicker than many expected.   An increasing number of Japanese believes that environmental improvements are necessary to preserve quality of life, as well as to compete globally.  Media coverage of environmental “destruction” adds momentum.  Corruption feeds the trend, because it makes many want “cleaner” politics and business – and one image of “ecobusiness” is "clean."  

            Thus, in postmodern Japan, a sound environmental image is increasingly desirable.  For environmental innovators of all kinds, this is an exciting time.  Startup costs are reduced for everyone:  nonprofits, businesses, universities, and others.  The chances of finding a receptive audience or clientele are good.

              Let’s take a look at just a few of the many recent environmental developments in Japan, to give more of a flavor of what’s been happening.


      Recent Environmental Developments in Japan


·        Organizations such as the "Tokyo Green Consumer Network" are helping to catalyze substantial increases in sales of eco-friendly goods.

·        Local governments have become environmental innovators.  One runs ecotourism campaigns to attract visitors.  Another set up a link between recycling firms and manufacturers to collect appliances more efficiently.  Another local government developed a network of 150 businesses to pool information on waste treatment and recycling.  There is a network of 60 local governments that promotes wind power.  Many local governments are trying to utilize biomass--e.g., food waste and wood chips--to produce energy, help stop global warming, and create new jobs.

·        The largest city gas company in Japan (Tokyo Gas) is developing a co-generation system that uses a fuel cell to generate power and heat (on site), and also hydrogen for use in fuel cell vehicles.

·        A law implemented recently requires the government and affiliated groups to buy environment-friendly products -- 101 items in 14 categories -- including paper, personal computers and photocopiers.

   Increasingly, Japanese citizens press hard for local referenda on potentially harmful environment-related projects in their communities.  During the past several years, several communities have voted against construction of nuclear power plants and dams.

·   Japanese fishing groups and NGOs have slowed landfilling and dam construction in environmentally sensitive areas like the Isahaya Bay and the Kawabe River.

·        The environmental sector continues to provide new jobs and business opportunities – urgently needed in the current economic downturn.  The Japanese government estimates that the environmental market will expand from about $125 billion (U.S.) to $300 billion in 2010, and will open up about 1.4 million jobs.

·        New “Eco-Funds” screen businesses on environmental performance. Assets of six eco- funds – especially popular among women with no previous investment experience – totaled about $1 billion US after two years.  An increasing number of firms who wish to raise funds or appeal to a broad range of customers utilize environmental appeals.

·        Three popular Japanese musicians recently established a bank in Japan to provide low-interest financing for renewable energy, energy conservation and environmental protection activities.

·        Japanese firms increasingly look for environmentally sound alternatives.  For example, delivery firms are looking for non-diesel vehicles, as pollution concerns engender stricter diesel regulation.  One firm introduced hundreds of trucks that run on compressed natural gas and liquefied petroleum gas.

·        Many universities have added environmental programs.  There is even a "University of Environmental Studies."  A new Japanese eco-business school focuses on entrepreneurs who want to begin environmental firms in “natural energy”, recycling, wastewater treatment, soil cleanup, and environmental consulting.  

·        The national government offers incentives to encourage firms to be more “environmentally competitive.”  The Environment Ministry has established guidelines for environmental reports and accounting, in part to give investors and consumers information with which to evaluate firms’ environmental performance.


The trend is crystal clear:  the environment is increasingly important in Japan.  Citizens, government, businesses, and investors are acting on their growing concerns.  The environment is not a priority for all Japanese – but the writing is on the wall.  The environment will continue to grow in importance.

            Many Japanese believe that Europe and the U.S. are more environmentally advanced, which creates opportunities for Westerners who have something to offer.  Some Japanese believe that, as the most powerful economy in Asia, Japan has a responsibility to develop and share environmental expertise.  This could enable Asia's development to proceed with as few environmental problems as possible.  For this reason, too, influential Japanese wish to absorb and adapt effective environmental innovations from abroad.

The benefits of this trend can be enormous.  Those who wish to improve environmental performance and solve environmental problems can have constructive influence on the world’s second largest economy.  And the learning process is a two-way street.  No matter what the specialty – environment-friendly packaging, wastewater treatment, geographic information systems, alternative energy, nonprofit activity, or a host of others – to the non-Japanese, Japan is an instructive, “negative mirror.”  We look at Japan’s intriguing culture, see fascinating differences, and then see our own specialties in a striking new light.  Work with Japan and the Japanese is often deeply enlightening.


In today's dynamic, swift-shift age of globalization, “sustainable development” is a mantra for industrialized nations, and Japan is no exception – stereotypes notwithstanding.   In Japan, too, the environment has become a crucial concern.  For those with innovative, useful ideas and services to offer, the time is ripe.



References:  Japan Times, Daily Yomiuri, Asahi News, Japan for Sustainability

Copyright--Steven M. Hoffman, 2002-2010.   All rights reserved.