|by Renée Loth The Boston Globe /Published: March 26, 2007|
An island nation with no domestic oil supply, Japan offers a glimpse
into the world's energy future, when oil reserves decline to
unsustainable levels and alternatives are the only alternative.
Nearly 10 years after the Kyoto global- warming summit meeting, the
country still claims a leadership role in reducing carbon emissions.
According to the International Energy Agency, Japan's energy
consumption as a percentage of gross domestic product is the lowest in
The national expression of concern for the earth dovetails nicely
with the traditional Japanese reverence for nature (Shintoism sees gods
in every mountain, rock, and tree), but in fact Japan has no choice:
The country imports almost all its oil and 60 percent of its food. It
is self-sufficient only in rice.
However, Japan has managed to drive down energy use dramatically
without sacrificing the comforts of an affluent society. The per capita
consumption of energy in Japan is nearly half that in the United
States, but the per capita incomes are roughly the same. So prosperity
alone doesn't explain why the United States burns so much more oil.Japan's economy is still the second largest in the world. Its office
towers and shopping malls teem with innovation and commerce. Its
prowess in innovation and design keeps the Japanese well-stocked in
consumer gadgets: cellphones with GPS maps, high-tech toys, the
peculiarly appealing new electric toilet.
How do they do it? Partly, the Japanese have invented their way out
of energy abuse. Hybrid cars from Toyota and Honda are just the most
obvious examples. Four of the world's five largest producers of solar
panels are Japanese, with Sanyo commanding 24 percent of the market.
The government's New Energy and Industrial Technology Development
Organization (NEDO) is busy testing thin, flexible solar panels that,
among many other uses, can be carried along to recharge a cellphone on
"This is a problem of moral dimensions," said Japan's minister of
environment, Masatoshi Wakabayashi. With a green feather in his lapel
and a copy of Al Gore's book on his desk, Wakabayashi is a bureaucrat
with a cause. "I think we are receiving the message that our mother
earth is in crisis," he said. "We have a common consciousness of this
Indeed, Japan's famous insularity and conformity, burdens in other
settings, work to its advantage here. On a recent tour sponsored by the
Japan Foreign Press Center, I saw a society that has fully internalized
the wisdom of restricting energy imports. Businessmen diligently
separate their lunch box trash for recycling. Residential recycling is
even more intense, with at least 10 sorting categories, including small
metal items, bulky refuse, used cloth and chopsticks. Neighbors frown
if the wrong items are in the bins.
Houses, cars, and appliances here are all much smaller than in the
United States, but better designed. Even delivery trucks are hardly
bigger than the average suburban Hummer. There is a growing movement
called "watashi no hashi" ("my chopsticks") that urges people to carry
their own into restaurants so as to cut down on the waste of the
The transportation sector is responsible for 20 percent of Japan's
C0² emissions (which overall are the fifth largest in the world). But
gasoline is taxed so that a gallon costs roughly $4.50, and the fast,
clean, and relatively inexpensive subways (the basic fare is about
$1.50) arrive with military precision.
Long-distance travel by the Shinkansen bullet train, though
expensive, is almost space age in its efficiency, and easily competes
with air travel, especially for business. At the stations, transit
workers greet each train like sentries, holding huge bags for the
Government campaigns to urge energy conservation are myriad. There
are tax deductions for consumers who buy "green tech" appliances and
cars; a "top runner" designation for environmentally friendly
companies; a "warm biz" and "cool biz" campaign that sanctioned the
removal of suit jackets by Japan's decorous businessmen in order to
keep air-conditioned offices no cooler than 68 degrees; and a "minus 6
percent team" for citizens to join to help Japan meet its Kyoto goal of
a 6 percent annual reduction in greenhouse gases, on the way toward 20
percent below 1990 levels.
Wakabayashi says that 1.8 million Japanese citizens have pledged to
take six steps to achieve the goal, such as turning off the lights.
It doesn't hurt that Japan is in a race for pride of place with the
European Union. Earlier this month, the EU committed itself to reduce
carbon emissions by 20 percent by 2020, with the added challenge that
it would achieve 30 percent if the United States agreed to join. But
Takayuki Uedo, manager of the New and Renewable Energy Division of
Japan's natural resources agency, is scornful of the EU's effort. "We
are 20 years ahead of the EU countries," he said, pointing to a program
to help homeowners purchase domestic hydrogen fuel cells.Can the common consciousness of energy conservation in Japan - a
country where commuters form a silent queue on subway platforms and no
one jaywalks - ever be translated to the United States? Let's hope so.
Sooner or later, we are all Japan.
Renée Loth is the editorial page editor of The Boston Globe, where this column first appeared.
Source: http://www.iht.com/articles/2007/03/26/opinion/edloth.php [www.iht.com]