Climate Justice in Japan

Climate Justice in Japan


  • Climate Justice Is Not a Major Issue in Japan
  • The Sea of Japan side and Okinawa are Two Regions in Japan That Are Most Vulnerable to Climate Change



While the concept of Climate Justice is recent globally, in Japan it would appear almost non-existent and is nascent at best, and perhaps it will never come to become a widely known and discussed topic. The reasons are geographical, historical, cultural, socially, and economical.

Historically speaking, Japan has been isolated from the Asian continent by the Sea of Japan, which is a rather dangerous sea resulting in limited traffic compared with the calm seas of the Mediterranean which have fostered trade and cultural exchange. To be sure, Japanese culture and society has been heavily influenced by the influx of people mostly from the Korean peninsula where religion, governance, language, and arts, originating in China arrived in Japan via a Korean interpretation. This said, Japan has had millennia on its own and has even made efforts to shut itself off from the outside world during the centuries-long Edo Period from 1600-1868.

Socially speaking, Japanese society is mostly devoid of the concepts of brotherly or universal love that we tend to associate with Western Judeo-Christian religious ideals; rather, Japanese society tends to form around “in-group” and “out-group” structures which would make it seem from the outside that charity is lacking. It is not that charity is lacking per se; however, it does not reveal itself in the ways that the Western world might expect being extended to anyone anywhere.  That is to say, while there is a strong commitment in Japan to giving to one’s groups, (such as one’s school, company, family, local community, prefecture, and country, the concept of a global in-group is not generally part of the national conscious.

Lastly, economically speaking, Japan has traditionally been one of the most egalitarian economies in the world, with a middle class during the 20th century representing over 80% of the population. To be sure, this economically flat society has transformed into a more lopsided division of wealth over the last twenty years, but the infrastructure on which the current society was built in the post-World War Two devastation is still regarded as one of the highest-ranking countries in terms of infrastructure quality behind countries with an only a fraction of the geographic and population size of Japan (such as Singapore, Netherlands, Hong Kong, and Switzerland).

Tying the above together to understand the context of the current status, or lack of status, of Climate Justice, we can see Japan as an isolated island country that looks after its own “in-groups” and has the most well-developed infrastructure in the world among large economies. In this sense, from a Japanese perspective, Japan has already achieved an acceptable level of Climate Justice. While such broad generalizations in an effort to tie cultural context to a specific concept can be seen as making excuses, this is not the intent of this author.

While Japan does have well-balanced infrastructure nationally, it is not equal. The Japanese tend to look at Japan as having a front side (The Pacific side) and a rear side (The Sea of Japan side), and to be sure the front side of Japan with Tokyo, Yokohama, Nagoya, Kyoto, Osaka, Kobe is much more developed than the rear side of Japan facing the Sea of Japan which is light on industry and is only getting Bullet Train access now, more than 50 years after the front side of Japan connected Osaka to Tokyo with high-speed rail.  While less developed, the Sea of Japan side is more protected from the elements than the Pacific-facing side. However, the ongoing warming of the Sea of Japan is resulting in more evaporation and more precipitation along this rear coast in the mountainous areas facing the Sea of Japan which is creating more risks from flooding.

More exposed to economic imbalance and climate extremes is Okinawa prefecture. While Japan worked itself out of an impossible situation from post-World War Two to the OPEC oil shock in the 1970s in what is known as the “Japanese Miracle,” Okinawa was occupied by the United States during this same time until 1972, precluding the entire prefecture from the massive economic and infrastructure development achieved in the rest of Japan. To this day, due to the US occupation, Okinawa is the poorest of the Japanese prefectures while suffering from the same dire demographic conditions and outlook as the rest of Japan today. Moreover, Okinawa is much more exposed to catastrophic climate changed enhanced weather events such as typhoons and sea rise than anywhere else in Japan due to its geographic location and it being a collection of small, remote islands.

For reasons explained above, there is not much of a visible sense of urgency when it comes to climate justice in Japan now, either domestically or globally. While there is the Okinawa Environmental Justice Project, it is mostly concerned with protecting Okinawa from the “overwhelming presence of U.S. military bases on Okinawa’s islands.” Japan Climate Initiative is another organization that pledges “to stand at the forefront of global challenges in order to realize the decarbonized society envisioned by the Paris Agreement,” but there does not appear to be much concern with Climate Justice in their Declaration or Current Topics. While Climate Justice is a prominent part of Friends of the Earth International, it is difficult to find anything specific in their activities for Japan. There is also the youth movement Japan chapter for Fridays For Future, which has Climate Justice as its core value.

This Post was submitted by Climate Scorecard Japan Country Manager James Hawrylak


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