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Letter from Japan: Prosperity Within Limits
Blaine Brownell, 3 Nov 06
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Japan has always intrigued me. As the seven-year old son of a Fulbright fellow to Hiroshima University in 1977, Japan shaped my life in profound ways, and it was a natural step for me to study Japanese language and minor in East Asian Studies while in college. Since my introduction to the culture nearly thirty years ago, much has been published regarding Japanese design, crafts, and technology, but some fundamental mysteries still remain. For example, how has such a small country been so successful and influential on the world stage? How has a nation faced with extreme geophysical and resource limitations been able to maintain a first-world quality of life? How has a culture often regarded as an emulator of all things Western become an international leader in the fields of design and technology?

It is with these and other questions in mind that I sought to travel to Japan in order to find some answers. My strategy has been to approach Japanese design through the lens of my own career in architecture, sustainable building methods, and materials research, while remaining open to fresh and unconventional insights. As a foreigner, I know that there will always be cultural overtones and subtleties beyond my grasp, but my idea is to glean and communicate information which could be useful to other countries and cultures.

After all, we are faced with some big challenges ahead, as one can see from the many intelligent assessments that appear throughout this website. Resource depletion, energy regime change, global emissions, and urban population explosions are just a few of the problems that all nations now face, and I am intrigued by how Japan is responding to these issues. It should come as no surprise that Japan does not have an impeccable environmental track record, but then again, no nation does. My hypothesis is that Japan has become a global innovator because of the tremendous limitations she has faced throughout her tumultuous process of modernization, and that she will therefore be one of the first nations to respond to new environmental challenges. We would do well, therefore, to learn from Japan’s current innovations as we begin to come up against limitations that are global in scale.

Let us test this idea by looking at the numbers. First, imagine a country the size of 377,835 sq km, or slightly smaller than the State of California. Now imagine that this country is rugged and mountainous, so that arable land amounts to only 11.64% of the total area, and permanent crops account for only 0.9% of this total. This country is considered to have negligible natural resources, and must import over 80% of its raw materials, since it has a population of 127,463,611 people (slightly less than Russia, slightly more than Mexico) who live in an area the size of Denmark. Add to this picture that this nation experiences approximately 1,500 seismic episodes annually, has many volcanoes (mostly dormant), and experiences tsunamis and typhoons to boot.

Given this description, it may surprise you that this nation’s economy is one of the strongest in the world, with a GDP purchasing power of over $4 trillion, following only the United States, European Union, and China. Moreover, the employment rate is 4.4% (5.1% in the U.S.), distribution of family income earns a Gini index score of 37.9 (better than the U.S. score of 45), life expectancy is 81.25 years (making it 6th in the world; the U.S. is ranked 48th), with a 99% literacy rate and universal suffrage. In addition, this country is one of the leading and most sophisticated producers of automobiles, boats, electronics, tools, textiles, and processed foods, and has one of the most efficient and extensive transportation networks in the world.

So how can a country with severe physical limitations and few resources be so successful on many levels? Don’t we normally think of a nation’s resources as an indication of its prosperity (as in the United States or China)? What about Japan’s import partnerships? Not surprisingly, we find that Japan is a significant consumer of fish as well as tropical timber, leading to the depletion of these resources in Asia and beyond. Japan also imports machinery and equipment, fuels, foodstuffs, chemicals, textiles, and raw materials from its import partners, which include China 21%, US 12.7%, Saudi Arabia 5.5%, UAE 4.9%, Australia 4.7%, South Korea 4.7%, and Indonesia 4%. Interestingly enough, Japan regularly transforms some $451 billion in imports into $550 billion in exports. However, Japan’s power plant emissions generate air pollution resulting in acid rain, and the degradation of water quality in lakes and reservoirs remains an important concern.

According to the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology, the total environmental cost of Japan’s economic activities is estimated at 15 trillion yen per year, or almost 3% of Japan’s GDP. The economic assessment of environmental issues ranks resource consumption (46%), urban air pollution (17%), global warming (15%), and land usage (13%) as the top four environmental costs. However, something interesting happens when we chart Japan’s ecological footprint against its Human Development Index, which is a quality of life measurement created by the United Nations Development Program. According to this particular assessment, Japan ranks positively among the group of unsustainable First World countries, which includes the United States, UAE, Australia, Sweden, and Norway. Herein lies an interesting insight, which suggests that despite Japan’s hearty appetite for resources, the country’s inhabitants experience a superior quality of life via a highly efficient conversion of these resources. So while Japan’s ecological footprint is still unsustainable at roughly four global hectares per person, recent improvements in resource efficiency are reducing this number, which currently provides a much higher ROI than the United States’ 9.5 GHPP figure.

As we ponder the future of sustainability within the First World, one thing is certain. Japan is a nation that understands limits, and has proven that it can accommodate a life of prosperity within them. Moreover, I think we will see that as concerns about shrinking global resources mount, Japan will demonstrate how a flourishing country can tread with an increasingly careful ecological footprint.

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I'm looking forward to more of your research on sustainability in Japan. Benkyou ni nareru deshou!

Posted by: Preston on 3 Nov 06

Very well written, comprehensive and informative article and the picture says it all. The graph not only shows where we are today, but it sums up what we need to do going forward. We need to drop those yellow traingles and circles down and the blue diamonds and red squares to keep marching to the right.

Is it possible for these geometrical figures to move left with bad governance, unbridled greed or institutionalized structural inequities? I believe they can and some countries in Africa and Middle east as well as pockets of peoples within countries (like indigenous groups in many countries and the 44 million in the US with no medical insurance etc.) are examples. Iraq not only is moving left, but it is probably also rising with the billions being expended there every week just to sustain survival of various groups including the US army.

So the big picture task for the worldchanging commuunity is to drop the yellows down, move the rest of the figures to the right and at the same time prevent the blues and the reds from rising up too much. Above all to be vigilant so that none of the geometric figures move too far to the left of where they are today.

Welcome to worldchanging Blaine and congratulation on completing the circle with your own fullbright scholarship. I look forward to reading your articles from the land of the rising sun.

Posted by: Subbarao Seethamsetty on 3 Nov 06

I would like to know what part of the energy supply of Japan factors into this analysis.

It is my understanding that a substantial portion of Japan's energy reliance is from nuclear fission.

Also, I hope your further analysis includes the rapidly growing disparity between the classes in Japan.

Posted by: Kyall Glennie on 5 Nov 06

I would like to know more about 'limits' in Japan as it is related to their city and town planning.

How has a limiting of certain types of growth been factored into the planning of human settlement? And how might this manifest in the rhythms of Japanese life, and in return effect planning?

Does limits manifest in neighborhood living scenarios? How do people socialize in their neighborhoods and then extend this social network to other networks beyond their immediate neighborhoods?

I'd like to learn more about the relationship of limits to Japan's geography. Is there a connection between Japan's geography and its respect of particular growth limits? How could nations of vast size--such as the USA--learn to adopt limiting principles which might require a change in cosmology?

And how do we relate the levels of consumption, population, transport, and well-being with the density of cities like Tokyo and the diminishing population of rural villages? What can this tell us about models for sustainable growth and limits and constraints that enable it?

Posted by: matt on 5 Nov 06

I'm a Japanese national, and been in USA past 10 years on and off. I'm not an expert but I've been interested in comparing approaches taken by Japan, Europe and USA (and these days, I'm interested in China) on the issue of 'green'. Well, overall, my gut reaction is that US people need to kickstart what they ought to have by now, a net 'green' portal, like Geogreen Google (Japan's goo has green section, which is not purely 'eco' - with much commercial and other interests, but still it's something.) - some kind of Green portal on the net for the USA population (and the rest of the world).

It's not an issue of money it seems. Google or Yahoo has enough money, and enough staff traveling in between of Japan and USA, hiring people from all kind of places. It's an issue of psychology. I know when Yahoo's founder was visiting Tokyo, coincidentally major universities of Japan announced the plan to launch a consortium to work on the issue of eco/green. And I read that Yahoo's head was talking about opening yahoo lab in Tokyo, so that Yahoo can pick some thing particularly interesting and happening thing going on in Japan - alright, at that day, Yahoo's founder was there in Tokyo. What he picked?

Still I don't see anything 'green' from Yahoo coming around. They of course can browse and see what its 'green' section offers - they can see it in seconds in their browsers. They just have to call up and grab someone who is Japanese and get them in and get instant translations as they click on. That kind of session'd take only few hours.

And they'd see how much is really different, - and how much aren't. But still they'd come to feel the lack of green portal is so strange - for USA and Silicon Valley. It's strange. John Doerr and Thomas Friedman don't have such chances? Al Gore doesn't know there is green portan in Japan's web? How it's possible? I just can't understand...

I can list hundreds of differences Japan and USA has, as culture or civilization, and how we are similar as human beings, and how we are really different, so different - I live through those - from one moment to another - from the moment of waking up til go to sleep. Still I don't say Japan is that extraordinary. We have many many problems and in honest, it's just same, similar kind of creature, human beings.

Don't get me wrong, we can go down the path of comparison. But rather I believe now what we do need to see first is platform/portal site, open and practical, almost something like Craigslist level - so that all sectors and all kind of people in USA can really get together and start something about eco/green issues. Along that running, we can have many meaningful comparisons of places and people. First we need to see Geogreen Google or Yahoo. We need Green Reddit or Digg running. And then we can come together, globally, and really start have fun - changing things.

Otherwise America's Silicon Valley is indicating how it is really - strangely - American thing - to the rest of the world - not that quick and responsive to the issues of environment.

Posted by: a.kusaka on 5 Nov 06

Japan's energy intensity almost on par with Western countries today as energy intensity in Western countries has been diminishing (while Japan has rising relatively slowly)*

* This data is from Vaclav Smil's 'Energy at Crossroads', MIT press, 2003 (original data from OECD & UNP).

I think similarly interesting countries are some of the Mediterranian countries (e.g. Italy & Spain).

For example, Italy and Spain have

- Lower enegy use / capita
- lower energy intensity / gdp

While retaining similar

- low level of infant mortality
- high life expectancy span

compared to Japan.

Compared to USA/UK/most of the Western Europe, there's really no comparison (we are a wasteful bunch, aren't we!).

Or in Plain English:

People there live as healthy and equally wealthy, while at the same time, using less resources (materials & energy).

This is not to put Japan down. I'm also amazed by what they've been culturally able to achieve dictated by the scarcity of their material/energy resources. It's no wonder that the underpinning of modern successful manufacturing methods are from Japan (e.g. Toyota Production System).

The government subsidized solar panel program was a very good example of how more ecologically sound energy programs can be kick started nationwide (pv panel purchases were subsidized in Japan initially, but not anymore, but they still have a growing pv market, which of course contributes to lessening of greenhouse gases as one example).

Still, on a statistical basis even Japan also has a bit of a way to go to become truly energy efficient and sustainable considering it's own resources (or the resources of the planet).

Let's try and take the best from everywhere and apply those findings to our own situation.

Posted by: Matti Salonen on 6 Nov 06

Well I just went on vacation on Japan and was really happy to find solar panels just about everywhere I went from Hokkaido to Souther Honshu. The unfortunate thing however is that about half of Japan's power still comes from Coal.

I would really like to see Japan exploit geothermal, wind, and tidal more. Now obviously tidal is still in its infancy and wind is land intensive, but with all its geothermal activity you'd expect more power plants. They have public onsen but I heard almost nothing about geothermal power when I was there and I was looking for it (I did see a advertisement for a heatpump system while in Hokkaido that made me smile).

Posted by: James Burchill on 6 Nov 06

One way they keep their country well and clean is by brokering waste-exporting deals with other, often less economically healthy countries.

Japan's government has negotiated the export of such goodies like incinerator ash, pharmaceutical and hospital waste, sewage sludge, organic solvents, and more into the Philippines. ( for more details)

All this hidden waste begs some questions about the true sustainability of Japan's manufacturing and consumption.

Posted by: Beatrice Misa on 7 Nov 06

Hello all. This is my first visit to this site. Lots of thought-provoking info about the need to lead lifestyles which our environment can sustain.

My understanding of living sustainably is that one live such that it is possible for everyone in the world to live similarly without affecting the health or equilibrium of our planet. It's a basic and necessary responsiblity.

However I am worried that, even here, people are happy talking the green talk whilst continuing to live 'right on' but nonetheless profligate lifestyles.

What if all 6 billion of us flew to Japan for a holiday or decided to we wanted to study in a far away country?

I don't mean this as a criticism of individuals, rather as an observation of the two-tier state of the world, where a very small minority lead lives far grander than the majority can imagine.

With regards to the above article and its comments about Japan adapting to new limitations, I am very interested to hear the thoughts of other visitors to on the relationship between global equality and environmentalism. In particular, whether or not people from the unsustainable First World countries: Japan, USA, Western Europe, etc. could / should be persuaded to accept consumption capping at or closer to the global median level.

Posted by: conorsan on 12 Nov 06



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