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Hot Japan's Cool Green Trends

By Madeline Ashby.

There's a commercial here, I wrote to a friend about Japan, and it seems to say: "If Fat Cat can go green, so can you."

Japan loves cats. So it's not surprising that a rotund orange tabby should become the ambassador, of sorts, for Toshiba's Eco campaign. (After all, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced this March that Doreamon, the titular robotic cat from a classic animated television series, would be given his own diplomatic position).

garden250.jpgI had come to Japan with my husband as part of my Master's thesis. But along the way, I discovered a series of green trends that increasingly demanded my attention. How Japan markets green tech changed my notions about how my chosen country (Canada) should tailor green campaigns.

Here's how the Fat Cat commercial goes: low medium shot on Fat Cat, sprawled in a puddle of sunlight, then Fat Cat's neighbourhood, with clothes drying in the wind and kids playing, then a closing shot that my husband affectionately dubbed "Fat Cat Looks to the Future," with Fat Cat and a tabby kitten staring into space. Cut to Toshiba's Eco logo. Fade out.

"This is about solar power," I said one night. "Fat Cat derives power from the sun, and so can we."

Although my limited Japanese made it difficult to challenge my hypothesis, what I saw in Japan showed me that yes, Japan is committed to using renewable energy—but only if it yields comfort of the kind enjoyed by fat cats of all types, everywhere.

For example, the Sony Building in Ginza. Centred in the heart of one of Tokyo's most expensive shopping districts, it's a monument to personal electronics, disposable income, and energy expenditure. It's also green. Find a directory, and you'll see which floors are powered by what—wind or solar. Enter this summer, and you'll find the Sony Aquarium, a hyper-real exhibit of both live fish and fish on HD screens.


The crowning glory, though, is a short 3D HD film about the fish inhabiting the Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium, from whence Sony's live fish were imported and in which the footage was filmed. Silky stingrays, elegant whale sharks, and glittering tropical fish seemingly glide through the darkened space of a tiny HD theatre crowded mainly with awestruck kids and parents. The film closes with a message about the negative impact of humans on fish populations. You shuffle out, hopefully humbled into buying some of Sony's new organic LED monitors.

This sort of responsibility in excess defines the Japanese approach to green living. Consider the "cool biz" look advocated by former Prime Minister Koizumi's cabinet. Rather than ask homeowners to bump their air conditioning thermostats a notch during the summer (as Canadian David Suzuki has), Koizumi advocated a very simple change to the Japanese salaryman's traditional dress code: no more ties, and no more wool. Previously, rigourous social enforcement kept these men boiling in their suits like potatoes baked in their own jackets. Summer temperatures in Tokyo's semi-tropical climate range from 28-34 degrees C and humidity is over seventy percent. "Cool biz" allowed them to stop air conditioning so aggressively.

When I first heard of this plan on a balmy night in Ginza, I thought it little more than a publicity stunt. Come on, I thought, who actually listens to the prime minister on sartorial matters? Then I took a look around.


The workers surrounding me were in light shirts, with nary a jacket in sight. Koizumi had struck a nerve by giving these men and women the permission to be comfortable, and tying that indulgence to energy efficiency and ethical responsibility.

Toshiba's Eco ad campaign echoed that sentiment, with ads on subway lines featuring lightly-dressed, smiling people clearly proud of the moral superiority of their energy-efficient washers and dryers (and their disposable income). But what struck me was the efficiency of even the not-so-new appliances I encountered in Tokyo: televisions were small and compact, and coin-operated laundromats washed and dried entire loads in under forty-five minutes. Even some delivery companies, which supply Tokyo's ubiquitous kombini (convenience stores) with fresh helpings of beer, sake, and cold noodle and sushi dishes, operate by bicycle.


Bicycles, and bicycle rentals, are all over Tokyo and Kyoto. Kyoto especially loves the bike, and cyclists are more common on the (unimaginably wide and pedestrian-friendly) sidewalks. These built-in aspects of green life were surprisingly prevalent in the areas of Japan we visited.

In the far-flung countryside surrounding the Iga-Ueno Castle, in Mie Prefecture, we noticed kitchen gardens, then saw them again in Chidori-cho, a suburb of Tokyo. We saw ads for Ulvac solar films, then saw portable solar units on rooftops. We found an excellent innovation at one ryokan, where our key fob "turned on" the room. (Without it, there's no electricity powering unused appliances or outlets. No presence, no power.) We looked at books on how to re-purpose and hack plastic PET bottles—an excellent use for the ever-present bottles, which constantly stream from Japan's innumerable vending machines.


Japan does not have all the answers to green living. It still emphasizes convenience, excess, and disposability. Consider the sheer amount of packaging in many Japanese goods: my Family Mart onigiri (rice ball) featured a double layer of plastic wrap, just so that the layer of seaweed surrounding it would be kept dry. This was a wrapper for a wrapper. A meta-wrapper, if you will, and totally unnecessary. This philosophy repeats everywhere: individually wrapped cookies; capsule toys that come in an egg-shaped plastic shell and a plastic bag; separate plastic bags for the disposable ice packs that come with styrene take-out containers.

But if Japan has done anything correctly, it's to marry government involvement with the attractiveness of innovation. Green tech is a point of pride. Green campaigning is about comfort and luxury—something one wants to do, rather than what one ought to do. This is the exact opposite of Ontario's PowerWISE campaign which, while more comprehensive than anything I saw (or could translate) in Japan, uses advertisements featuring David Suzuki appearing inside a kids' treehouse and under a bus-rider's seat—armed with a caulking gun.

Much has been made of Japan's gross national cool, and perhaps Canadian government could learn from Japanese business about what sells consumers on sacrifice. Japanese green philosophy appears to be a combination of national pride in technological advancement, an emphasis on everyday green tech as an opportunity for further consumption, and hobbycraft.

Photos: Madeline Ashby

Article from WorldChanging Canada

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Nice article. Problem here in canada is that we don't have the same culture. In japan, lots of respect between people and their governement. The respect goes both way too.

Here in canada, i would be rolling on the floor laughing if i heard our good Stephen Harper talk about anything significant environnementally wise since this guy comes from Alberta, our oil extracting most polluting but most money generating province in canada. And he back oil industries to the hilt. He also like to clean George bush posterior on a regular basis. ;-)

Also, here we don't respect our governement much and we could care less what they say about anything. If it's not in a law that may be respected, then you might as well forget it, people won't do it.

Posted by: stef on 3 Sep 08

Japan is an interesting case as well because of its cultural and religious background. Last year I studied abroad and I have studied Japanese culture for a long time (Shinto not Manga). I made it clear to Japanese students that I was interested in Eco no Koto and they would tell me what they thought about ecology. Unfortunately as you point out Japanese people and the youth especially are mostly concerned with comfort and convenience these days. Most weren't concerned with the sheer volume of plastic bags used for example. Still I found that people had a much better understanding of the environment than students back in the states.

Shinto and Buddhism are mostly ignored by the youth these days but the long standing traditions governing reciprocity and communal thinking still pervade, even if they are being eroded by western style individualism. I think this helps in Japan because people are beginning to understand that it’s not polite to sink their Polynesian neighbor’s islands with their silly contraptions.

Of course it helps that Japan has some of the highest commodity and energy prices in the world. I’m not sure to what extent but I want to believe that the resource poor nature of Japan has continued the tradition of enryo.

PS I miss the seeing on demand water heating everywhere I go.
Shinto and Buddhism are mostly ignored by the youth these days but the long standing traditions governing reciprocity and communal thinking still pervade, even if they are being erroded by western style individualism.

Posted by: Enirty Manaen on 10 Sep 08

To stef: I think you miss the point. In Japan, the Prime Minister was used as the voice. In Canada it would be someone else. What's important is the message (green is cool) not who delivers it.

It should be mentioned that the high cost of utilities in Japan will encourage people to save. Most clothes washer for example can pump the water from the furo for example. It's offered as a cost saving feature. Fridges are a lot better than here too (I'd love to have a fridge like the ones I saw over there: lots of smaller compartments with varying temperature, not one BIG door that lets all the cold air out in one woosh). Our fridge designers are stuck in the 50s, Japan's have _thought_ about what they did, made them more convenient _and_ greener.

One thing I've noticed here is that in Canada poorer people often can't do any of the suggested green moves since they already do them out of necessity (can't switch from the car to the bus if you don't own a car and already take the bus and so on) and people who are better off are unwilling to do anything. Making green cool may just change that.

Posted by: cybernetic nomad on 12 Sep 08



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