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Lessons from Japan: Finding Prosperity within Limits

This article was written by Blaine Brownell in November 2006. We're republishing it here as part of our month-long editorial retrospective.

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 30 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 percent of the total area, and permanent crops account for only 0.9 percent of this total. This country is considered to have negligible natural resources, and must import over 80 percent 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 percent (5.1 percent 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 percent 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 percent, US 12.7 percent, Saudi Arabia 5.5 percent, UAE 4.9 percent, Australia 4.7 percent, South Korea 4.7 percent, and Indonesia 4 percent. 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 percent of Japan’s GDP. The economic assessment of environmental issues ranks resource consumption (46 percent), urban air pollution (17 percent), global warming (15 percent), and land usage (13 percent) 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.

Letter from Japan: Prosperity Within Limits
is part of our month long retrospective leading up to our anniversary on October 1. For the next four weeks, we'll celebrate five years of solutions-based, forward-thinking and innovative journalism by publishing the best of the Worldchanging archives.

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