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


Oh no! I have misspelled Doraemon's name! Hopefully further travels to Japan will still be allowed; I wouldn't want to get on the ambassador's bad side...

Posted by: Madeline on September 1, 2008 4:27 AM