Where are the Japanese climate strikers?


At the end of September 2019, an estimate 6 million people have joined climate strikes across the world, demanding urgent action to address the climate emergency facing our planet. Gatherings in global metropolises such as London and New York have seen hundreds of thousands of people take to the streets. Meanwhile, in Japan, a country of 126 million people, the marches drew a combined total of less than six thousand. After the country suffered months of record rains, floods and heat waves, where were the Japanese climate strikers?

Among those scratching their heads at Japan’s relative placidity is Peter Cave, senior lecturer in Japanese studies at the University of Manchester, who posed the question to a mailing list of oriented social scientists. Japan. Usually a low-traffic platform for academics to broadcast promotions for conferences, jobs, and fundraising opportunities, Cave’s question sparked a heated debate that saw Japanese academics from around the world sharing their research and speculation. on why climate activism in Japan is so silent. .

“When I look at the Asahi Shimbunon the Japanese website, there does not appear to be any mention of climate strikes, even overseas. The same goes for the NHK home page. British journalists also report that not much is happening in Japan. Why not? ”Cave wrote on September 20, when climate strikers marched through cities around the world.

Many responses pointed to issues familiar with the Japanese media landscape: excessive government influence over national broadcaster NHK, a press club system encouraging collusion with officials at the expense of critical reporting, and TV advertising oligopolies that maintain the broadcast media dominated by risk-averse conglomerates. “If the government does not intend to put an environmental topic on its agenda, the mainstream media will not actively do so,” suggests Yosuke Buchmeier, a doctoral student who studies Japanese media.

Aren’t there climate strikes in Japan just because the issue is seen as being actively addressed?

But others have drawn attention to evidence that reports of climate change in Japan are not uncommon. Environmental and political sociologist Jeffrey Broadbent shared the results of his comparative research showing that the volume of Japanese media coverage of climate change is average for the 17 countries studied. Whatever flaw we find in the media, most Japanese people are well aware of the problem posed by climate change, denial is unknown, and new sustainability initiatives are constantly touted by government and the corporate sector. Maybe, then, that there are no climate strikes in Japan simply because the problem is well understood and seen to be proactively resolved?

Andrew DeWit, an expert on Japanese energy and disaster resilience policy, notes how the relatively strong public support for spending on climate adaptation has “helped policymakers at all levels to implement. implementing measures that simultaneously promote adaptation and mitigation, which the IPCC has emphasized long ago ”. He suggests that much of what Japan actually does is underestimated by the metrics we use.

“That’s not to say that Japan is doing well enough,” DeWit concluded in his otherwise optimistic reflection. The Climate Action Tracker, an independent scientific analysis measuring government actions against the Paris Agreement’s goal of limiting warming to well below 2 degrees Celsius, assesses Japan’s climate targets as “very insufficient. “Japan’s current policies, if practiced around the world, would warm the climate to levels incompatible with current human civilization,” says Charles Cabell, professor at the University of Toyo who strives to facilitate justice social and environmental activism at university.

“By constantly talking about climate change, Japanese companies have managed to recover from the problem in a way that does not challenge mass consumption and overconsumption. As a result, many people have convinced themselves that they are actually fighting climate change when they buy a new device, provided it is “shо̄-ene“or” energy saving “,” says historian Nick Kapur.

Protests in the streets – and even on social media – have been delegitimized and even stigmatized

What seems to be lacking in Japan is therefore not so much the volume of media coverage, but a sense of urgency and crisis commensurate with the gravity of the problem and the dismal inadequacy of existing Japanese policies. But criticism from the Japanese media can certainly help explain why inadequate government and corporate action may not be so aggressively pursued.

If the Japanese media fear the confrontation, it seems that so are the Japanese citizens. Kapur says that since the last major student protests in Japan in the 1960s, the state and the general public have collaborated “to delegitimize and even stigmatize street protests, particularly strikes, and even ‘politics’. in general “. Indeed, the Japanese organizers of the September climate strike translated the action into Japanese as “climate march” for appear less confrontational. Saki Mizoroki, journalist and doctoral student at the University of Tokyo, also notes how social media has been comparatively less important in Japan in catalyzing social movements: “It is not common to see a Japanese person publicly post something social media policy ”.

In addition to the aversion to political confrontation at the heart of the climate dispute, there is a general political apathy. Broadbent says that the “soft paternalism” of the Japanese state, in aiming to create placid and obedient citizens, has also made many Japanese people disillusioned and suspicious of their democratic and governing institutions – far more so than in many Japanese people. other developed countries, depending on Global Values ​​Survey. “There is a lot of shikataganai (“You can’t do anything”) and akirame (“Give up”), you can’t fight against the town hall, “he said.

The responses to Cave also highlighted what some describe as a relatively “authoritarian” education system that places little value on critical thinking and values ​​perfect attendance instead of skipping class to take stock of environmental issues. While there are exceptions, even many universities seem completely intimidated and depoliticized: “among the most politically sterile communities in Japan,” says Cabell, who described an incident at his university where a student had been. threatened with deportation for holding a sign and distributing flyers on campus to protest the teachings of a professor. The university had not opposed the content of his protest, but simply to the act of political expression on campus, claiming that it “disturbed the order of the university”.

Japan’s inadequate response to climate change is not unique – but protests will become more urgent as the impact of climate degradation grows stronger

As with media coverage, the way climate change and green issues are addressed in education can be an unintended cause for appeasement. The science of climate change is taught in textbooks, waste separation and environmental protection are learned as a matter of good citizenship, and universities are creating new brands around green technology research agendas. If you squint your eyes, you might just feel like Japan is on top.

Japan is not unique in its inadequate response to climate change. Equally insufficient are the carbon commitments of most other developed countries. Nor is Japan alone in having a public discourse simultaneously inundated with enduring brands, initiatives and innovations – many of which are not superfluous, but simply pale in relation to the scale of the problem at hand.

So where are the Japanese climate strikers? There are many fronts in the war on climate change, but the calm of this front is probably best explained by the progressive delegitimization of the policy of confrontation led by the citizens. This process, evidenced in the discussion by Kapur, has also been explored by others such as the anthropologist Akihiro Ogawa, which pessimistically characterizes contemporary Japanese civil society – as well as notions of socially engaged citizenship – as having been largely depoliticized and co-opted by the state.

While even countries that have seen massive climate protests struggle to craft adequate climate policy, it is fair to ask whether the sweeping demands of the nascent climate strike movement in Japan stand a chance under such difficult circumstances. But the planet will not stop warming until the end of global carbon emissions. Unlike the brief revivals of Japan’s protest tradition seen after the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster, which eventually ran out of steam in the face of government intransigence, the climate movement’s demands can only become more immediate and pressing as the time comes. that the next decades of lasting and unpredictable climate degradation make themselves felt throughout society. The time for apathy and complacency will inevitably end, and the time for radical action will be upon us.


Sakari Mesimäki is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Social Anthropology at the University of Cambridge and conducts research on political subjectivity in Japan. Sakari previously worked in Business and Communication Consulting in Tokyo and graduated in Anthropology and Japanese Studies from the University of Helsinki and the University of Cambridge.








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