Are the Japanese Soft on Climate Change?

At CarterJMRN we’ve heard many times over the years that Japanese people do not seem to care about climate change or, for that matter, environmental issues in general. This makes it hard for people whose job is to encourage positive change, and it is with those important stakeholders in mind that we’re writing this article. 

Perceptions of Climate Change in Japan

Japanese’ apparent passive stance on the topic of climate change is a situation which often seems to mirror their stance on other ‘progressive’ challenges such as gender equality, the status of minorities and so forth. 

 It’s certainly not our intention in this article to claim that this is necessarily a misconception. In the past few years, CarterJMRN have done extensive face to face work with consumers for NPOs and commercial organisations on a range of challenging social topics, including environmental conservation and climate change. In our work we have repeatedly seen a passivity that is characteristic of many average Japanese when talking about complex (and seemingly intractable) problems.  

Indeed, Japan can often seem way behind when compared to the progress that has been made in activating other advanced economies (especially the young) in addressing the looming climate emergency.  However, the idea that Japanese are fundamentally inconvincible and impossible to motivate when it comes to getting behind positive change is one that we don’t agree with. Rather, the challenge when viewing this as an outsider is how you CAN do this, considering the way that Japan’s culture and society works.  

It is also an important global challenge. Japan can and should have a large role to play in this challenge. Japan is the world’s third biggest economy and as such is also a huge contributor to the problem. For example, although there has recently been some good news, its banks in recent years have been quietly and steadily forging forward with financing of major coal projects in developing countries. Japan’s stance on climate change is one that, as it becomes more positive, will have great influence in the world.  

It may be convenient to think that Japanese are perhaps less aware of global issues, including those of the environment. This is not the case. The average person in Japan is extremely well informed and, in their own way, confident in their world view. However, it’s also true that Japanese are not an easy target for persuasion on anything, let alone issues to do with the environment and climate. Does this mean that Japanese are in favour of doing nothing, or that the problem is not real? Absolutely not. Ordinary Japanese can identify and empathise with these real issues, locally and globally. They know that everything is not OK. Indeed, three quarters in a recent population representative CarterJMRN survey (taken in March 2020) said that they want greater transparency in government and business. 

But there are important cultural differences to consider when comparing Japanese viewpoints, that are relevant to this topic. Before I launch into a discussion of cultural differences, I want to emphasise that ‘cultural differences’ are never absolute. We all, regardless of culture have similar fundamental needs and motivations. Our differences only exist in terms of degree and sometimes just in our unconsciously biased minds. Nevertheless, if a preference or characteristic is only slightly more expressed on average in a different population it will be noticeable. For example, we tend to say that Japanese are quiet people, but most of us have also met very extroverted Japanese. Often it is the situation that determines how people express themselves. Therefore, it’s most useful to look at cultural differences as being apparent but not absolute.  

Having said that, in the west traditional problem-solving approaches tend to favour assessing and solving problems stridently head on. The faster, more empirical, logic driven and surer the action, the more we tend to admire it. That’s a typically Western vision of good decision making and leadership. However, in Japan, this is not often the case. The maxim that tends to override is ‘first do no harm’. In other words, it is far more important not to risk or negate anything in the solving of a problem than to (perhaps negatively) solve the problem.  

Integrating Japanese Traditions and Global Climate Efforts

In Japan, there are frequent examples of how some would rather live with problems than take the risks inherent in action. We have seen this time and again in our work with the consumer. Even in areas such as house cleaning, where surface cleaners are preferred to not clean too perfectly or to be “too efficacious”, or anti-ageing regimes which should not be too effective in ‘erasing’ lines and wrinkles. That the stove that never achieves a “great” clean or the face that never gets as smooth as it might is less important than any potential negatives or threat to wellbeing – even in the slightest. The middle path is the way, even in the supermarket. 

We have witnessed how science through the ages has taken its place over religion as the ultimate authority. Nevertheless, Japan remains a place where tradition still stands as the ultimate authority. This means that gradual change is usually preferred to the sudden, transformational change that westerners often desire in their societies. 

Japanese consumers also tell us that this is a society where things tend to be ‘taken care of’ by authority and the powers that be. Indeed, while Japanese diligently hold responsibility as a core cultural value, the scope of their responsibility is quite personal. Although people might undertake amazing feats of courage and perseverance in the workplace, there are relatively few examples in the public domain. In short, responsibility for ‘my’ world exists with me, and responsibility for the outside world is delegated to those in charge of that. The locus of citizen action, responsibility and control is typically then at the individual level. This is not to say that those in power are above criticism. Politicians and businesspeople are heavily criticised from time to time but elites in Japan are generally trusted and the weightier questions of managing society are left to them.  

However, this is changing. In our recent sentiment survey, 58% of Japanese agreed that the government response on climate change is not enough. A similar proportion, 55%, also agreed that businesses, both Japanese and foreign, should be encouraged by their customers to stop investing in projects which could negatively impact climate change. This strong result really surprised us – the idea that the consensus is an apathetic one simply isn’t the case. Sustainability is common sense in Japan as much as it is anywhere else. 

But it bears remembering that in every society, and especially in east Asian societies including Japan, the sender (and therefore credibility) of a message has a strong impact on the likelihood of it being listened to. If you seek to persuade Japanese on anything, including on climate change action, your message should not be assumed as acceptable on its face value, or even on the strength of its rational underpinning. In terms of being listened to, who you are often matters more than what you say. So, if you seek to convince you must first work to build trust. Transparency of your background and motives is a cost of entry to this important conversation. 

It is also important to realise that (as many who have tried have seen), while people see the desirability of action on progressive issues, preaching to them is largely ineffective.  People want to have a sense of action and change on social and environmental issues, and not just talk. There is no interest in supporting people and organisations with no chance of making a difference. 

In work we have done with women in the area of gender equality we have also seen that there is a delicate balance between societal change and acceptability. It is believed that overall ‘society’ should support change- but it’s not clear how.  

The sense is that no-one is leading the way on these issues or driving positive change, with most “muddling through” issues on their own, and there’s a sense of inertia that it’s too hard to effect change. However, what we found across their life stories was a common theme of “I am stronger than I realised” and “together we can”. I see a lot of parallels between the mountains that need climbing in gender equality and climate change. On both issues, solutions that lie in empowering the individual to take safe but collective action, and thus expanding the scope of where people can apply their power, are very promising.  Work in this area to date indicates that this is the best general approach for activist organisations to achieve their campaigning goals and for the seeds of genuine change to be planted. 

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