Honest debate in Tokyo: Can Japan play a leadership role in the response to climate change?

It was an extremely unusual group that gathered at the Japanese National Diet on August 4th, for a seminar on climate change. Core members of the Asia Institute active in Japan pulled together on short notice scholars, businessmen, politicians, NGO activities and youth from Japan, Korea, Taiwan—and of course myself from the United States.

The topic of the seminar was whether Japan could take a leading role in the world in the response to climate change, especially in light of the recent decision of the Trump administration to pull out of the Paris Agreement with the result that the United States has ceased to play a role in the response to the core security challenge of our age.

I spoke first about the extremely short conversation I had with Edwin O. Reischauer when he came to visit the Inter-university Center for Japanese Language where I was studying Japanese immediately after graduating Yale in 1987. Ambassador Reischauer was already 77 years old at that time, retired after a career in diplomacy and in education, including director of the Yenching Institute of Harvard University (where I would later study myself).

He told me I had a responsibility to deeply engage in US-Asia current relations even as I continued my studies in classical Japanese literature. I did not think deeply about his words then, but later in life they would come back to me again and again.

The meaning of those words would shift, however, as I saw my own country’s government overshadowed by a profoundly anti-scientific and anti-intellectual cloud, a shift that made the Trump administration and its anti-science purges possible. Needless to say, no one like Professor Reischauer is serving in the United States government today.

I asked that Japanese have the moral courage, drawing on the best of the samurai tradition, to stand up for the greater good and fight for a real response to climate change. I asked whether Japan join with Korea, with China and with others around the world (including of course those with the will in the United States) and demand new, far more concrete and comprehensive strategies than anything in the Paris Agreement. I proposed that we must go back to the Kyoto Protocol of 1997, and we must return to that original debate which involved experts focused on the long-term interests of the Earth, and not short-term political goals. We have sadly lost sight, even in Paris (where most experts were sidelined), of the original intentions of Kyoto.

Takasugi Nobuya, former president of Fuji-Xerox Korea, and long term leader in the Japanese business community in Korea, then spoke about the need to transform the corporate culture of Japan. He demanded that Japan return to a strong tradition of corporate social responsibility and that sustainability, as was originally detailed in the United Nation’s sustainable development goals. He called on the Japanese business community to go back to being a model, and to see this critical moment as a chance to move beyond slogans and take real action. He also suggested that Japan possesses the know-how in many fields to make a substantial global contribution if it has the will.

Nakafuji Hirohiko, current head of the Asia Institute of Japan, stressed the important role that Japan and Korea could play going forward in the response to climate change, working with both China and the United States, and other countries, to increase understanding and move towards a more complex understanding of current issues, these two countries, with their deep global networks, could make the critical difference, he suggested. He stressed that Korea and Japan were well placed to display true leadership, if they had the collective will.

The discussion after the seminar was in many respects the best part. Peace activist Kawanaka Yo, who had protested outside the National Diet but had never been inside the building before, or spoken to any of the people who actually work on policy within, spoke out about the importance of a dialog between intellectuals and ordinary citizens in Japan. She suggested that serious social divides in Japanese society meant that those of status are entitled to the attention of the media, and most citizens will accept their opinions. However, ordinary citizens take little interest in those opinions and see the discussion of elite policy makers as unrelated to their own lives.

Kawanaka suggested that currently no real dialog is possible between the intellectuals who are held up high on a pedestal by the media and ordinary citizens. By contrast, she noted, women, minorities and financially disadvantaged citizens are shut out of the policy discussion completely. If we want to think seriously about climate change, she suggested, we need to change first the manner in which we carry out the policy discussion.

There were two high school students, Hirabayashi Shikoh and Masaka Kai, who attended, listened intently and asked probing and thoughtful questions right up to the end of the seminar. Their presence as active participants in an event at the National Diet was remarkable in and of itself.

It was perhaps not an accident that this effort to think outside the box, to move away from a Japanese policy of following the United States unconditionally, regardless of national or global concerns, took place at the very moment that Abe Shinzo and his conservative allies, wracked by scandals, have lost momentum and may even fall from power. Perhaps Japanese who had given up on the possibility of political change in Japanese society were starting to awaken from their stupor.

Interestingly, on the very same day, Nakamitsu Izumi, currently United Nations Under-Secretary-General of Disarmament Affairs, spoke with reporters and declared that since Japan had displayed the independence to go against the wishes of the Trump administration and to endorse the recent proposal at the United Nations for an international treaty banning nuclear weapons, it could play a leadership role globally.

Nakamitsu declared, “I want to see Japan be the leader in the efforts to reduce the number of nuclear weapons in the world.” She went as far as to propose that Japan work to establish internationally a “wise men’s club for nuclear disarmament.”

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