Hot spring bathing tradition stymies Japan’s clean energy ambitions

Steam emerges from a well dug to test geothermal power generation in Hokkaido in October 2015. | KYODO

Steam emerges from a well dug to test geothermal power generation in Hokkaido in October 2015. | KYODO

After the 2011 Fukushima disaster, the use of nuclear energy is largely reduced. Japan is eagerly seeking for new clean energy alternative. Onsen (温泉), the popular Japanese hot spring attracts 120 million of people each year is now being considered. As a resource-poor country, Japan ironically owns the world’s third-largest geothermal reserve, approximating to 23 gigawatts of power which is as powerful as 20 nuclear reactors according to International Energy Agency’s geothermal division. With the pressure of reducing carbon emissions as promised during Paris climate talk, the government wishes to triple its current geothermal capacity by 2030. It claims to reduce Japan’s CO2 emissions by 54.7 million tons a year.

However, the representative from Japan Spa Association as well as hot spring owners are very against this idea of expanding geothermal development. They believe this would lower the temperature for their spa and exhaust the volume. Meanwhile, 80% of geothermal resources lies underneath Onsen and natural parks, developing the capacity leads to more drilling inside the natural parks which is not approved by the Environment Ministry. Environment review on expanding drilling area could take up to 9 years. All of these largely hindered the development of Japan’s new clean energy.

“Green” or “Sustainability” in this context has two aspects. On one end, the government should try to reduce their carbon emissions to save the Earth and achieve environmental sustainability. On the other end of the spectrum, government should not overuse the energy and resources so that they are sustainable. Geothermal energy is considered as a renewable energy with almost unlimited amount of heat generated every day. Currently with only 2% of geothermal resources being utilized, the plan of tripling capacity is reasonable to consider.

So far, the above arguments sound as green as it could be from the perspective of Japanese government. Yet the act of trying to expand drilling areas as much as possible without considering the species and animals in natural parks aligns back with the opinion in Kirby’s article, it has demonstrated how meaningless the term sustainability has become in Japan (Kirby, 2011). In the article, the hot spring owners care very much on their economic interests instead of sustainable resources and environmental sustainability, largely shows the Japanese love for nature is meaningless under economic and political context, leads to the question of whether Japan is the green nation.

Last year, Japan spent ¥18.2 trillion importing fossil fuels to power their electricity needs. We could not say the urge of developing new clean energy is either due to their “greenness” or caused by their economic consideration as eventually a country should seek environmental sustainability when economic condition allows. A nation will only be considered green when its citizen truly possesses the love of nature without being affected by religious, cultural, economic and social factors.

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Kirby, P. W. (2011). Troubled natures: waste, environment, Japan. Honolulu, University of Hawai’i Press: 160-192.

‘Shin Godzilla’: The metaphorical monster returns


Film Review as featured in The Japan Times

Mark Schilling, an author with The Japan Times, writes a film review of the 2016 remake of Godzilla titled ‘Shin Godzilla’. He gives an overview of the plot and shares two ways in which Shin Godzilla serves as a metaphor to Japan’s interaction with the environment. This is through analysing the characteristics and actions of Godzilla itself, and the responses of the people to it. He states that this movie is not a continuation of the long line of Godzilla movies that started in 1954, but is set in modern day Japan suggesting that the ideas that are brought up are representative of our interactions with today’s environment. More than just an action movie, Godzilla has traditionally been portrayed symbolically as a destructive force of nature (Wikizilla) that serves as a ghost that haunts Japan of its past deeds.

Firstly, Schilling focuses on the meaning of Godzilla through its characteristics and actions. In the process of making landfall in Tokyo, Godzilla creates a wave of destruction as it pushes inland and leaves a radioactive trail in its wake. Schilling argues that this is a metaphor for the 3/11 triple disaster in the form of “an ambulatory tsunami, earthquake and nuclear reactor, leaving radioactive contamination in his wake” (Schilling, 2016). This metaphor closely links to Shun’ya’s point that “manmade disasters [are] linked to contemporary science and technology” (Shun’ya, 2012, p. 320) and how Japan has embarked on a path of building nuclear power plants as an “effective way to bring about “liberation” from memories of the atomic bombings” (Shun’ya, 2012, p. 325). Symbolically, Godzilla is the portrayal of how the pursuit of technological progress through the use of nuclear power backfires and in turn, causes widespread damage and more importantly a lingering radioactive environment that will render the area poisoned.

Secondly, as Schilling looks at the interactions of the people in the movie, he uncovers how there is self-sacrifice experienced by them. He notes various groups such as the government officials, Self-Defense Forces Officers, and the anti-Godzilla task force and talks about their self-sacrifice in the face of losing their lives in the immediate danger caused by Godzilla or the radioactive trail it leaves. Schilling establishes the link to the “Fukushima 50”, who had sacrificed themselves by exposing themselves to extreme levels of radiation whilst containing the crippled Fukushima Dai-ichi Nuclear Plant. Walker echoes this idea of self-sacrifice through the relation of pain and the nation, and how it is experienced across Japanese history (Walker, 2010). We see how the movie sends the message on how the ones that suffer the direct consequences of the benefit are the innocent who did not have any direct involvement in the decision making process.

Schilling does well to shed light on its readers that Shin Godzilla is more than just an action movie but serves as a metaphor that encapsulates Japan’s modern interactions with nature and how it backfires in the form of Godzilla’s arrival into Tokyo.

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  • Schilling, M. (2016, August 3). ‘Shin Godzilla’: The Metaphorical Monster Returns. Retrieved October 12, 2016 from The Japan Times:
  • Shun’ya, Y. (2012, May). Radioactive Rain and the American Umbrella. The Journal of Asian Studies , 319-331.
  • Walker, B. (2010). Toxic Archipelega: A History of Industrial Disease in Japan. Seattle: University of Washington Press.
  • (n.d.). Godzilla Misconceptions. Retrieved October 12, 2016 from Wikizilla:

The Mountain Monks of Japan

Article link:


Shugendo and the Yamabushi
Shugendo, or “the way of testing and training”, is an amalgamation of several religions that emerged between twelfth and fourteenth century. Followers of Shugendo who carry out pilgrimages into mountains are known as Yamabushi or “one who prostrates upon mountains”. Shugendo is described as a form of experimental awakening as practitioners gain enlightenment not through reading texts or meditation in temples but though real experiences gained through rituals and going outside into the mountains and immersing oneself in nature. Rituals by the Yamabushi range from fasting, water purification and most notably pilgrimages to the mountains.

Mountain pilgrimage
The pilgrimages are very different from recreational mountain hiking. In the latter, climbers may be more focused on testing their physical abilities or enjoying the scenery. For the Yamabushi, the pilgrimages are spiritual rituals with specific attire and actions to be taken with the goal of attaining enlightenment. Rituals are often used in Japan to mediate the boundary between society and nature especially since nature is closely tied to spirituality and religion in the country (Kalland, 1997). For the Yamabushi, the ritual of pilgrimages into the mountain bring them into nature which symbolises a spiritual realm. Meanwhile human settlements such as cities can be described as what is known and complement to the spiritual realm or the unknown. This differentiation between human settlements and the mountains highlights the importance of the mountain as the location for the pilgrimage. The mountain is a transitional space between the known and unknown therefore functions as a space where self-discovery can occur. A pilgrimage through the city would lack the same symbolism.

Along with other rituals which include standing under a freezing cold waterfall and walking over hot coals, the pilgrimages emphasises on enduring hardship and pain. Walker (2010) argued that pain reminds us of our connection with nature and in the case of the Yamabushi, pain and hardship appears to be used for the purpose of connecting the Yamabushi to nature. The desire to endure pain may be parallel to the desire to leave behind worldly concerns and by successfully overcoming pain, it is symbolic of transcending the regular man and attaining a higher state of body and mind. However it is unclear if pain is still felt at this transcended state.

Shugendo Today
Most practitioners of Shugendo today are middle-aged or older men and are regular people with regular jobs and families therefore most pilgrimages and rituals are carried out over weekends or long holidays. This shows a pragmatic take on allocating time between work, home and religion. Two large centers for Shugendo have also opened their doors to women who were previously excluded from practicing Shugendo. Some temples even organise Shogendo ‘tasters’ for those interested although only through full training does one get ordained. Thus Shugendo may also be a way to package and market nature as a place of rigorous spiritual training as compared to the more comfortable relaxing onsens.


Kalland, A., & Asquith, P. J. (1997). Japanese perceptions of nature. Japanese images of nature: Cultural perspectives.

Miyamoto, K. (n.d). “Shugendō” Retrieved from

Walker, Brett L. (2010). “Toxic archipelago.”


Meiji Shrine: grounds to ring in the year

Meiji Shrine: grounds to ring in the year


Meiji Shrine complex undergoing renovation: the south gate is just an illusion, covered by a giant mesh sheet

The article centres on Meiji Shrine, which is situated in the midst of a 700,000 square metres lush forest landscape. The forest is man-made and designed to last forever. Landscape planners purposefully positioned “around 170,000 trees of 245 different species” in the forest. The long-term forest plan is aimed at minimizing alien species and regularly surveyed to ensure local nature prevails. As such, the local biodiversity draws many visitors to Meiji Shrine.

Meiji Jingu Forest area is a distinct illustration of the artifice of nature and nature tourism, exemplified through the meticulous forest planning and design to elicit aesthetic appreciation and increase economic gains.

Ideas of Japan as actively engaging in environmental preservation is perpetuated through the fact that the forest is designed to last forever, and the conservation of local species and forest maintenance appear to be green initiatives. Not only that, environmental consciousness is depicted as part of the Japanese narrative and interwoven into the lives of the people, evinced from how “the next [forest] plan will be passed on to the next generation.”

Nevertheless, I opine the forest plan reflects the ambivalent attitude of the Japanese towards nature, as nature is only acceptable and attractive when designed and defined by humans to fit their ideals of how nature should be presented (Howard, 1999, p. 421). This ambivalence is also observed through antithetical concepts valued by the Japanese. The permanence of the forest conflicts with the concept of mono no aware (beauty in impermanence) (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2005), present in the celebration of seasons through hanami (flower viewing) (Japan Atlas, n.d.). Hence, while the Japanese embrace impermanence, they simultaneously strive for a permanent nature by selecting evergreen tree varieties in the forest planning. Yet, one similarity remains in this paradox: “nature is valued not as “wild nature,” but instead as “humanized” or “culturalized” nature” (Bernard, 2004).

The Japanese also hold a utilitarian view of nature. While entrance to the shrine is free, admission fees apply for visits to the inner gardens and treasure museum. Currently, renovation of the shrine is underway to increase tourist traffic, revealing the economic motivation behind the renovation and demonstrating how the sale of nature inevitably results in its modification (Moon, 1997, p. 222). Moreover, the shrine is publicised as centrally located in Tokyo, highlighting how nature can be conveniently and quickly accessed, advertised in a way similar to fast food consumption.

The similarity between nature and fast-food consumption is epitomized in this statement: “[a] visit to Meiji Shrine could be an easy way of introducing yourself to Japanese culture.” Here, nature is not appreciated for its inherent value, but for its provision of a cultural experience, reflecting a human-centric attitude towards nature (Williams and Millington, 2004, p. 101). Just like fast food, Meiji Shrine is rendered a commodity: accessible, easily consumable, and offering a piece of popular culture.

Evidently, “nature seldom is sufficient attraction in itself” (Kalland and Asquith, 1997, p. 27), but often valued for its economic utility and cultural symbolism. Hence, despite the laborious creation of Meiji Jingu forest, the Japanese exhibit a limited and idealized appreciation of nature, with little ecological motivation to conserve nature.

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Bernard, R. (2004). Shinto and Ecology: Practice and Orientations to Nature. Retrieved from Harvard University Center for the Environment website:

Howard, T.E. (1999). Japan’s green resources: Forest conservation and social values. Agricultural and Human Values 16, 421-430.

Japan Atlas. Meiji Jingu. Last accessed September 27, 2016. Retrieved from

Kalland, A. and P. J. Asquith. (1997). Japanese perceptions of nature: ideals and illusions. Japanese Images of Nature (pp. 1-35). P. J. Asquith and A. Kalland. Richmond, LDN: Curzon Press.

Moon, O. (1997). Marketing Nature in Rural Japan. Japanese Images of Nature (pp. 221-235). P. J. Asquith and A. Kalland. Richmond, LDN: Curzon Press.

Parkes, G. (2005, December 12). Japanese Aesthetics. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Williams, C.C. and A.C. Millington. (2004). The diverse and contested meanings of sustainable development. The Geographical Journal, 170 (2), 99-104.