Week 4 Hanae & Zhi Yuan

The following is a review of Amy Chavez’s article from the Japan Times.

This article is about the interaction between humans and nature on Shiraishi Island in Okayama, Japan. Amy Chavez, the author of this article, lives on this island and writes about how the residents seem to care about the environment by recycling, but their other actions portray otherwise. The article encourages a deeper inquiry into the motivation behind “green” actions. The islanders live much closer to nature and even depend on it for their livelihoods. Thus, they provide a different perspective on what nature means to different groups of Japanese people.

 The residents seem to be enthusiastic about protecting the environment through their active recycling habits. They sort their garbage and recycle their glass, cans, PET bottles and other recyclables. The recyclable garbage day comes once a month, when their recyclables will be collected. However, it seems that they only do this because they are taught to do so. They are not taught “to choose environmentally friendly products over ones that aren’t, or to say no to plastic” (Chavez, 2020) because consumption is “what’s fueling the country’s economy” (Chavez, 2020). This creates a dichotomy between what is being stereotyped of Japanese people and their mindsets about recycling. Additionally, the islanders often incinerate their waste to make room for more trash. The author argues that the islanders find this acceptable because others (namely, the factory the the mainland) incinerate their rubbish as well. Thus, islanders may recycle not because they love the environment, but because recycling is a social norm they learned from young. This idea is further supported by the strong stigmas that many Japanese people attach to those who fail to recycle properly (Quek, 2018). Recycling can thus be seen as a social ritual for affirming one’s place in society (Kalland & Asquith, 1997, p. 12). Therefore, the author argues that environmental problems in Japan must be approached socially through the use of role models and effective education.

The article also touches on more pragmatic aspects of the human-nature relationship: utility and policy. For example, while islanders occasionally initiate beach cleanups, the author believes that they do so to beautify the beach for beach-goers. This relates to the idea that the Japanese people love only certain manicured and controlled forms of nature (Kalland & Asquith, 1997, pp. 16-17). Controlled forms of nature are more readily appreciated and used by people and might thus be preserved for those purposes rather than out of a love for nature itself. This view of nature as a commodity has become increasingly common (e.g. among advertisers) and contrasts with the more symbolic form that brings to mind the Japanese people’s love for nature (Kalland & Asquith, 1997, pp. 22-23). Unfortunately it is pragmatism that guides policy. For example, the author describes how the government fails to restrict unsustainable tourism practices such as jibikiami (tourists throw large nets into the ocean to catch few large fish for barbecue, killing thousands of smaller fish in the process) while being quick to build sea walls and provide subsidies to the fishermen affected by the sea walls. By building the sea walls, islanders “feel safe”, fishermen are satisfied with the subsidies, jobs are provided for workers in construction companies and everyone benefits. This apparent focus on immediate economic gains challenges the idea of a nature-loving Japan.

Admittedly, it is understandable for people whose business and livelihood depend on nature to see environmental protection as an obstacle: sustainable practices can be costly (the article mentions that it’s cheaper to buy a new bottle of soap than to get a refill that uses less plastic). Additionally, the islanders could perceive the “environment” we try to protect as distinct from the “environment” they interact with on a daily basis. The former is a material resource while the latter is an abstract idea that they interact with through social or religious rituals (e.g. recycling). This could explain why people fail to connect the consequences (e.g. air pollution) with their own actions (e.g. incineration of trash). It does not help that the government has historically reinforced this dichotomy through their shallow, short-sighted and disjointed policies (Sumikura, 1998, pp. 247-248). By distancing the consequences of environmental degradation from the root causes, this conception of nature could cause people to thoroughly extract nature’s resources without realising that they are simultaneously causing their own demise. 

The ethnographic account of life on the Shiraishi Island encourages us to question the idea of nature and what it means to different people. Ideas of nature are highly fluid and contextual, and these ideas guide action. Thus, it is imperative to understand how groups of people perceive nature in order to fundamentally change habits to be sustainable.

Word count: 776


Chavez, A. (2020, January 27). There’s a case for climate concern but not everyone in Japan is ready to go the extra mile. Japan Times. Retrieved from https://www.japantimes.co.jp/community/2020/01/27/our-lives/climate-change-japan-ready/.

Kalland, A., & Asquith, P. J. (1997). Japanese Perceptions of Nature: Ideals and Illusions. In P.J. Asquith & A. Kalland (Eds.), Japanese Images of Nature: Cultural Perspectives (pp.1-35). Richmond, Surrey: Curzon Press.

Quek, T. (2018, April 18). Make environmental mindfulness a social norm. The Straits Times. Retrieved from https://www.straitstimes.com/forum/letters-in-print/make-environmental-mindfulness-a-social-norm

Sumikura, I. (1998). A Brief History Of Japanese Environmental Administration: A Qualified Success Story? Journal of Environmental Law, 10(2), 241–256. doi: 10.1093/jel/10.2.241

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