Japan’s Sustainability Efforts For and Beyond the 2020 Olympics (Zihan & Chu Yu)

This article was written by the Governor of Tokyo, Yuriko Koike, for the World Economic Forum. It details Tokyo’s measures to make the 2020 Olympics a “green” one, in line with the city’s commitment to embracing environmental sustainability and their corresponding goals by 2020 and 2030. The “greenness” of the Tokyo Olympics is evident through the measures that aim to make the Games a sustainable one, such as the use of recycled metals to craft medals. This is laudable given how major sporting events are typically characterised by huge volumes of resource use and wastage under the justification of serving as a springboard for international travel and sponsorships of single-use paraphernalia.

On a broader scale, the article also highlights Tokyo’s progress in achieving these goals and the renewed emphasis on not just balancing environmental sustainability goals with economic growth, but ensuring that sustainable policies can be “a boon for Tokyo’s economy”. As an op-ed submission that also sounds like an open declaration of Tokyo’s commitment, the article ends off with a call to action for cities to initiate policies for a “more prosperous and sustainable future”.

In detailing Tokyo’s proposed measures and progress towards sustainability thus far, Japan is depicted as an ideal that cities should strive towards in terms of environmental management and green measures. Koike mentions that “Tokyo can serve as a model for other fast-growing urban areas”, signalling Tokyo’s hope to be recognised as a leading example of sustainable growth internationally. Despite extolling their remarkable progress thus far in terms of reducing waste and disposable bags, switching to renewable energy, reducing overall energy consumption and the citywide shift to green alternatives in terms of buildings and cars, the article is also candid in revealing the reason why Tokyo is so committed to sustainable development. It draws parallels with the previous Summer Olympics in Tokyo in 1964 where economic growth was prioritised ahead of environmental concerns, and how environmental degradation followed a period of high growth. This relates to Kirby (2011:174)’s account of the history of “sustainability” in Japan, where environmental problems accompanying economic growth, such as the Minamata Disease and Tokorozawa dioxin scare, have been spurring Japan’s “sense of atonement” and, in turn, commitment to reform its sustainability practices. In this sense, Japan is represented as a city with a dark past that has undergone a paradigm transformation, serving both as a warning of unbridled economic growth, and a testament that cities can achieve sustainable development.

However, the article overlooks less progressive nuances of Japan’s approach towards sustainability. Japan’s pursuit of sustainable development is in reality performative and focused more on the traditional pursuit of economic development rather than sustainability (Kirby 2011:192). As Kirby (2011:170) notes, part of Japan’s sustainability is based on “performative frugality and resource-conservation [which] have long been framed as social virtues and as elements of national competitiveness”. Given how the Olympics is an event that attracts immense worldwide attention and viewership, it is a sensible move to craft a positive, praiseworthy narrative surrounding Tokyo’s efforts to be sustainable. However, sustainability encompasses much more than ‘greenifying’ events like the Olympics – Tokyo can do more to tackle climate change and other environmental issues, such as by investing in renewable energy technologies and biodiversity conservation. More specifically, Japan can be more transparent about their regular whaling activities, and give more importance to the sustainability of marine ecosystems over their desire to hunt whales for food as a ‘tradition’. Such changes would have more lasting long-term impacts and would be more concrete strides towards making Japan more “green”.

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

Koike, Yuriko. (24 October 2019). “Tokyo’s commitment to sustainability will extend beyond the 2020 Olympics”. Japan: World Economic Forum. Retrieved from  https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2019/10/tokyo-sustainable-games/