Kyushu Shinkansen commercial

A few days ago I learned about this fantastic commercial celebrating the completion of the Kyushu Shinkansen in 2011. I finally watched it today.

View video here: Kyushu Shinkansen CM

I have followed news of the train line’s construction on and off for nearly a decade. I was in Japan in 2004 when the first leg opened between Shin-Yatsushiro and Kagoshima. At that time I saw many news reports about both the celebrations and the controversial siting (and construction) of stations and tunnels along the line. Some cities wanted stations with the hope of increasing business and tourism, while others worried that the location of new stations distant from their downtowns (necessary to accommodate the long, specialized cars) would only speed the economic decline of the existing business district (possible in places like Minamata). 

More problematic were all of the people who must live in the shadow of the railway’s immense concrete columns, or next to new tunnels and tracks suspended ten or more meters in the air that cut through communities, thereby not linking these mountainous communities to the rest of Kyushu, but only emphasizing their remoteness. 

Of course, the commercial does not address any of these controversies. It shows inaugural run of the entire line from Kagoshima to Fukuoka. This opening ceremony was celebrated by thousands of people along the route who stood out in the cold to wave to the passing train. At the end the narrator thanks everyone and hopes that the Shinkansen will usher in a new era for Japan:


On that day, thank you for waving.
Thank you for smiling (or laughing).
Thank you for coming together as one.
The Kyushu Shinkansen line is now complete.
A new energy is born in a united Kyushu.
From a united Kyushu, Japan should become more enjoyable.
The Kyushu Shinkansen, with you, is now complete.


Let me make one thing clear, I love this commercial. I watched it five times in a row upon first encountering it this morning. I cried every time. There is something about the spirit and creativity of people coming together for a public display (in any country) that pulls on my heartstrings. And as the train passes these thousands of people, I recognize those urban and rural landscapes. They speak to me, reminding me of hundreds of hours of cycling past rice fields and hot houses. I recall my farmer friends and acquaintances. I also think about the general excitement that comes from the completion of most large construction projects in Japan, whether they are really necessary or not. There is a party atmosphere. 

But then I think back to the controversies and think about all the people who did not come out to wave. I suppose that is inevitable with any large project. There will always be people who receive no benefit, or even whose lives are made worse. 

What is more interesting about this commercial, though, is that it did not run on television. In fact, it now has more than 800,000 hits on YouTube, but the celebration was not aired on normal television, as was originally intended. The reason is that this opening ceremony took place on March 12, 2011, one day after the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami. As the Tohoku region was reeling with aftershocks, searching for lost loved ones in the rubble, and keeping an eye on the deteriorating situation at the Dai-ichi Nuclear Power Plant in Fukushima, it was deemed inappropriate for people in Kyushu to be exhibiting so much … joy. 

That does not deteriorate my enjoyment of the video, but the broader perspective of the timing of its creation is fascinating, don’t you agree? 


By the way, the theme song in the CM is “Boom,” by Maia Hirasawa, a half-Japanese, half-Swedish singer/songwriter. What a rockin’ song! Gotta love a band with a tuba.

Student post 3 of 10

“Generating Change in Minamata” by Tingfeng Lee

This image depicts the hourly and daily electricity generation (発電電力) at Minamata City Hall, Kumamoto Prefecture. It reflects the eco-consciousness of residents and forms one effort to revitalize their hometown in light of its poisonous past. Minamata is widely known for Minamata Disease, a neurological disorder caused by severe methyl mercury poisoning due to the release of untreated wastewater by the Chisso Corporation into Minamata Bay in the 1950s. However, in recent decades Minamata has been trying to strike a balance between environmental protection and economic progress. Aimed at creating a “Zero Waste City,” Minamata residents separate their rubbish into 23 categories for recycling, an unusually high number in Japan. This is in conjunction with the city’s 4Rs campaign – Refuse, Reduce, Reuse and Recycle. In 2001, Minamata City was awarded the ISO 14001, an international certification for environmental management, and the city was named “Japan’s Eco-City Capital” in 2011 for spearheading Japan’s environmental efforts. Shadowed by lingering impacts of Minamata Disease, the city continues to be in cognizant of its past through the Minamata Disease Municipal Museum (水俣病資料館) and Minamata Disease Archives (水俣病情報センター). Attracting both domestic and overseas visitors, these facilities impart important lessons from the city’s past and inculcate the need for environmental awareness.

A visit to Tanaka Shōten (田中商店), a recycling company based in Minamata City, provided a better understanding of how a company in this “Eco-capital” tries to advocate both environmental protection and economic sustainability. Without incurring any cost for raw materials (notwithstanding manpower and equipment), when recycled trash gets delivered to the company, Tanaka Shōten aligns economic viability with the city’s environmental vision. From recycled beer bottles to paintings made of recycled glass, Tanaka Shōten periodically launches new products in response to market trends and demands.

In the course of the two-day experience in Minamata City, it dawned upon us that the city’s revitalization efforts are not merely top-down but rather a form of community spirit that binds local residents with the local government and private businesses. Like a phoenix from its ashes, the residents of Minamata City have risen from their past to create a better tomorrow.

Trash or treasure?

One person’s trash is another’s treasure.

The problem is determining the fine line between trash and treasure, and sorting through the trash to find the treasures.

In Minamata, the citizens, local government and businesspeople have reinterpreted this old adage in a quest to become Japan’s most environmentally conscious city. This means learning from its past industrial pollution to re-think how resources are produced, consumed, and recycled.

I believe the city’s most admirable effort has been to work with citizens to create a waste sorting system that is community-driven and –practiced. It involves sorting waste into 24 categories so that the various items can be easily recycled later. Certain items are collected on particulr days, and one day per month a set of recycling bins is delivered to neighborhoods, where household representatives bring waste to be sorted.

I admire this system because it forces everyone to remain in intimate contact with a purchase through a longer portion of its life cycle. In other words, because used items cannot be immediately thrown in the chute (such as in HDB flats in Singapore), people have to live with their waste, and thus live with their purchases. Consumption becomes an act of thinking through more than just the immediate use of an item, to the long-term washing, storing, and sorting of the item. Some waste is only collected once a month, so one needs to carefully wash and store a glass bottle (for instance) until collection day. Thus, people may think carefully before making purchases that will eventually inconvenience their lives as waste. The official who spoke with us at City Hall stressed that one major change in his purchases is that he no longer buys any PET bottles. They must be carefully washed, and they take up a lot of space in the house before they are collected. Therefore, they are best avoided.

Lecture at Minamata City Hall regarding its environmental efforts

The city’s other admirable shift has been its addition of a fourth R to the existing three R’s of Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle. Minamata also encourages “Refuse” – refusing items deemed unnecessary, like superfluous packaging and excess plastic bags. While this may make it difficult for some industries to survive due to shifting consumer consciousness, like all businesses, they are expected to evolve to fit consumer demands. In other words, one should not encourage wasteful behavior just to benefit plastic bag manufacturers. If people refuse plastic bags at checkout, manufacturers eventually will evolve to make something else.

Given this spirit of four R’s – Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, and Refuse – Minamata has encouraged not only craftspeople who creatively re-tool waste into useful items, but also industries that turn waste into the raw materials for new goods.

One of the former is Mrs. Yoshimoto, the speaker at the Minamata Disease Museum, who recycles glass into useful objects and art pieces. One of the latter is Mr. Tanaka, President of Tanaka Shop (田中商店水俣営業所). His recycling center employs around 30 people and turns Minamata’s household waste into useful things, like glass bottles that can be re-used by beer and shochu manufacturers, or ground glass that can be incorporated into asphalt to make roads safer (they sparkle at night) and more permeable to moisture.

Mr. Tanaka explaining one of his many business ventures involving previously-designated "trash," which he turns into "treasures."

tour of the Tanaka facilities

We toured the Tanaka facility and saw how sake bottles are cleaned and inspected, before they can be returned to the bottling facilities. Mr. Tanaka also told us about a project in which wine bottles shipped from France and Germany are cleaned, refilled with sake, and returned to France and Germany. This saves disposing of the old bottles in landfills and manufacturing new bottles for the sake. Plus, it makes for a poetic loop of alcohol. It is feasible that the same bottles could endlessly run through this Europe-Japan cycle, holding wine-sake-wine-sake-wine…

Empty sake bottles before being cleaned inside and out

We enjoyed admiring the shapes and colors of the facility, relieving stress by smashing bottles (to be used in asphalt later), and listening to the refreshing perspective of Mr. Tanaka, who always stresses the business side of his venture. He is clearly not operating this business for the environment or because of a guilty conscious. He wants to make a profit, and he is constantly introducing new items to broaden the company’s reach.

Worker inspecting bottles for debris and cracks

Clear glass bottles with imperfections. They will be broken and used for many purposes.

Lynn sweeping up after smashing a bottle


It is my hope that our NUS students will be inspired to think about recycling not solely as an altruistic endeavor, but also as a potentially profitable one. This will make the adoption of new practices easier to envision and carry out. Maybe one day Singaporeans will also consider trash to be full of treasures ready to be found and utilized.

Minamata Disease Survivor

May 18 was an emotional day that began at the Minamata Disease Municipal Museum, where we joined over 200 middle school students from Saga Prefecture to listen to a survivor. Yoshinaga Yumiko was born in 1951, when mercury carried in the effluent from the Chisso factory was beginning to affect cats. She lived on the coast, near the site of the museum that now honors the disease victims. Her grandparents fished and her father worked at Chisso, so in a way she represents both sides of the tragedy – the factory and the fishing families whose livelihoods and lives were most directly impacted.

Yoshinaga Yumiko shares her story about Minamata Disease

Middle school students attending Mrs. Yoshinaga's talk

She was 3 years old when the disease was recognized in people, although no one yet knew the cause or who was to blame. The disease robbed her grandfather of his ability to speak, eat, and use the toilet by himself. He spent the final 9 years of his life at home in bed rest. Her father’s life with the disease ended more rapidly. When he first experienced symptoms like numbness in the lips and loss of some motor skills in his hands, he was admitted to the Chisso company hospital. While there he slowly recovered over the course of a year. However, when he was well enough to return home, the disease quickly returned with a vengeance. He died in a few months. Only later did doctors and family members realize that food was the vector. At the hospital he did not eat any seafood from the polluted bay; at home, doctors believed he would recover quickly by eating what he liked, so he ate the fish that eventually took his life. He had always fished on his way home from the factory and had eaten his fill of fish from the bay.

Mrs. Yoshinaga has virtually no memory of her father, and her feelings regarding Minamata and the Chisso factory are complicated by years of denial regarding the disease’s impact on her family. For decades she told no one that her father and grandfather had died from Minamata Disease, and she recalls shunning a cousin in public who was affected. People thought that those who suffered had been foolish enough to eat bad fish and were now receiving payment for their foolishness. Therefore, she didn’t even tell her husband before marriage, for fear she would suffer the same kind of discrimination as others from Minamata.

However, something changed for her some years ago. She decided the only way to end all discrimination about Minamata Disease was to stop denying its presence in her life. Today, she not only shares her stories with groups like this group of students, but like many others in Minamata, she has become a concerned environmental citizen. For her, this means designing and selling goods made entirely from recycled glass. Earlier this year she was awarded the distinction of 環境大臣 (kankyō daijin, environment minister).

Student representative thanks Mrs. Yoshinaga after the talk

Following her talk, a student representative thanked her for sharing her story. Of course, this was all carefully scripted with the previous assistance of the student’s teachers. She could not have known the nature of the talk in order to craft her thank you. Despite this small issue, the talk was helpful for NUS students to see how an individual can affect change in the world through a concern for the environment.

Reclaiming land, reclaiming the future

Isahaya is a small city in Nagasaki known for very little. Its claim to fame is the land reclamation project that reduced the size of the bay of its namesake and has led to a handful of landmark legal battles, pitting neighbors against one another, area cities and towns against each other, and the prefecture and city against the Tokyo government. I wrote about the background to this project in this post last year.

This year’s plan followed last year’s quite closely, and the students eagerly engaged city officials, asking questions about their role in the opening of the gates, local wildlife threatened by the land reclamation project, and other points. Interestingly, in April 2011 a group of citizens in Isahaya filed a lawsuit in a Nagasaki prefectural court to demand that the dike gates remain closed. They argue that there is insufficient evidence that opening the gates will result in improved water quality and fish harvests in the Ariake Sea, and they claim that instead opening the gates will unnecessarily threaten their livelihoods and farmlands. They argue that the state has already compensated the fishermen for their trouble, and that the state now has to fulfill its responsibility to the rest of Isahaya’s population by maintaining the integrity of the dike.

After a short lecture at City Hall, we traveled past the newly reclaimed farmland that is now fully in production. We drove past people harvesting onions and cabbages, and it is only May. One major point of contention is the fact that the current farmers’ 5-year leases will expire at the end of March 2012, and many are uncertain whether they should renew, especially since the government is set to open the gates in December 2013, during the next lease term. These are uncertain times for everyone involved, not least the City officials with whom we spoke. They want to protect their citizens, which becomes a desire to protect “land” people over “sea” people. When asked where he would be on the actual day the state opens the dike gates in Dec 2013, our host looked at me dumbfounded and said he didn’t know. It will certainly be a day of a media frenzy, and it is unfair that public servants should get stuck in the middle of the politics of the construction projects that have been so prevalent in postwar Japan.

Orientation at the Isahaya Bay Land Reclamation Project

Eddie, Adeline, and Huijun (left to right)

Climbing to the wetlands overlook

Later - atop the 7km-long dike separating Isahaya Bay from the newly created freshwater reservoir and farmland.

Visiting Isahaya stimulates many questions in students’ minds, mostly by showing the endless complexity of the mundane. They see that there is nothing simple and straightforward about the work of the state, even construction, which is normally a non-issue in Singapore. This project makes them wonder why they are so complacent to all of the changes taking place at home.