I woke, startled, at three o’clock in the morning – the hotel where we were sleeping in Kushiro was shaking violently back and forth. The shocks were more severe than those I had become used to during my adolescent years in Japan, yet we quickly fell asleep again on our uncomfortable futon mat. The next morning, we noted another power outage when we tried to make coffee; we’d had the same problem a few days earlier when Typhoon Jebi had been raging.
I hadn’t visited Hokkaido during my three years in Japan. I’m a big fan of nature, so adding a week of holiday to my trip seemed an excellent opportunity to better spend the CO2 emissions (double-compensated, of course ) of my workweek. As it turned out, we had to admire nature from a distance: Jebi had blown over so many trees that the walking paths in Shiretoko were impassable, and after the earthquake we were not allowed to enter the mountains because of the aftershocks that were anticipated.
In the country where Johan Cruyff is still idolized, his motto was taking form: “every disadvantage has its advantage.” ‘Sustainability’ is normally a theme that’s tackled at the village level, but after a summer of natural disasters, there was suddenly room to think about the consequences of CO2 emissions and climate change at the policy level. The heavy rainfall, Jebi and now the earthquake had made it clear: nature fights back.
This was the third time I had traveled to Japan to explore the possibilities for sustainability around the 2020 Olympics. In 2015, my ambition had been to get one of the stadiums as circular as possible; in 2016, I hit the hard roadblock of the closed Japanese culture in combination with the impossible conflicts of interest around the Olympic Games. So this year I had adjusted my ambitions : could we use the momentum of the Games to make this plastic-loving country more aware of their reliance on ‘single use plastics’?
Already somewhat anxious, as a formality I reacted ‘enthusiastically’ to the proposal to visit the nuclear power plant in Fukushima. My own fears, however, were soon pushed away by the vehemence of their reality. Out of the beautiful green countryside appeared enormous canvases that covered the contaminated soil, and the first radioactive radiation meters were hanging over the highway. We moved slowly into an uninhabited area, where you could still see children’s treasured toys through the windows of the houses that had been abandoned so suddenly – a happy memory of time gone by. Eventually we arrived at what had been the epicenter on 11 March 2011.
Exactly 6.5 years after the historic earthquake, we were being welcomed as one of the few groups of European visitors to the crash site. It was a place where more than 4,200 employees (a six-fold increase in the number of people usually working there) instinctively sacrificed their lives to clean up and dismantle the power station that once supplied energy to Tokyo’s famous neon lights. The terrain is scattered with wooden boxes containing the moon suits the brave employees wore just once. Those boxes will probably remain there for centuries – as a heritage of the disaster, they will be transferred from generation to generation. Single-use plastics suddenly seem no longer the culprit, but rather the only protective layer against the radiation that still marks this place.
I learned from WWF Japan that more attention has been paid to renewable energy since 2011: more and more solar parks and windmills adorn the Japanese landscape, resulting in a tripling of the portfolio. Admittedly, this means wind energy has increased from 1% to 3% of the total. Japanese energy policy has not really changed: renewable energy is still being suppressed, and to the great annoyance of WWF, Japan is the only G7 country that still builds new coal-fired power stations to meet its energy needs. Nuclear energy is (temporarily?) at a low level – ‘only’ 5 of the 42 plants are currently operational. At the policy level, Japan is making a choice between two ‘evils’: fossil energy with high CO2 emissions, or nuclear energy with all its long-term risks, which are now all too familiar.
After a summer full of natural disasters, the consequences of CO2 emissions and climate change are being given full attention. For a country that is so intertwined with nature, that might seem logical, but the average Tokyo resident appears to be more intertwined with their phone than with nature. The miserable consequences of Fukushima have been forgotten by many and almost exiled from the country’s collective memory. The question that remains is: which memory has more power?
This trip to Japan has magnified for me the difficulty of sustainability decisions. In the run-up to the 2020 Games, I find myself scraping around to see if there is something that can be done to contribute to a better world.