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Youth activism tackling global warming sprouts slowly in Japanese society

TOKYO >> Around the world, young people are leading the fight against climate change. But in Japan, where a conservative culture of restraint stigmatizes public protests, it has been difficult for the movement to take hold.

During the global climate strikes in September, 7.6 million people gathered across 185 countries in what organizers called one of the largest coordinated protests in history.

About 5,000 people in Japan took part, more than half of whom marched in Tokyo. In comparison, more than 1.5 million people took to the streets in Italy, 1.4 million in Germany, 800,000 in Canada and more than 500,000 in the United States.

Despite the low turnout in Japan, organizers were encouraged.

“I genuinely didn’t expect that many people to show up. Seeing that crowd gave me goose bumps,” said 22-year-old climate activist Eri Okada. “In Japan, public demonstrations are seen as radical or dangerous, which might explain why people distance themselves from protests and marches.”

Okada is a member of Fridays for Future Tokyo, commonly called FFF Tokyo, the local chapter of an international student group created in 2018. The group was inspired by 16-year-old Swedish activist Greta Thunberg, who is protesting the lack of response to the global climate crisis.

When FFF Tokyo began with a protest in March, a mere 100 people showed up. That number grew to about 250 at a second gathering in May. In September, more than 2,800 parents, children, students, professionals and foreign residents took part in a student-led march through the streets of Shibuya Ward in Tokyo. The bigger turnout was an encouraging sign for the group, whose members said they often have difficulty finding family or peers who share their concern for the planet.

“As an industrialized country, Japan needs to take responsibility for contributing to climate change and help rectify the situation,” said Okada.

In June, Japan vowed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to zero in the second half of the 21st century, and local municipalities are leading the fight.

In May, Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike said the capital would aim to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to zero by 2050. Tokyo also plans to make the capital free of carbon-dioxide emissions during the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics by offsetting emissions during those four days with donated emissions credits. The credits are being acquired through a cap-and-trade program for big companies that the city launched in 2010.

“Throughout Japan, the country is experiencing life-threatening weather the likes of which we’ve never seen before,” Koike said at an October climate leadership training event organized by former U.S. Vice President Al Gore in Yokohama. “Climate change is no longer a subject of debate, it’s part of our reality.”

Since September, two massive typhoons — Faxai and Hagibis — tore through the country within weeks of each other, bringing record-breaking rainfall, strong winds and extensive flooding that cost lives and destroyed homes. A growing body of research says the frequency and severity of natural disasters will increase due to climate change.

According to a landmark 2018 report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, in 2017, human-induced warming had hit about 34 degrees above preindustrial levels. To avoid altering the climate beyond repair, the report said, carbon emissions must be reduced by at least 45% by 2030 and to zero by 2050.

Other municipalities are also working hard to curb emissions.

In September, the island city of Iki in Nagasaki Prefecture became the first municipality in Japan to make a Climate Emergency Declaration. The declaration commits the city to reduce carbon emissions, pursue renewable resources and take other necessary actions to address climate change. Kamakura city in Kanagawa Prefecture committed to the declaration in October.

Outside Japan, 21 countries including the United Kingdom, France, Canada and Ireland, and nearly 1,200 local and regional municipalities, including the cities of New York and San Francisco, have joined the declaration.

Despite climate-change advocates saying Japan has lagged in activism, awareness is growing among youth.

“We have no option but to take action and make our voices heard,” said Saori Iwano, 16, a member of FFF Tokyo. “Our own lives and those of future generations depend on it.”

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