Japan’s High Schoolers Tackle Climate Crisis and Indifference at the Same Time

By Kohei Usuda

At half-past 5pm on Friday earlier this month, thousands of young protestors took to the streets of Tokyo to demand the government and policymakers take more drastic action against climate change. The rally, held on September 20, was part of the global Fridays for Future climate strike aimed to coincide with the United Nations Climate Action Summit as world leaders convened in New York. Organizers estimate a total of four million youth worldwide took part in rallies across 163 countries, making the coordinated strike the largest ever single-day mass mobilization the world has seen in its fight against global warming.

Raucous protestors – who marched through the major thoroughfares of downtown Tokyo to the cheers and applause of throngs of photo-snapping onlookers – included dozens of junior and high school students, a vast number of whom were girls.

The occasion denoted a festive atmosphere, as crowds of cheerful participants carrying various handmade placards paraded through the balmy September evening to the chorus of “Climate justice now!”

Though still dwarfed by the breadth of mass turnouts that were witnessed in more progressive cities such as New York and Berlin, the scale of this month’s climate strike in the Japanese capital was a far cry from its more modest origin in the winter of this year.

Back in February, when Aina Koide, a 21-year-old environmental student at Rissho University, launched the Japanese chapter of the student-led Fridays for Future movement, a mere 20 protestors heeded Koide’s call by turning up in front of the Japanese Diet, who were outnumbered by reporters eager to cover the group’s inaugural demonstration. The meager turnout was indicative of the scant interest environmental issues has generated at the grassroots level in this country – particularly among its youth.

Few signs point to an uptick in ecological awareness in the months since. At the September strike, for example, impassioned bands of teenagers and students  made their presence felt by leading the 2,800-strong marchers through the trendy Shibuya district toward the United Nations University campus on Aoyama-Dori Avenue.

Among the most vociferous youth leading the procession was Sakura Sueoka, a student at a high school in Meguro Ward, who is one of the most active members of the Tokyo branch of Fridays for Future since its inception in February.

Toting a megaphone and a banner that read “Real Power = People,” Sakura cut a figure befitting a budding environmental activist as she rallied the crowd by chanting “Save our future! Protect our future!” while still clad in her school uniform.

Following the march, Sakura stated her “growing anxiety over  climate issues” as the driving force behind her involvement in climate activism, echoing the sentiment often expressed by Greta Thunberg, the influential 16-year-old environmental advocate and the de facto face of young people’s fight against climate change.

Thunberg began her now legendary sit-ins outside Swedish parliament every Friday, to make a principled stand against the empty promises and inaction of adults, which grew out of her helpless exasperation over ever-worsening environmental predictions threatening to jeopardize her generation down the line. What started out just over a year ago as the Swedish teen’s solitary “school strike for climate” – also known by its hashtag #FridaysForFuture – has snowballed into a momentously far-reaching activist movement to speak truth to power: weekly school boycotts staged by pupils the world over to campaign for a decarbonized and sustainable future.

The climate crisis engulfing the planet today “is not an issue that can be fixed by just one person,” Sakura told Voice Up Japan. “One of the reasons I’m here is to spread the message that it requires everyone’s corporation going forward,” she added. “Young people tend to be characterized – especially here in Japan – as not sufficiently paying attention” to climate concerns, she remarked. “Through my participation, I want to prove that young people too are capable of rising to the occasion by speaking up and making a difference in the world,” Sakura said.

‘Not at levels seen elsewhere’

While the past several months have seen a groundswell in the number of schoolchildren waking up to grim warnings forecasted by scientists, concerns for kankyo mondai, or environmental problems, remain below par among notoriously apathetic and apolitical Japanese millennials. Alarmingly, there’s a conspicuous lack of impetuous – let alone urgency – emanating from this age bracket to get engaged, despite mounting scientific evidence pointing to the fact that it is this demographic that stands to lose the most in the not-too-distant future (if, as predicted, the average global temperature exceeds the threshold of 1.5 degrees Celsius). In order to avoid such outcome, greenhouse gas emissions must be slashed by half, with an increasingly shrinking timeframe of a “12-year” window to save the planet before the tipping point of no return.

The day after the climate strike, the Asahi Shimbum, Japan’s newspaper of record, ran a front-page coverage of the march in its evening edition, which sounded the alarm over the indifference of Japanese youth in the face of impending ecological disaster. Its headline spoke volumes: “Young Japanese hit the streets, but not at levels seen elsewhere.” The Japan Times’ editorial was more blunt in its assessment of the insular mindset of Japan’s young folks: “Organizers [of the climate strike] in Japan bemoaned a lack of interest and a low turnout among this country’s youth.”

Sakura, who has a multicultural background, conceded that Japan doesn’t yet have “a culture that tolerates the idea of students skipping school,” even for a good cause like Fridays for Future that fills in the gaps left by a traditional school curriculum by encouraging students to foster eco-awareness on their own initiatives.

Undeterred, that forced the members of Fridays for Future Tokyo to adapt by finding a middle ground. To avoid violating school regulations, the group settled on  a more pragmatic approach – what Sakura described as “taking a specifically Japanese route” – by organizing smaller after-school rallies every Friday, “so that every one of us can partake in,” she said.

Although Sakura admitted that her generation in Japan has so far skirted around challenges posed by a rapidly heating planet, she remains nonetheless optimistic. “It’s not as if they don’t believe in climate change,” she said in defense of her peers, “whereas if you go to America’s heartland you might hear a lot of reactionary voices” that promulgate global warming as a hoax. “They just lack curiosity, for better or for worse. It’s as simple as that,” she added.

“If you look at it another way,” she continued with more conviction, “the flip side of it is that – if I may use the expression – it’s much easier to draw them in” by coaxing the youth into taking climate change more seriously, she said. Ultimately, in terms of attracting people’s attention and making her voice heard, Sakura noted that these climate rallies “where a huge crowd of people gather have potential that might lead to something very significant.”

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