On this day in 1970, the first official Earth Day was celebrated at thousands of schools across the United States. Nearly 50 years later, the day is now celebrated in 193 countries, including Japan, where environmental protection and sustainability have become increasingly important issues. To honor the day—and provide an excuse for learning some Japanese—here’s a bit about how Japan has tried to help the planet through sweat, short sleeves, reducing, resuing, recycling, and rocking out in the park…

Cool Biz

Despite facing many of the same environmental challenges, economic trade-offs, and political hurdles as the United States, Japan has taken some significant steps to reduce emissions and increase sustainability, including the famous kuuru bizu (クール・ビズ, “Cool Biz”) campaign. Introduced in the summer of 2005 by the Kankyou-shou (環境省, かんきょうしょう, “Ministry of the Environment”), the initiative aimed to reduce consumption of electricity by setting the thermostats in all government offices to a sultry 28 °C (82 °F). The campaign also relaxed the traditional dress code, allowing for short-sleeve shirts and open collars instead of traditional dark suits and ties. I happened to be working in a Japanese government office in the summer of 2005, and I tried to keep the worthy green cause in mind as each bead of sweat ran down my beet-red face…

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle

If you were a kid in the 80s like me, you got the slogan “reduce, reuse, recycle” drilled into you from a young age. While buying less in the first place, using reusable shopping bags, and recycling cans alone certainly won’t save the planet, it’s definitely a step in the right direction.

Reduce

While Japan has taken strides to redeyuusu (リデュース, “reduce”) their production of waste, the country is no stranger to consumerism and the trash that comes with it. That said, the average trash produced per person per year in Japan is 875 pounds, compared with 1,600 in the United States! Yikes. Gomi wo herasu beki da ne! (ゴミを減らすべきだね, ごみをへらすべきだね, “We should reduce our trash!”).

Reuse

In Japanese, the word “reuse” can be rendered using the loanword riyuusu (リユース, りゆうす) or the Sino-Japanese word saiseiyou (再使用, さいしよう). While many in Japan still use plastic grocery bags, single-use wood chopsticks called waribashi (割り箸, わりばし), and disposable takeout lunch boxes, more and more are opting to use reusable shopping bags called eko baggu (エコバッグ, えこばっぐ), personal chopsticks (like this nifty titanium set with an aluminum carrying case), and bento lunch boxes from home. In fact, Japan has the coolest multi-tier, multi-compartment bento lunch boxes I have ever seen! You can pack multiple food items in without different flavors running together or causing crispy dishes to get soggy.

Recycle

Recycling, referred to by the English loanword risaikuru (リサイクル) or the Sino-Japanese word saisei riyou (再生利用, さいせいりよう), is widely promoted in Japan. Commonly recycled materials include:

  • kami (紙, かみ, “paper”)
  • pura (プラ, ぷら, “plastic”)
  • petto boturu (ペットボトル, “PET bottles”)
  • garasu bin (ガラス瓶, がらすびん, “glass bottles”)
  • arumi kan (アルミ缶, あるみかん, “aluminum cans”)
  • suchiiru (スチール, すちいる, “steel”)

Earth Day Tokyo

Perhaps the best yardstick (or should it be meterstick?!) for the progress of green causes in Japan is the popularity of Tokyo’s annual Earth Day (アースデイ) celebration. The two-day event, held at Yoyogi Kōen (代々木公園, よよぎこうえん, “Yoyogi Park”), draws tens of thousands of people each year, who come to eat, learn, and be entertained with live music. But don’t expect folk guitars and tambourines; the event might praise the clean and green, but the music is loud and lucid, with performers like Japanese hip-hop star MINMI (ミンミ) and the punk band Zunou Keisatsu (頭脳警察, lit. “Brain Police”).

To be clear, I am not saying that Japan has a perfect environmental record (they don’t), that the U.S. is behind on all ecological measures (we’re not), or that I am green saint (I’m not). Let us all do our best to act as stewards of this precious planet, whether here in the states or across the pond in Japan. I wish you all a happy Earth Day and hope that by this time next year, we will have moved that much closer to an economically and environmentally sustainable world.

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