Japan Dispatches—2005

In the summer of 2005, Peter Berg returned to Japan. Here we published his reports as we received them.

Dispatch #1, Colors Are The Deeds Of Light, July 5, 2005. An exposition of Peter Berg’s bioregional sustainability presentation for eco-philosopher Yuichi Inouye’s Seika University classes with in depth responses to Q & A’s.

Dispatch #2, Finding the Future in the Mud, July 10, 2005. Ecological prophecies and excitement in a mudflat.

Dispatch #3, Instructions From Mountains and an Island, July 22, 2005. A deep dive into two places teeming with potential.

Colors Are The Deeds Of Light
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Dispatch #1, July 5, 2005
Kyoto, Japan
by Peter Berg

The persistent edge of metal cornered buildings cutting into the eyes and days of businesslike Japan seems everywhere dominant and unforgiving, but the overlaid human environment also crowds in resilient minds that can wondrously rebound from those daily slashing encounters. This happened in Kyoto last night.

Eco-philosopher Yuichi Inouye’s combined classes of 150 or so Environmental Sciences students had filled a hall at Seika University yesterday afternoon to hear my talk on bioregional sustainability. Seika is a good place to try out new ideas so I began some comments about our present historical moment by asking how many owned television sets. Every hand was raised. Then an opposite experience: how many had seen a trout in a creek? A little over half as many. How many owned a personal computer? All again. Seen a deer in a forest? An even half. Owned a cellular phone? All. Seen a fox in the wild? Now less than half. Their grandparents had been born before there were televisions, PCs or cell phones and most had probably seen all three wild animals. They were born into the Industrial Era whose end was being signaled by the information devices that the grandchildren now universally owned. It had been a blighting time for biospheric life on the scale of the last Ice Age. The new epoch could hopefully take a turn for the better.But was there actually improvement so far? Not according to a European Union report on Waste from Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEE). Yuichi translated the list of 553 pieces of equipment that each young Japanese person in the audience would discard during their average 78 years of life: 95 small household appliances such as vacuum cleaners and toasters, 55 consumer items (TVs, video camcorders, DVDs, etc.), 35 computers and mobile phones, 12 washing machines (TWELVE! Yuichi was astonished), 10 refrigerators, and 6 microwaves. Enough to cover five acres of land. If everyone on the planet consumed at this level it would take three earth’s to support them. So much for the promise of the post-industrial age.

I next steered toward positive alternatives for the future although the inertia of those dismal facts seemed to prevent changing course completely. It took the surprise presence of old friends like Kim To, his wife Izumi with their new baby girl, Noriko who volunteered at Planet Drum’s San Francisco office, and Ken Rodgers from Kyoto Journal to finally exorcise the pall. Inouye is a consummately involved educator and in typical style arranged a two hour seminar answering questions from students, faculty and interested guests to immediately follow the talk. Their intriguing range of interests included difficulty finding jobs in sustainable fields, dying towns on the “back door” side of the country’s main Honshu Island facing the Sea of Japan, how local communities should take over projects started by outside NGOs, and even the unfortunate advent into the United States of elaborate Japanese toilet systems with bottom-showering devices. One of the subjects that stood out was the importance of getting out of buildings and going into natural settings to show features of watersheds, native species and other bioregional characteristics. It is possible to see the core of watershed dynamics simply by following a path that leads downhill, Any plant encountered is either native or exotic, and usually shows obvious indications of the way it relates to local features such as availability of sunlight. Kicking up dust can reveal some soil characteristics. And something unplanned but noteworthy will always happen to the participants. A bird or other animal will show itself. A tree will have signs of a fire or lightning strike. There will be new blooms or a spray of mushrooms or webs with crazily decorated spiders. It is an infallible certainty that interesting things can be seen on any occasion.

Two women sophomores sat throughout this marathon Q & A without saying anything except to converse with each other. On the way out I mentioned this to them playfully not even sure they understood English. Inouye overheard and in his perpetual Teacher of The Year role stayed behind to solicit their reactions to the preceding events. “They really have a lot of serious concerns,” he reported excitedly. “I invited them to dinner with us to question us in a less public situation,” (I believe he even paid for their dinner. Students often visit with his family at home and stay the night if it gets too late.) We talked about unrelated but specifically Japanese subjects walking to a soba (buckwheat noodle) restaurant. The fact that they both had pink kimonos at home, whether they would marry within the next ten years (Japanese women are rapidly abandoning traditional obligatory roles), and superstitions about onis (devils) that are common throughout the countryside.Once in the restaurant over tempura, bowls of noodles and copious glasses of beer the level of discussion shifted completely. Chiaki confronted me about a remark concerning the globalized phenomenon of eating bananas everywhere in the world although they only originate from a few tropical locations. She ate a banana every morning. What makes something globalized and why is that negative. If all globalized phenomena were negative we would oppose the internet, I responded. But we don’t because globalization of information has manifold benefits. Besides that the internet is free. Economic globalization is completely different. It exploits and drains resources in one part of the world (usually poorer) for the benefit of other parts (usually richer). If the internet was economically globalized it would only come with a fee.

Now Madoka, the other student, unburdened herself of what had become a contention with fellow environmentally oriented students. Recycling was overrated, she espoused. It is mostly meaningful in developed countries where there are large enough volumes of specific discarded materials such as glass or aluminum to warrant pickups and processing. But shouldn’t that be the last resort because it required so much labor and consumed vast quantities of energy? Wouldn’t it be better to reduce use or reuse materials beforehand, and build products that last longer rather than continually grind them up? Those are important aspects of consumer waste that should get more emphasis than recycling.You’re right and less developed countries have a natural culture of reuse for many objects such as glass bottles that are emptied of soda one day and seen the next as a container for gathered honey sold on the street, I responded. The isolation of recycling is also a problem. It has resulted in vast amounts of old newspapers in the US, for example, that don’t yet have a use where they’re collected and end up sold to places as far away as China carried by diesel-burning ships. Recycling should always include provision for local remanufacture of salvaged materials at least into objects for community use such as newspapers transformed into government office paper products, demolished building rubble reconstructed into park benches, or hundreds of other possibilities. Governments should be required to incubate businesses for these functions if they don’t already exist.

Something extraordinary had happened at our table. Both students brought up specifics but they were actually avidly questioning the general process of logic in the areas of their concerns. A sub-theme about the purpose of education had hung over the day’s classroom sessions and dogged us into the night. Here was the answer. Their questions were colored panels in the stream of an original point of light that was simply the practice of thinking for oneself. I whispered, “Yuichi, you’ve taught them to think. You must be proud.”  He shook his head, “Proud for them, not for me.”With time slowed down by the relaxed pleasure of seeing vivid evidence of his patient shepherding, I witnessed the next episode from an almost alpine vantage point.  Chiaki began by contending my characterization in the seminar of corporate culture’s obsession with the game of golf as environmentally destructive and imitatively uncreative. It was actually psychologically beneficial as a way of relaxing from stressful work conditions, and people enjoyed themselves enthusiastically playing golf. Leave them alone at it, she urged. Madoka agreed.

On our way to the restaurant I had asked about their parents careers. Chiaki’s father was a Mitsubishi corporate executive and Madoka’s worked six days a week in a self-owned construction business. I was suspicious that we were in fact discussing their fathers’ game and they felt a duty to defend family members, but I said nothing while Yuichi began to move the subject into the same logic-searching framework as before. Golf actually enforced corporate culture rather than providing an escape from it, he insisted. There was a high degree of company worker socializing involved, and a kind of unrealistic bubble surrounding their play that isolated them from the rest of the world. Strolling in pursuit of a ball on a heavily landscaped course is monotonous compared to a nature hike or hill climb, I suggested. The students previously stated an urgent need to remove obstacles that prevented businesses from becoming more sustainable, but didn’t that mean urging more sustainable expressions of corporate culture as well? I came out with it. Their fathers played golf, didn’t they? Not surprisingly they nodded yes. Dinner was over by then but there was something else. Their parents disapproved of their interest in ecological sustainability and the overall open-mindedness they had begun to express. Even their hometown friends thought they were becoming abnormal. How could they feel better about this unforeseen situation? Something struck me just then about their predicament. Their parents probably would think Yuichi and I were odd as well. They would see us as hippy-like and narrow in interests. But actually we were quite different in our styles and approaches, not rubber-stamped imitations of each other, and our lives were culturally rich in philosophy, art, poetry, and community involvements that their parents probably knew nothing about. The young women would have to begin building up their own interests and goals for accomplishment as well. An independent life followed independent thinking. Outside we thanked each other for the evening with a level of sincerity more typical of musicians after playing a piece together.

Finding the Future in the Mud

Report #2, July 10, 2005
Nagoya, Japan
by Peter Berg 

A small evening event in Eco Life Plaza located far away from Aichi Expo released a vision that guided the next week of presentations here. This is a brave earthly outpost in Sasashima Satellite of downtown Nagoya’s sprawling De La Fantasia amusement park.  The venue was a nearby club bearing a name that seems a stunningly perfect example of the strangeness English can have in Japan, Ding Dong Dang. Billed as a panel discussion on what we may unfold by 2025 and pitched toward the Star Festival occurring that week and its custom of writing wishes on pieces of paper that are pinned onto tree branches (audience members were asked to do this), there was a potential from the beginning to enunciate far-reaching ecological prophecies.

Twenty years into the future is a full generation and therefore capable of evolving vast social and cultural shifts, if modern history to this point is a guide. I chose to list some basic prognostications at the beginning, in spite of their potentially radical sound, and explain afterward why they seemed destined.

Cities will be the norm for at least three-quarters of human habitation but they will be completely transformed, I predicted. Approaches to satisfying basic human needs will change dramatically to fit a dominantly urban location. Most food will be produced in or immediately close to cities using former factories, warehouses, office buildings, and other industrial structures, as well as streets that have been half torn up to only run one way. Half of the water will be reused from stores that have themselves been reused several times before. Energy will be increasingly small scale and come from local renewable sources of natural flows that are only barely utilized at present: ocean waves, tides and currents; air thermals; perhaps even sound waves. Materials for construction and manufacturing will mainly come from reused and recycled materials (in a similar way as water). Finally, wild nature will flourish in the city where restoration of plant and animal species, ecosystems and habitats will be accepted as part of normal urbanite identity.

Why is it safe to anticipate these changes? Cities are becoming so large and numerous, and consequently covering so much land area, that they will represent the main factor for considering the entire planetary environment. Fossil fuel, the ignition source for industrial development, will become scarce to the point of luxury, with a liter of gasoline comparably priced to a liter of olive oil. A major result will be that human life will be more localized. Globalization has simultaneously unleashed its opposite of devolutionary decentralism as well. There will be more autonomous local governments and smaller if not fewer of the present nation states. The new governments will have natural boundaries encompassing watershed areas and bioregions in which cities will be managed as part of the particular natural geography. There will be more forms of culture, economy and even monetary currency, unique to each local area.

Some edges of these thoughts had arisen before but after that evening I felt sure of the whole vision. It isn’t the false boosterist promise of Infinite Progress promoted by consumer and corporate interests, but it isn’t the grim catastrophic forecast of Industrial Collapse either. There is no reason to believe that food, water, energy, and materials can’t have a cultural and ethical basis that surpasses what we know from today’s questionable mainstream lifestyle. (A visit to less developed places inevitably arouses admiration for the warmer relationships between people, artfulness of daily life, superlative food, and pleasures in general.) There isn’t reason to believe that society will be any less advanced technologically either. The majority of today’s most promising advancements use smaller levels of materials and more sophisticated methods. In short, a future based on the finite nature of the biosphere doesn’t have to be finite in its creative possibilities.

A sense of this ecologically-based future came with a visit to the rescued Fujimae Wetland that stands as a symbol of Tokai Bioregion (the greater natural area surrounding Nagoya).

Slated in the 1980s to become a garbage landfill, it became the focus of citizen resistance to losing the last remnant of once-rich local marshes of Shonai River’s estuary. Atsuo Tsugi, Director of Fujimae Ramsar Society, led Earthday Everyday’s Naoto Anzai and Jennifer Kwong, and me out onto the low tide mud. We pulled off our shoes, rolled up our pant legs and followed a group of forty or so fourth-graders with their teachers and some volunteers who were already busy finding samples of tidal life.

They dug with both hands past the elbows to find clams, crabs and ghost shrimp. Shrieks of discovery mixed with shouts to come see what was found. I kept track of one possessed girl who at various times could be seen digging up fifty clams, then switched to gathering crabs, stood up to her knees waving arms in a game to wildly keep balance, spontaneously threw mud into the air, and protested about leaving when it was time to go. A boy couldn’t stop digging holes with a shovel and was working his way far from the group when called to leave. They were all totally absorbed with gray mud squishing between toes, dirty hands, animals wiggling between fingers, walking stiffly and carefully.

Teachers showed pans full of animals that included oysters and barnacles from hooped frames placed to observe growth rates and patterns. The children were definitely more attentive than is usual in a classroom, adding their own comments and experiences to the demonstration that was more a history of their outing than an ordinary lesson. “I also feel like a child when I’m on the mudflat,” Atsuo confessed.

What a startling contrast to the amusement park where Eco Life holds out its small lifesome corner. Black asphalt obliterates even the smallest amount of soil. Parents drag sulking children from ride to booth, chewing on paper-wrapped fast food and examining entrance prices. Pokemon World is the main draw. Colored lights flash on yellow and red plastic machines, uninteresting automatic music plays, electronic pings and bongs sound in the vacant air. Metal rails mark boundaries and orange cones guide traffic.

This isn’t really a place for discovering but another controlled site for consumption and relating to commercial culture. Here parents who don’t know what to do with their children can be satisfied that at least their expectations from advertising can be fulfilled, some money spent as proof of earnestness. The mudflat is a true guide to the children’s future. Saved from garbage, it saves their individuality while saving their place in a natural community. It saves their lives.

Instructions From Mountains and an Island

Report #3, July 22, 2005
Nagano Prefecture, Japan
By Peter Berg

The mountains of Nagano Prefecture are a significant part of Honshu Island’s spine and the headwaters of major rivers running to both the Japan Sea and Pacific Ocean sides. They have been both a source and refuge for Japanese culture throughout its history, holding an aura of oldness and authenticity that give the rocky streams and steep forests a kind of authority as well as serenity. This is where mist rises from the shadows of valleys at dawn and interrupts the certainty of brightening peaks with foggy illusion.

Boundlessly creative Hitoshi Yoshida resonates with the source quality of this place. He has switchbacked through several communities in Nagano since leaving Tokyo’s paved-over ground around a decade ago. His nose has now led to Toyooka Village in the southern mountain region and an opportunity provided by the local government to transform the small closed university into a new learning center for an ecologically centered way of life. I’m there with a group of people he chose for their ability to light up different parts of this underground cave of possibilities. Ranging from activists to small business operators, we address the problems and solutions of ecological and economic sustainability for mountain communities like Toyooka Village that have been losing population to the big cities and whose economies are shrinking with the advent of globalization. But there is much more at stake here. It is what kind of life can and should be lived considering the technological and environmental changes occurring to our species and the planet in general. Yoshida is taking on the big question from a place small enough to yield practical results. His group of only four students enrolled so far is joined by a wonderful array of local supporters including the village’s supremely competent mayor, a high school teacher and his class of only six third year students, local businessmen, visitors from other parts of the mountains, and some mothers with children. Our several days long seminar was nothing if not real.

Talks and discussions were about relating to nature, making the energy and cultural infrastructure of communities more ecological, home soy sauce making, canning delicious native k-ichigo (tree berry), and using cooking saki as a food. We broke off to visit an abandoned small village that once held seventy families, gather and eat wild mountain walabi (ferns), view surly native boars raised in pens, observe snake catching techniques for the essential ingredient in medicinal mamushi saki taken for numerous complaints, and stop unexpectedly at Abu (poison bee) River with a blue pool beside a naturally square granite boulder to hear its story of a farmer who regularly saw two naked mountain girls bathe there but regrettably told local villagers who created a crowd that scared them away.

At one point I reflect dreamily how the seemingly passive forest actually pulses relentlessly with land shaking in tectonic grunts, dirt and rocks falling down, trees billowing gases, water running and sucked up plant stems, worms dissolving earth and passing it through their tube bodies as soil, insects devouring wastes and each other, pollen blowing, flowers opening and closing, ferns uncoiling, fish sucking slime off stream rocks, birds nibbling omnivorously and defecating everywhere, boars plowing up the ground, deer mowing leaves of everything they can reach.

The gathering was a nowever event. Something changeless can lead us through changes.

Ohshima Island by way of Tokyo Bay is the final stop on this visit. Atsuo Shiga is a cultural adventurer who sees vast possibilities for healing large city populations on the still half-sustainable island where an intermittently active volcano last spewed lava in 1986. He leads what he calls “a shrine tour” completely around the 50 or so kilometer diameter shoreline that includes a magically preserved 15th Century worship site as well as camellia forests, sharp-edged lava cliffs and black sand beaches, visually striking ajisai (hydrangea) flowers with multiple blue pistil centers offset by long stemmed four-petal white flowers (they uncannily resemble a pop hair style here that has balls shaking on wires away from the head), two mating tobi (ospreys) glide above and two more fly up and over us from the roadtop. “It is a sign that we’re doing the right thing,” Atsuo says.

An insight about comparative ecologies occurs to me because of the quick shift between Nagano and Ohshima (and possibly the presence of Atsuo’s frenetically inventive mind). The island has four times as many natural features. The volcano at the center, the ocean beyond, and between them the coastline, along with the forested slopes that are similar to Nagano’s single feature. I imagine the coastline redone in a painting as a single line with an accompanying stripe for the ocean and mountainsides and the volcano at the center radiating out above them all. A new image for Oshima as a sustainable place, dedicatedly restoring forests, and formerly abundant coast and ocean life. Sea water pollution could be reduced immensely through a zero waste policy, farms could provide all of the vegetables consumed, and alternative energy sources especially wind could supply all the needs currently fed by fossil fuels. Fish are a staple and sea vegetable harvesting already employs dozens of local inhabitants. Visitors who are presently a hundred times as numerous as residents over a year would be invited to participate in those eco-activities along with hiking, volcano watching, swimming, beaching, and diving.

I spent three weeks struggling with the daunting ecological facts of massive Tokyo and Nagoya. Toyooka Village and Oshima Island are doable and inspiring.

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