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Green Japan?

Julian Ryall
December 12, 2012

A local Japanese politician plans to take her environmental message to the national level via the Tomorrow Party of Japan. Attitudes about the environment are changing, but enough to change the government's course?

Aufgenommen vom DW-Tokio-Korrespondent in Tokio, November 2012. Aufnahmen von Governeurin Kada.
Image: DW/J. Ryall

The wind whipping across the choppy surface of Lake Biwa keeps catching the hair of Yukiko Kada, governor of Shiga Prefecture, forcing the photographers to repeat their requests for "one more photo."

Well versed in the media requirements, Kada brushes away the offending strands of hair and keeps smiling. She learned quickly what was expected of her after becoming the first woman to be elected governor of Shiga Prefecture in central Japan in 2006. She is only the fifth female governor in Japanese history.

Kada's platform back then was based on respect and care for the environment. The slogan that she used to great effect in 2006, and again before she was re-elected in 2010, was "mottainai," which roughly translates to "don't waste." It has worked at the local level.

'Japanese Merkel'

Now the 62-year-old politician is taking her message to the national electorate via the Tomorrow Party of Japan, which she launched in late November ahead of the national election on December 16.

Although Kada faces an entrenched two-party political system that has effectively shared power in this country since 1945, she hopes her message will resonate with a generation of people fearful of the damage that is being inflicted on their environment and, in particular, of the threat posed by nuclear energy.

A father and son walk by cracks following a 6.5-magnitude earthquake at Yaizu port in Shizuoka Prefecture (State), Japan, Tuesday, Aug. 11, 2009. The quake hit Tokyo and nearby areas shortly after dawn Tuesday, halting trains and forcing two nuclear reactors to shut down for safety checks. (AP Photo/Itsuo Inouye)
Japan continues to be hit by earthquakesImage: AP

Kada says she will not run for election at the national level. She wants to retain her position as governor of Shiga. But others, like Japanese actor Bunta Sugawara, would like to see her become a candidate. Sugawara has called on her to become "the Japanese Merkel."

Campaigning earlier this month in Iitate, a village on the very edge of the 18-kilometer exclusion zone around the Fukushima plant, Kada told local residents, "We are aiming for a society that will not depend on nuclear power."

The party's aim is to phase out nuclear power plants in Japan by the end of the 2030s and switch to clean and renewable sources of energy to drive the nation.

Lake Biwa

Other policies include cancelling the plan to raise the 5 percent consumption tax to 10 percent by 2015, declining the opportunity to take part in the U.S.-led Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade discussions and providing 312,000 yen (2,923 euros) every year for every child through junior high school as a way of encouraging couples to have more children and reverse Japan's rapidly contracting population.

But it is the green policies that are of particular interest to Kada in shaping Japan's future. And Lake Biwa, the largest expanse of fresh water in Japan, plays a special role.

Japanese police officers wearing white suits (AP Photo/Hiro Komae)
The cleanup in Fukushima continuesImage: AP

"The lake was created by a huge earthquake back in prehistoric times, but it left us with this stunning landscape and all surrounded by mountains," Kada told DW.

"Since ancient times, fishermen have worked in these waters," she said. "There are fish of many different species in the waters, swimming beaches all located along the edges and the entire area is simply beautiful. But the biggest role of Japan's largest lake is as a reservoir for drinking water and industrial water for the Kinki region of central Japan."

Fully 70 percent of the tap water consumed in Osaka, to the south, comes from Lake Biwa and a total of 14.53 million people receive their household water supplies from the lake. It is rare, on a global scale, to find one source lake providing as much water for so many people, the governor pointed out.

But there have been problems that have required drastic solutions.

Growing pollution problem

With the sudden upsurge in industrial and business activity in the region in the post-war years of rapid economic growth, as well as a growing population, pollution became a serious issue from the 1960s. In 1972, the lake fell prey to the algal bloom, which is commonly known as red tide.

"One of the biggest causes of the outbreak was the washing detergent that was being discharged into the lake from households along the shore," Kada said.

A parliamentary debate in Tokyo REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon (JAPAN - Tags: POLITICS ELECTIONS)
The Tomorrow Party of Japan wants a voice at the national levelImage: Reuters

Local residents realized the root cause of the problem, with a campaign quickly spreading among housewives to halt the use of synthetic detergents.

In 1980, an ordinance by the prefecture became the first in Japan to combat pollution. It has since been used as a template by many other municipalities experiencing similar problems.

Lake Biwa is far cleaner now than it was 40 years ago, thanks in part to Kada's efforts - and knowledge. After completing a doctorate at Kyoto University's Department of Agricultural Research, she joined the prefectural government's Lake Biwa Research Institute in 1982.

In the intervening years, she devoted her efforts to establishing the Lake Biwa Museum and researching the environmental conditions in the lake, which stretches more than 63 kilometers from north to south, is a maximum of 22.8 kilometers wide and descends to a depth of 104 meters in places.

Living in harmony with the lake

"Our aim now is to try to live in harmony with the lake and that is why we have started our 'Mother Lake' plan," Kada said.

The two key pillars of the plan are to protect the ecosystem of the lake and the surrounding areas while at the same time regenerating the sense among local people of living in harmony with the lake. That campaign includes a wide-ranging education program for children, who will later be among the people living along the lake's shores.

It is these local-level initiatives that Kada wants to take to the national level.

Public opinion polls in the run-up to the election suggest that her party might take a mere 15 seats in the Lower House of the Japanese Parliament. But that would be a huge step forward for a movement that has to date found it nearly impossible to gain traction in a political world that is more in thrall to money than the planet around us.