We were sitting in a rental car overlooking the picturesque Japanese fishing village of Taiji when Ric O’Barry said to me, “You know, we have a lot to learn from the Japanese.”
O’Barry (the subject of our cover story) is the star of the recent documentary The Cove, which follows his efforts to halt the capture and slaughter of bottlenose dolphins by fishermen in Taiji. The dolphin killing pains O’Barry, but he is careful to point out that a small number of people in Japan are involved.
I asked O’Barry what lessons the Japanese offer, and he said, “Politeness, for one.” On that I couldn’t agree more. Like many first-time visitors to Japan, I was struck by the refinement of the people there. The smallest gesture results in a robust “thank you.” Departing from a hotel, a guest can expect a deep bow from the staff. We Americans should be so gracious.
Other lessons came to mind as well. Mostly, ideas we could take from the Japanese about how to step more lightly on this planet.
Living on an island with few natural resources, the Japanese have been forced to make do with less. Some 145 million people live in a space the size of California, and four-fifths of that area is mountains. So sprawl isn’t an option. The packed-in cities might seem a bit claustrophobic to the American eye, but the townhouses that many families live in look spacious enough.
The layout makes mass transit obvious. Compared to Amtrak, the bullet train is nothing short of a miracle. It looks like a greyhound mated with an iPod, sleek and gleaming white. It goes more than 110 miles per hour, and is more comfortable and elegant than economy class on an airplane. Even once we got off the main line and headed into the sticks, the local trains were on time and speedy. In Tokyo, most people commute via the amazingly complex subway system.
Of course there are miles and miles of expressways in the capital. Yet the air was much clearer than I would find at home in the San Francisco Bay Area, even though greater Tokyo is home to twice as many people. This is because the taxicabs run on propane, because the cars are highly efficient, and because many trucks run on biodiesel made from recycled cooking grease.
As an urban farmer, one of the things that grabbed my attention was the interweaving of agriculture with built spaces. In the United States, we keep our food production far from urban centers, partly because our sprawling development wastes space. In Japan, I saw tea fields and vegetable plots intermingled with apartment blocks and factories. The rice paddies were next to the train tracks, under the power lines, sprinkled among the homes.
Don’t get me wrong: Japan is not some eco-topia. Too many of the rivers are rimmed with concrete. The nation is too reliant on nuclear energy, and the heavy manufacturing takes its toll. Somehow, the Japanese need to get over their fetish for wrapping every little item.
But the lesson is that living greener isn’t that hard. The Japanese have a per capita carbon footprint less than half the size of Americans’, and Japan is hardly a place of sacrifice. If the most technologically advanced nation on the planet can figure this stuff out, maybe we Americans should consider following along.
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