A New Brand for JapanSociety
INTERVIEWER This summer the government called on consumers to reduce their electricity use by 15 percent in an attempt to cope with energy shortages caused by the nuclear crisis in Fukushima. Your “eco-house” uses relatively little electricity already. Were you able to make further savings?
KOBAYASHI HIKARU I use solar power for a lot of my domestic electricity needs, so initially I thought it might be difficult to reduce the amount I buy from the electricity company by 15 percent. But in fact I managed to save more than that—20 percent since March 11, and 25 percent from July to September. I introduced a stand-alone, low-energy photovoltaic solar cell unit. That was enough to power all my fans, nightlights, computers, and so on. I switched the bulbs in my lights to dimmer-equipped LED bulbs and installed automatic timers wherever practicable.
A stand-alone photovoltaic unit can generate up to 110 watts per hour, and can store up to 200 watt hours per day. That comes to 6 kilowatt hours of useable electricity a month. That’s not bad. The installation costs were around ¥400,000. Of course we all hope it won’t happen, but if a big earthquake did hit Tokyo, a device like this would provide enough electricity for a family’s everyday needs.
INTERVIEWER At one stage, rolling blackouts looked likely over the summer months. Thankfully, it didn’t come to that in the end, thanks to the energy-saving efforts of individual consumers as well as major industrial users.
KOBAYASHI At first, people were motivated by anxiety: If we don’t do what we can to save electricity, they thought, the lights will go out. Lower electricity bills were an added incentive. But those weren’t the only reasons. I think the crisis prompted many people to reflect on the way we conducted ourselves as a society in the past. People reflected on the often profligate way they had used electricity. They realized that this was what had made it necessary to build all these power stations so far from Tokyo; that this was one of the factors that had contributed to the crisis. The changes we saw in people’s behavior didn’t come about from the energy crisis alone. They stemmed from a deeper realization that things were not right. The myth that nuclear power is safe has collapsed. This is not a problem that is going to go away. The immediate threat may have passed for now, but there’s no question of relaxing and going back to the way things were. I have no doubt that the nuclear crisis brought a dramatic change in the way people think about these issues in Japan.
How Environmental Measures Pay For Themselves
INTERVIEWER This shift in people’s thinking has brought ecological issues closer to home for many people. We’re seeing increased demand for LED light bulbs, for example, and this is resulting in cheaper prices.
KOBAYASHI Essentially, anything you do to help the environment should end up saving you money. There are start-up costs, of course, but in the long term the economic benefits are clear. The idea that environmental measures have to cost a lot of money is a misconception. The Japanese economy has seen stagnant growth for the past twenty years or so. One of the main reasons is that no new business is being generated. People are hung up on the old ways of doing things, and this is hampering economic development. Even without the March 11 disaster and the nuclear crisis, change was inevitable. Smart grids, for example, were bound to come in sooner or later. But the disaster has almost certainly accelerated the speed with which these new technologies will be developed and applied. I think this is likely to have a major impact on consumer goods in the future. Whether it’s cars or domestic appliances, energy-saving features will be essential in terms of appealing to consumers.
INTERVIEWER There’s more interest than ever in solar energy these days.
KOBAYASHI And yet people still have some ridiculous ideas. There have been claims that in order to produce the same amount of electricity as one nuclear power station, you would need to cover the whole of central Tokyo in solar panels. But the truth is far from that. I can’t vouch for the exact figures, but apparently the average family uses something like 48,000 kilojoules over the course of a year, in energy terms. Compare that to solar power—the amount of energy that falls as sunshine on a 110 square meter area is around ten times that amount. Obviously it is not possible to convert all of that energy into electricity, but even 10 percent of that would be enough to power the energy needs of a family of four living in a single-family home. It’s increasingly common to find apartments and condominiums using solar panels as one of the selling points of the building. One reason they’re so popular is that people know they will make back their investment through savings on their energy bills.
Shaping a New World through Sustainable Energy-Efficient Housing
INTERVIEWER Despite this, energy-efficient housing has yet to become truly mainstream. What do you think is standing in the way?
KOBAYASHI First of all, Japan has no building standards requiring certain levels of energy efficiency. Another reason is the strong preference for new housing—there isn’t great demand for so-called “second-hand” housing, and generally speaking landowners prefer to level and rebuild. People see little merit in investing large amounts in a building that will only have a relatively short lifespan. We need a complete change of thinking. People need to realize that environmentally friendly, energy-saving measures will save them money in the long term. People complain about the cost of solar panels, for example. They might grumble that it costs, say, ¥2 million to equip a house with solar panels. But what about the ¥2 million that the same people are happy to spend on a car, which won’t even run unless you continue to fill it with gasoline? A house is the biggest investment most people will make in their lives. We should be looking at how we can use this investment to create a new kind of environment and a new way of doing things. I’m convinced that things would change if everyone shared the same awareness of the problem. It’s important for people to bring their complaints and problems to the government and the prime minister—but people need to be willing to change things themselves too!
The population of Japan is set to decline in the years to come. In this context, building a house only to knock it down and build something new on the same site a few years later is an extremely inefficient use of resources and investment that could be better spent on something else. On top of that, the enormous financial burden of housing means that people struggle to keep up the payments on their loans and are unable to enjoy their lives. We need to think about things in a completely new way. Increase the investment to 120 percent of what it costs now, and build houses that will last a hundred years. If we do that, three generations can live in the house. Splitting the costs over three generations means that each generation would pay just 40 percent of the total amount. It’s true that construction of new housing had a positive effect on the rest of the economy in the past. But with this plan, it would still be possible to benefit other areas of the economy if the remaining 60 percent of each generation’s outlay were invested effectively in other areas.
No one is saying we should force children to live in the house their parents built. Some people probably wouldn’t like the idea of living in a house built to their parents’ specifications at all! The house can always be sold. You’d need to ensure you had adaptable housing that could be easily renovated to suit the requirements of new users. Building adaptable, long-term housing would avoid the wastefulness of knocking down a house and replacing it with a totally new structure.
Harmony with Nature as a New National Brand
INTERVIEWER After a disaster like this, it is perhaps more important than ever to look to the future.
KOBAYASHI One of the major changes since the disaster is the question of how to brand Japan internationally. Until recently, Japan sold itself as a country with high standards of safety, but now even Japanese industrial products are being subjected to radiation checks. So what will our new selling point be? My proposal is for Japan to put the concept of harmony with nature at the heart of its international marketing and branding efforts. As a first step, we should announce to the world that we will offer products and services that allow modern societies to prosper in harmony with nature, based on what we have learned from this recent disaster. Without a major effort like this, there’s a danger that Japan could become a country the rest of the world feels it can do without. Japan needs to take the initiative and launch a major branding effort based on the idea of harmonious symbiosis with nature. A commitment to ecology goes beyond simple economic effects and the impact on the environment. It’s also vital in terms of ensuring Japan’s continuing viability as a leading member of the international community.
INTERVIEWER Ecologists overseas have shown considerable interest in the sustainable lifestyles and ecosystems that were present in Japan during the Edo period [1603–1868]. But Japan today is a long way from the model that prevailed in those days.
KOBAYASHI A concept with deep roots in Japanese culture is the idea of mottainai—a sense of regret when the intrinsic value of something is allowed to go to waste. Ultimately, this stems from an animistic view of the world that perceives a spiritual presence in all natural phenomena, including mountains and trees. Germany has made a name for itself as a leader on environmental issues by emphasizing environmental performance. But Japan can become a leader with a slightly different approach. We can position ours as a country that considers matters from a perspective separate from energy issues and performance and emphasizes harmony with nature. I think many aspects of this would attract international interest, including the reuse of old houses and old housing materials. So far, unfortunately, the traditional Japanese affinity for nature has not been communicated to people overseas very effectively.
Japan has already played a leading role in created important international rules designed to make it possible for human beings to live in harmony with nature. The Kyoto Protocol(*1) of 1997, for example, was an extremely significant commitment by the international community to the idea that human societies exist at the heart of nature. The Nagoya Protocol(*2) signed in 2010, which fixed the rules for sharing the benefits of the international use of genetic resources, was also highly significant. I think we should be more proactive about publicizing the fact that Japan has been publishing environmental white papers longer than any other country, for example.
INTERVIEWER You suggest a new national brand for Japan based on the idea of harmony with nature. In concrete terms, what kind of ideas would you like to see incorporated into urban design and planning in the regions of Tōhoku affected by the March 11 disaster?
KOBAYASHI Compared with Western countries, Japan is good at making efficient use of confined spaces, but perhaps not so good at building wide-open exterior spaces. We can no longer keep thinking in terms of twentieth-century ideas of urban design—long lines of high-rise buildings, a few bits of greenery down on the level areas, and a big road running through the middle. My personal idea for a new kind of twenty-first-century city would be something that from the outside looks like a lot of green hills linked together. The slopes would be totally given over to plants and greenery. If there are problems with space, build underground. I think that’s the kind of radical change we need if the “harmony with nature” brand is really going to take off. I really hope a town or city in Tōhoku will give something like this a try.
INTERVIEWER Your own “eco-house” is a good example of an attempt to live in harmony with nature in the big city.
KOBAYASHI I’ve always liked butterflies, and the open spaces around my house are planted with all kinds of trees and flowers to attract butterflies to the garden. You can find 30 different species of butterfly in Setagaya-ku alone. I use double-glazed windows to improve insulation in the house.And thanks to the double glazing, there’s no condensation on the windows even when it snows. So while I thoroughly recommend double glazing as a highly effective way of saving energy, it also has the added benefit of allowing you to enjoy snow viewing with a drink from the comfort of your own home! I think it’s important to create small spaces like this within your urban life from which to enjoy nature.
Kobayashi Hikaru’s Eco-house
In addition to his public role as a formulator of Japan’s environmental policy, Kobayashi is a private individual with an eco-house of his own. His home in Tokyo’s Setagaya-ku incorporates more than 30 different environmental features, from solar power to water recycling. As a result of these efforts, in 2008, nine years after renovating his house, he achieved a 50% cut in carbon dioxide emissions. He says between 20 and 30 different species of butterfly visit his garden. Kobayashi’s efforts show that it is possible to live in balance with nature even in the heart of a major modern city.
Click the thumbnails to view larger images.
(Translated from an interview in Japanese by Hayashi Aiko, science writer. Portrait photographs by Kawamoto Seiya; eco-house photography and diagrams provided by Kobayashi Hikaru.)