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A New Brand for Japan
Using Tradition to Make Japan a World Leader in Ecology

During his time as administrative vice-minister for the environment, Kobayashi Hikaru was instrumental in putting together the Kyoto Protocol and other important environmental white papers. Kobayashi shares his ideas on Japan’s post–March 11 future and introduces us to his own specially designed “eco-house.”

Kobayashi Hikaru

Kobayashi HikaruBorn in 1949 in Tokyo. Joined the Environmental Agency (now the Ministry of the Environment) in 1973. Was responsible for hosting COP3, the Third Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, in Kyoto and international negotiations over the Kyoto Protocol on climate change. In July 2009 he became administrative vice-minister for the environment. He retired from the ministry in January 2011. Currently a professor at Keiō University. He has written extensively on eco-housing and sustainable living.

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.


  • [2011.12.26]
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