Engaging Civil Society & Sustainability for the Future - Now is the Time to Ask the Big Questions about Japan’s Future Path

Engaging Civil Society & Sustainability for the Future - Now is the Time to Ask the Big Questions about Japan’s Future Path

Japan is currently facing a host of challenges as it rebuilds after the devastating Great East Japan Earthquake of March 11, 2011. While any country faced with a massive reconstruction plan after such a sizable disaster would be in a difficult position, the situation for Japan is starker, as the country has been struggling to maintain its economic growth and prosperity for two decades after the end of its bubble economy. The current trajectory of Japan does not align with the realities of a globalizing economy and regional power shift toward China. A recovery philosophy based on a long-term perspective aimed at securing Japan’s voice as a regional leader is the start to reinvigorating the country. For Japan to compete in the global economy and a vision for the future to materialize, its people must first believe in the potential of their own country. Through engaging civil society, the government of Japan can tap into the passion of the Japanese people to assist with rebuilding efforts and promotion of a sustainable environment that is friendly and open to business.
The nuclear disaster triggered by the Great East Japan earthquake only fueled the need to refocus energy on the involvement of civil society organizations to monitor government action and promote environmental sustainability. Accountability of all government agencies allows the public to trust its leaders and feel confident in the direction of the country. Stronger mechanisms for oversight of nuclear safety and environmental protection could have led to a different outcome prior to the earthquake and subsequent nuclear radiation. The Japanese government has been accused of ignoring and concealing the dangers of its nuclear plants, despite evidence of vulnerability to environmental disasters years prior to the earthquake and tsunami on March 11. Stronger civil society organizations working for the environment, with opinions actively sought by the bureaucracy can allow for openness and trust with the public. Trust in the decision-making capacity of the central government can spread throughout society with return to confidence in consumer purchases and reengagement with business that contributes to a healthy and sustainable Japanese economy. When civil society is empowered to ensure accountability, disillusionment with a disconnected government leadership will likely begin to fade. In turn, Japan might see the first signs of confidence to reemerge as a powerful player both in a leadership role, utilizing its various expertises in science and technology.
Japanese people have a particular interest in environmental protection and sustainability, which will be addressed later in detail in this paper. By making environmental sustainability the first step in the roadmap to a vibrant future, the Japanese government can grant access to the people to help shape the policies that determine the quality of their surroundings. People now affected by the nuclear disaster and continuing radiation fallout have opinions and ideas of their own for breathing life back into Japan and guaranteeing greater safety against such disasters in the future. These words and ideas need a more effective mechanism to be delivered to those with decision-making authority in the central government. Distance between the people and government bureaucracy can be bridged with closer ties to NGOs and other civil society organizations. Looking at Japan’s past connection to sustainability interest in environmental protection, connections can be drawn to see the modern link to current environmentalism and the need for empowering civil society to tap into already present desires in support of environmental causes.
Coupled with interest in the environment, efforts for expanding corporate social responsibility offer a complementary force that can tie together the needs for economic revitalization with sustainable practices moving into the future.
The nuclear disaster and government response are failures
that is rooted in reinvigorating the people of Japan
Recovery philosophy
3.1 Rethinking Sustainability
Sustainable development in its simplest forms can be linked with practices such as the replanting of trees or recycling of paper and plastic products. But even more basic forms of ecological sustainability relate to efforts of conservation for the wilderness in general. Humans have a long tradition of protecting the natural habitat while at the same time counter forces have sought to destroy it for material gains. This global cycle remained largely unchanged until the 1990s, when modern environmentalism was thrust more forcefully on the world stage, demonstrating the necessary importance in rethinking our relationship with the planet and learning how to protect it for future generations. The publication of the Brundtland report, Our Common Future, in 1987, is largely credited with making this issue one of international significance.
Author Andres R. Edwards, in his book The Sustainability Revolution: Portrait of a Paradigm Shift takes heed of the Brundtlad report’s theme and details the international movement towards sustainability. He contends that world resources and economics were placed into perspective with the Worldwatch Institute annual reports, beginning from 1984, helping to frame the sustainability argument, and subsequently create an environmental consciousness that was global in nature, pulling together ecological, economic, and social issues. These three components are essential ingredients for CSR, which reflect the motivation to maintain corporate profitability, while catering to societal needs, one of which being ecological sustainability. Strong sentiment from the public is critical for the support of sweeping public policy measures, so the revelation of scientifically backed data that shows the dangers of inaction in the report allowed for a more persuasive stance. There is a necessary condition for environmental science and environmental politics to complement one another in which “good environmental policy requires sound science, and sound science requires astute political support.” With these elements converging, environmental leaders could offer a framework for action at the policy level, which in turn affects business regulation. The general public is then able to understand its own voice in the environmental movement towards a more sustainable future.
Gro Harlem Brundtland, head of the Word Commission of Environment and Development (WCED), devoted much time to tackle the challenge of global sustainability, arguing that humankind has a responsibility to ensure that environmental public policy is rooted in science both on the national and international level, and warning that “if the long-term viability of humanity is to be ensured, we have no other choice.” It is clear from the tone of Brundtland’s statement that he understands the tremendous effort needed to alter the status quo for environmental behavior. Change does not come easy, especially when the costs for action are high, and the payoff is not well defined or immediately achievable. This inflexibility has been largely true for business. The resistance of corporations to embrace environmental CSR, which will be addressed later, is common in its embrace of the status quo not only due to the cost component, but for the negative attitude of many firms towards the perceived need for altering business practices in the name of sustainability. Obtaining a clear meaning of sustainable practices makes establishing national policy or business policy that much more difficult. Environmental responsibility for corporate practices can range from waste generation and disposal, recycling, the marketing of environmentally friendly products, carbon emission monitoring and more generally pollution prevention and control.
How the relationship between responsible practices and science-backed policy are defined effectively frames the sustainability debate. Kenneth E. Wilkening asserts that environmental science and politics must be brought together, but they have the difficult challenge of “harmonizing the complexity of the natural and social worlds so as to develop sustainable societies.” Human experiences in Japan and other parts of the developed world have relied on understanding of environmental science to influence public policy and events that lead to improved health and safety. Calls for greater action on environmental issues at the international level would lead to domestic changes within Japan.

3.2 Modern Link to Environmentalism
Internalization of environmental issues played on the international stage allowed for the public to relate issues first into a local perspective that with action could achieve results. While the environmental movement in the 1990s was set off by the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, local issues have been driving common citizens, scientists and politicians to act for the benefit of their communities. When the Japanese public raised concerns over environmental pollution and acid rain in the 1970s, NGOs in their infancy were able to mobilize and exert influence on the government. Japan has seen an embrace of environmentalism over the years, but has also had obstacles towards a deeper application of environmentalism in various levels of society.
The image of Japan as an international environmental actor was poor in the decades leading up to the 1990s. For its environmental positions, which often fell outside of the international norm when compared to the United States and Europe, Japan was termed an “eco-outlaw.” For perceived transgressions against the international community, including whaling and tropical hardwood logging, titles such as “whale-killing, forest stripping bogeyman on the environmental stage” were hurled against Japan. Other issues included high volume trade in endangered species, drift-net fishing, and export pollution. Negative perceptions also hindered growth of civil society organizations and NGOs focused on the environment because they lacked a government partner that was sensitive to all environmental perspectives and the appropriate legal framework to operate openly and without restrictions. Conversely, the necessity of this government partner can be highlighted by the lack of accountability of internal government oversight of areas of environmental concern, such as with nuclear energy.
Prior to the United Nations conference, Japan in the 1980s was generally seen as an environmental pariah. However, there were bright spots on Japan’s environmental record, concerning recycling rates, industrial energy efficiency, and carbon dioxide emission, yet these elements were generally overshadowed by the negative press. It was hard at first for Japan to break away from the picture of environmental villain that had been painted by other countries. For the negative environmental aspects, criticism had little impact on the Japanese government, furthering the image of an uncooperative partner in international environmental treaties. It continued to lead the world in tropical timber exports, promoting nuclear power and fast-breeder technology, among other seemingly egregious activities viewed by the international community. These issues compounded to create formidable public relations challenge in the environmental sphere. However, according to Mason, this gave Japan a platform to counter negative opinion that had developed over its perceived ambivalence to environmental issues.
Japan was quite ready to create a self-made image of environmental benevolence, as even domestic problems pushed back on government responsibility. Authors such as Jonathan Taylor argue that the maneuver of self-promoted global environmentalism was largely rhetorical, based in the political and economic interests of Japanese government and businesses. Whether for noble or calculated reasons, pressure was on Japan to take a strong position in the global environmental movement. Because the pressure from domestic critics had been largely ineffective, according to Hamilton and Kanabayashi, foreign pressure was the key to finally deliver action. With a string of events and disasters, such as the Great Hanshin Awaji Earthquake in Kobe in January 1995, claiming the lives of 6,400 people , the explosion and subsequent radiation leak at the Tokaimura nuclear fuel reprocessing plant in Ibaraki Prefecture in March 1997, and oil spill in the Sea of Japan in January 1997, attention was kept squarely on environmental issues, both at home and abroad and thus Japan was prompted to take a leadership role during the 1997 United Nations climate convention in Kyoto to repair its image and ensure similar faults in public health and safety were not repeated.
The Japanese public was strongly behind the government in emphasizing the importance of environmental responsibility. Interest in the events of the Rio conference was seen as a watershed event for Japan’s NGO movement, representing the desire of civil society to put a stake in the debate, with increasing activity with United Nations conferences and other international symposia on environmental issues. There is a marked shift in the actors pushing for environmental responsibility, noted by Taylor, that the “torch of environmentalism appeared to have been passed to large and well-connected NGOs” and other international organizations. NGOs in Japan had successfully used the backdrop of urgency for global environmental change to establish their presence as viable contributors to the debate moving into the future.
The United States government was also not moving towards a position of environmental leadership. During much of the 1990s, the U.S. was distancing itself politically from strong commitments to environmental issues, but domestically NGOs were emboldened to act against perceived environmental injustices. NGOs and other civil society organizations concerned with environmental issues received a boost in support from the pro-environment Carter administration (1976-1980), and while the Reagan years (1981-1989) created a turn against environmentalism, it effectively mobilized opposition to policies and strengthened the positions of environmental networks in a crusade to keep sustainability an important issue in the public mind. NGOs were reenergized as a result to fight against attacks on conservation and pollution control.
By comparison to Japan, NGOs in the United States were in a relatively stronger position moving into the 1990s. The influence of NGOs in the U.S. has been building, and slowly increasing for decades. From the growing environmental consciousness clearly appearing in the 1990s, U.S. NGOs have used their ability to set agendas and have become a force for action. While their effectiveness at the international level has been questioned by authors such as P.J. Simmons, noting NGO ability to disrupt progress on agreements, they still have the capacity to serve the public good, which is important for the many stakeholders in the environmental discussion. Exchange of debate resulting from NGO interaction in the environmental policy network benefits the public by keeping attention in the news cycle, rather than fading into the background. As a direct result, the landscape of environmental news was not without some controversy fueled by NGOs.
The U.S. did not witness the environmental backlash that Japan received at the international level, but domestic companies were targeted for their environmental transgressions during the 1990s that kept American attention on the environment as well. Campaigns were waged against tropical deforestation and old growth timber. This was also a problem cited against Japan, yet NGOs have been largely idle on that issue. In order to achieve the largest impact, major retailers on the end of the supply chain were targeted, such as Home Depot. In an effort to gain attention and market share with supposed dedication to environmental responsibility, Ford jumped into the environmentally-aware business game. Promises of a “green” Ford Motor Company were challenged, however, by the Sierra Club, citing average fuel economy that has not improved in over a hundred years.
Momentum has clearly grown in both countries for environmental consciousness to be a ready and apparent part of daily life that seeps into consumerism and lifestyle habits. In Japan, so-called ECO (stemming from the world ecology, but meaning environmentally friendly) products litter department store shelves and while often highly functional with energy efficient benefits, etc., they can become popular simply for being gentle on the environment. Even reusable bags to replace plastic super market bags can become fashionable items with prices to match. In the US, electric-gas hybrid vehicles such as the Toyota Prius are becoming status symbols of a more sustainable lifestyle. There are countless products entering the market of both countries that push the boundaries of typical consumer behavior and encourage environmental consciousness to be a part of the purchase decision.
Cleary, the focus on the environment during the 1990s altered the way civil society and particularly NGOs function in the environmental network, linking together business and government interests. NGOs and NGO networks have become an active player at the international level, tackling issues such as pollution and global warming. Due to this growing influence, NGOs could begin to widen their list of targets. With the sudden growth of environmental CSR in the late 1990s, NGOs were presented with another outlet for influence and possible cooperation. Also, despite the often reluctant position of government to act on environmental concerns, many corporations were showing apparent willingness to engage in sustainable business practices by promoting their own CSR agenda. Using this window of opportunity and environmental consciousness spurred by the 1990s, NGOs and corporations moved into a new relationship.

3.3 Social Responsibility Surges
Interest in environmentally responsible activities drew from the seminal events of the decade, creating willingness to trust “green” corporate strategies and demands that everyone play a part to reduce their carbon footprint. Early in the history of the business sector, socially responsible investment (SRI) has been available to choose selective causes for investment. Investors chose firms they trusted for moral reasons, or because of their responsible behavior. There is a strong connection between SRI and CSR for this reason. Acts of social responsibility by corporations can lead to investment in support of companies “doing the right thing.” The modern roots of SRI are found in the 1960s in the United States, but its growth experienced a boom towards the end of the 1990s, witnessing a dramatic increase by 800% in only 4 years from assets of $162 billion in 1995 to $1.5 trillion in 1999. Balancing economic development with sustainability in an effort to preserve the natural world against the damage economic forces have done is a primary driver for investors to select SRI.
The environmental component has played a large factor in why SRI has had a rapid growth approaching the end of the century. Japan has also witnessed an increase in the interest of SRI, particularly after eco-funds were introduced in 1999. From the number of articles pertaining to CSR and SRI documented since 1980, there was a spike from 1999 onwards, as Japanese sought to learn more and make socially responsible investments, backed particularly by environmental concerns. The size of SRI in Japan is still small, at 0.4% of the market, compared with 9.4% of the U.S. market, but SRI continues to grow and gain more attention. It remains a viable option for environmentally conscious investors, riding on the “green” consumerism that is spreading through both the United States and Japan. Even corporate voices like that of Mizue Tsukushi, CEO of The Good Bankers Co., Ltd, believes that SRI is not simply a fashion, but a trend that “fits the Japanese culture” because it improves society. She also points to the 1998 Keidanren survey that found 90% of Japanese women would be willing to make a sacrifice and lower their standard of living in order to protect the environment. SRI represents one gauge of societal interest in observing good corporate behavior, and more specifically, environmentally responsible behavior.
The general public in both the United States and Japan have become receptive to placing environmental concerns in their daily life, choosing to invest in environmentally responsible funds and purchase environmentally friendly products. Corporations have formed a mutual relationship based on demand from consumers to produce “green” products and formulate environmentally sustainable business strategies to invite praise and monetary benefits from the growing environmental consciousness. Environmental CSR has been a direct offshoot of the interest and concern that has been generated by the environmental movement. Sustainability and CSR reports have become a common fixture with corporations, often coupled with or integrated into their annual reports. Even television commercials penetrate the airwaves, sending messages of environmental responsibility and compliance to international standards.
NGOs have stepped in to ensure that consumers are getting the truth from corporate CSR reports. Consumers have complained that they often cannot interpret the mountains of data presented about corporate sustainability practices and they can often misinterpret the data, contrary to corporate expectations. CSR can be ambiguous and misleading for consumers and investors alike. While corporations are quick to taut their environmental CSR, pushing their “green” image, the exact meaning of their actions is often lost along the wayside of jargon and questionable monitoring frameworks. By working together with international standardization organizations such as the ISO or GRI, NGOs have assisted to construct a system of monitoring accurate CSR compliance and act as watchdogs to ensure that reports about environmental sustainability and CSR are as truthful as possible.
The environmental CSR set forth by corporations created a mutual relationship with the environmental NGOs. Overall, this relationship has been most beneficial for the general public, with increased understanding of CSR and CSR reporting. However, the relationship between corporations and NGOs has also been contentious over time, with the Rainforest Action Network (RAN) launching a boycott against Mitsubishi Motor Company in the U.S. in 1990 for use of tropical lumber from endangered areas, among others. At the same time, consumers and investors alike are far from being in a position to perfectly understand the reporting provided by corporations regarding their sustainability and CSR programs. While NGOs have done much to strengthen the international standards in place to unify CSR, there is significant variation in the types of reporting used. Corporations often make use of their own reporting systems, rather than opting for the cumbersome and expensive options that also require significant time and resources to complete and update like the ISO and GRI.
CSR has consequently created an indirect need for NGOs to legitimize their claims, and at the same time NGOs rely on corporations to be a part of their cause to strengthen environmental responsibility. Certainly not all NGOs have been willing to work closely with corporations to reconcile their business mission with environmental objectives, maintaining their strict neutral stance that allows them to give unfettered criticism, but many choose to see corporations as partners. This approach by NGOs is often rooted in the assertion that responsible behavior by corporations is good for business. In a comprehensive examination of CSR literature and academic studies connecting social responsibility and profitability, Steven Vogel has shown that the results are generally inconclusive, factoring in the lack of consensus as to how to accurately measure environmental responsibility. Given the absence of a well proven correlation between ethical behavior and CSR profitability, it is striking that corporations continue to develop new CSR strategies. But the reasons appear to go beyond profits, with corporations choosing to act responsibly out of either strategy or principle. And as attention to the environmental movement has picked up during the 1990s, the pressure to comply with “green” standards and the potential to work together with new community partners and NGOs offers corporations timely new strategic options.
Ultimately, in order to be successful with CSR, companies must first be successful in business. “CSR is only as sustainable as the companies that practice it,” explains an article from the Financial Times describing that in order to facilitate the potential to enact CSR, corporations must generally be successful. This makes it difficult for smaller firms, where compliance may be cost prohibitive, but not impossible. In these cases, NGOs may be of greater assistance, putting their resources to work for corporations to promote social good through consultation and partnerships.
The cooperation between corporations and NGOs for environmental CSR programs has clearly been prompted by an overall expansion of interest in the environmental movement. Intersecting needs from the public, corporations, and NGOs have served to facilitate a mutual relationship that can be beneficial to all actors. Conversely, NGO pressure can also be seen as harmful when compliance is resisted. As interest in the environment and fears of global warming continues to grow, CSR will remain an active part of the corporate landscape. In turn, NGOs will maintain their capacity to influence CSR, cementing the intersecting relationship with business ethics and sustainability.