Integrating the Roles of Women into Japan's Climate Change Strategies

March 2, 2017

CREDIT: Héctor de Pereda (CC)

There are at least two landmark initiatives advocated by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe within the last decade: the Cool Earth 50 and Womenomics. The Cool Earth 50 is an initiative on global warming proposed in May 2007 during the Heiligendamm Summit, calling for international cooperation in reducing global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by half by the year 2050. During the summit, apart from agreeing on the reduction of global emissions by 2050, G8 leaders made a commitment to treat technology as a "key to mastering climate change and enhancing energy security" (Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry 2008; Abe 2007). In line with Abe's proposition to reduce GHG emissions, Japan initially set a target of a 25 percent reduction of 1990 emission levels by 2020, as pledged during the 15th Conference of the Parties to the United Nation Framework Convention of Climate Change (UNFCC), known as the Copenhagen Pledge (Kuramochi 2014). However, this pledge was soon revised in the aftermath of the Fukushima disaster, as the projection of significant reduction of GHG emissions relied heavily on nuclear power, the use of which was immediately suspended pending compliance with revised safety standards.

The Warsaw Target proposed a 3.8 percent reduction in 2005 GHG emissions by 2020, to replace the target set in the Copenhagen Pledge. As leader of the world's leading country in technology innovation, Abe (2007) emphasized the importance of country-contextualised frameworks ensuring the compatibility of environmental protection and economic growth by employing innovative technology and energy conservation that was relevant to each individual respective country.

Viewed within the Japan context, based on scenario projections by the Government of Japan a number of impacts of climate change have been anticipated, including the increasing risk of drought, flooding, decreasing quality of water, and higher potential for mosquito-related communicable diseases as well as various effects on the stability of the rice and food supply, such as higher risk of agricultural pests and declining quality of rice yields (Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology, Japan Meteorological Agency, Ministry of Environment, 2013; Lim & Barrett, 2009).

Later in 2013, Prime Minister Abe, in response to the stagnancy of the Japanese economy, announced a second initiative known as 'Womenomics,' a set of policies to increase women's participation in the labor force, in order to encourage women's economic advancement (Stewart 2015; Abe 2013). UN Women Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka (2014) praised Abe's pledge as an effort to "create a society where women shine."

While the Womenomics policies themselves sparked debate and brought much criticism, the two underlying issues behind both initiatives promoted by Abe—climate change and gender equality—can be elucidated to be mutually relevant. Despite Abe's Womenomics initiative to improve women's economic advancement, which has drawn broad praise as a progressive move in reducing gender inequality, it is unfortunately apparent that the policies on the reduction of GHG emissions remain gender-blind. The studies and responses to climate change in Japan are overly focused on economic aspects and centred largely on scientific and technical areas, with technology-oriented data. Meanwhile, attention towards human and gender dimensions, as well as socio-political aspects of climate change remain less attended.

Gender dimensions of poverty and climate change adaptation is often closely correlated. It is viewed that climate-related risks potentially exacerbate the existing poverty and entrenched inequality (Skinner 2011). It is reported that the poverty rate of women in Japan is higher than that of men in all age groups (Akaishi, 2009). According to the report of an explorative survey in private enterprises by the National Tax Agency in 2006, women earned 50 percent less than men per annum (Akaishi 2009, pp. 3-4). Based on 2008 findings, women mostly comprise a casual workforce as part-timers, dispatch workers, contract workers or non-regular civil workers. Meanwhile, female non-regular workers earned only 70 percent of that earned by female regular workers, and 49 percent of what regular male workers earned.

Women's poverty itself varies broadly in its nature. At least four distinct groups of women in Japan tend to be severely impoverished. The number of single mothers, as the first group, has increased from 0.79 million in 1993 to 1.23 million in 2003; and based on 2008 data, 80 percent of single mothers were divorcees, aged 39 years old on average. Single mothers occupying non-regular jobs have increased within the last decade, leading to a likelihood for diminished income (Akaishi, 2009, p. 5). Furthermore, young women in their 20s and 30s are also mostly working in non-regular jobs.

As projected, climate change potentially leads to higher risk of disasters. Despite not being climate change-related, learning from the Kobe Earthquake, we can see that women tend to be less resilient to disasters due to their low-income status and low quality of housing, as well as limited access to information (Saito 2014, p. 100). For ageing single women, disasters can be more devastating due to the poorer structural nature of their housing, as a result of their low-earnings. Many of them live alone, as they receive a small pension or none at all, due to the instability of their occupation during their working years, or their inability to afford pension premiums if they worked in low-paid jobs after their divorce.

Another challenge Japan faces in relation to climate change is food security. Japan faced a major downturn in its agricultural sector from 1961 to 2005. The contribution of agricultural production towards Gross Development Product declined sharply from 9.0 to 1 percent; farming communities decreased in number from 11.96 million to 2.52 million along with the total population employed in agriculture from 26.6 to 4 percent; and the number of farming families from 6.06 million to 2.85 million (Kazuhito 2008). With Japan's high dependence on imports to support their food supply with domestic production only able to contribute 40 percent of what's needed (Lim & Barret 2009), this situation is alarming for Japan's future.

Facing the high risk of climate change ahead, Japan clearly needs revitalization of its agricultural sector, where gender becomes a core issue. In Japan, women's participation in agriculture has always been greater than men's and despite declining numbers in recent years, female farmers continue to outnumber male farmers. In 2014 the total number of female farmers was 1.14 million, while male farmers accounted for 1.12 million. Yet in spite of the high participation rate of women in farming, men still continue to dominate leadership positions in the sector (Iijima 2015).

The movement for women's empowerment in rural areas in Japan began to show signs only in the mid-1990s, with the issue of the notice from the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (MAFF) on the Ágreement among Family Members on Family Farms, which aimed to assess the value of labor that family members—wives, daughters, and sons—contribute towards agricultural production, in order to map out the roles and responsibilities of each family member. Further, with the enactment of the Basic Act for Gender Equality in Society and the Basic Law on Food, Agriculture and Rural Areas in 1999, Japan promoted gender equality in the agricultural sector in rural communities by stipulating further involvement of women in agriculture. Introduction to mechanization, computerization, and the internet is among the factors encouraging women to be more engaged in businesses surrounding agricultural production. Comparing the surveys by MAFF in 1997 and 2010, there has been a significant upsurge in the number of farm business enterprises run by female farmers, from 4,040 to 9,719 (Iijima 2015).

Women contribute substantially to the agricultural sector, yet their access to resources and participation in decision-making remain limited. In Japan, traditionally the eldest sons will inherit the farmland from their fathers, while women are positioned as simply the wives of male farmers. In the local Agricultural Committees (a local decision-making body) women comprised only 7.2 percent of total membership in 2014, and in 2012, only 5.3 percent of board members in the Japan Agricultural Cooperatives were women (Iijima 2015).

Meanwhile, at the grassroots level, various social movements and efforts to promote environmental and agricultural sustainability seem to have evolved both in rural and urban communities. Women bring significant influence to these social movements. The Girls' Farms project in Yamagata Prefecture has become a good example of farming revitalization where young women play significant roles (Kakuchi, 2013). The young female farmers in their 20s and 30s cultivate their lands with watermelon, spinach, and several types of rice, and develop their business networks to establish markets for their farms' produce. In an era where agriculture tends to be a less desirable occupation for the younger generation, this movement has brought a breath of fresh air to Japan's farming future, and given a good picture of women's capability in managing their lands as well as women's significance in Japan's agricultural revival (Kakuchi 2013; Nita, 2014).

Furthermore, local knowledge is a crucial aspect that must be paid attention to. In 2014, the Kitakyushu Institute on Sustainability conducted an interview with Taketo Nagai, the director of Shirakami Nature School of Hitotsumori. The school is located in The Shirakami Mountains, home of 16,971 hectares of natural virgin forests of Japanese beech. According to Nagai, local women in the Shirakami Mountains have become trailblazers in protecting the forest ecosystem as well as being the primary nurturers of 'ethnophilosophy'—borrowing Zeverin Emagalit's term, referring to communal experiences translated into culture, folklore, values and language—regarding human attachment to the forest and environment. Nagai also discussed the local people's struggle in the Shirakami Mountains in the 1970s. They protested against the Seishu-Line Road Construction Plan to connect Akita and Aomori prefectures by passing through the mountains, which would have destroyed the virgin beech forest. Though, at first their voices went unheard, they persisted in their protest and in 1985 the planned location of the road was changed to wind through the Akaishi River basin instead. But the basin was not suitable either as there were frequent flash floods there,the worst of which occurred in 1945, destroying the whole village. During the longstanding protest, the local women worked together collecting signatures to submit a petition and in the end the plan was cancelled (Kitakyushu Institute on Sustainability 2014). The social movement in the communities around the Shirakami Mountains is just a sign that Japanese women have had a strong connection with the natural environment for decades and historically play a significant role in protecting the environment as part of their cultural values.The women guarding the local knowledge are now elderly; and the knowledge is endangered and diminishing, having not been sufficiently passed down to younger generations, as young people tend to be more attracted to working in cities (Kitakyushu Institute on Sustainability 2014).

In 2005, Sabrina Regmi conducted research examining the roles of women in mitigating climate change at the household level in the context of industrialized society (Regmi, 2007). About 50 women in Tokyo and Kanagawa were interviewed. Based on this research,the Japanese expression mottainai (it is very wasteful when things are not fully utilized) is often connected to the 3R initiative: reduce, reuse, and recycle. The women were working women who were also responsible for domestic chores as wives and mothers. Women's roles are crucial, including their role in decision-making on the consumption and management of household needs, as well as the investment of household resources. About 70 percent of the women respondents showed a sound understanding of global warming and climate change issues. Based on this understanding and awareness, 84 percent of the surveyed women admitted that they habitually turn off electrical appliances and lights when they are not in use, both at home and at work; 46 percent utilized energy-efficient lights; and over one third preferred using blankets and sweaters to minimize the use of heating systems that rely on nuclear energy and fossil fuels. Thirty two percent of these women also practiced significant roles in waste reduction by buying prepackaged fruit and 48 percent reuse plastic bags for storing leftovers. Apart from highlighting women's important roles in mitigating climate change (Regmi (2007 p.44), this research also underlined the critical position of women as role models for their children to reinforce positive environmental conservation values and habits. The bottom line is that environmental protection in Japan depends largely on women, both at work and within families.

Drawing on the preceding discussion, a number of crucial points need to be addressed in tackling global warming in Japan. One point is to position women and gender at the center of climate-related discourse and policy-making. Considering the different roles associated with men and women in Japanese society, climate change will affect males and females differently, as will climate change adaptation measures. Actively involving women in the decision-making process is critical. Without involvement in decision-making, women are prevented from contributing their specific knowledge, expertise, and experience. Women demonstrate high engagement in energy-efficient household-related activities, forest protection, and sustainable agriculture. Having this substantial attachment to natural environment, women are likely to secure considerable experiential knowledge which further benefits efforts to reduce GHG emissions.

With a proven history of striving for environmental protection in Japanese society where women make a significant contribution, further exploration on people's ethnophilosophy should be pursued. People's gendered ethnophilosophy should be treated as one primary source of knowledge production informing policy-making, incorporated with the high 'scientific' analysis currently dominating the discourse on climate change in Japan.


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