Coastal Resilience in Japan’s Forgotten Communities
Japan relies heavily on the fisheries industry not just for its economy but for its sense of identity and pride. Chihiro Aita interviewed Leslie Mabon from Open University on the state of Japan’s fisheries following the Fukushima nuclear disaster and the country’s efforts to achieve “just transitions” in its often overlooked communities. This interview is also available in Japanese here.
The Fukushima nuclear disaster exposed the vulnerability of the nation’s fisheries, as many neighboring countries banned food imports from Japan out of fear for radioactive contamination. What are the lessons from this tragedy, and how have you seen Japan’s fisheries adapt to such unprecedented environmental and socioeconomic challenges?
While the specifics of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear accident may be unique, the underpinning characteristics of the disaster are not. Around the world, events such as oil spills and industrial pollution have long shown us what happens when coastal communities are subjected to sudden, major, and potentially irreversible environmental change. Under a changing climate and an energy crisis that is forcing us to make increasingly difficult decisions, we will see more and more situations where the environment within which coastal communities live and work is changed at a pace and scale that exceeds their ability to adapt. As such, there is much we can learn from what is happening on the Fukushima coast that stretches far beyond risks associated with nuclear power.
One of the vital points we can learn from the Fukushima Daiichi disaster is the importance of meaningfully involving communities, as well as key stakeholders such as fishers, at the earliest possible stage in decisions that affect their livelihoods. What we see now in Fukushima with the controversy over the release of treated water is that fishing is not only an economic activity. It is also a socially and culturally meaningful practice that acts as a source of pride and identity for the whole community. As such, we cannot simply offset any disruption to fishing by paying out compensation and “educating” consumers. Understanding this earlier on in the decision-making processes around how to manage the marine environment in Fukushima might have helped avoid the highly polarized situation we see now.
What is happening now is that the Japanese government has approved plans to release the treated water, with international organizations such as the International Atomic Energy Agency overseeing the minute technical details of the release. Fishers, however, continue to vocally oppose the very idea of releasing the treated water. There is very little room for compromise or maneuver between these two positions, as it seems as if the decision has already been made to release the water into the sea, with no space to discuss other options.
A second lesson concerns the engagement of local researchers and practitioners in international research and exchange. Although there is a very rich body of research in Japanese into the social and cultural impacts of the Fukushima Daiichi accident on fisheries, we very rarely hear the voices of communities, stakeholders, and locally based researchers in international English-language discourse on Fukushima’s seas. Journalists such as Justin McCurry of the Guardian are doing excellent work to bring the views of Fukushima’s fishers to a global audience as the treated water situation continues. Greenpeace similarly produced a report in English about the marine environment in Fukushima Prefecture on the theme of Fukushima fishers’ unheard voices. There are also research projects that engage with fisheries and coastal stakeholders in Fukushima, such as Tokyo University of Marine Science and Technology’s long-running series of workshops. However, international institutions that seek to influence policy and practice relating to the management of treated water through scientific evidence could be more proactive in reaching out to fishers or to Japan-based researchers with deep on-the-ground knowledge of Fukushima fisheries.
Based on your past fieldwork in Japan, what are the critical policy components for designing sustainable coastal communities that are resilient toward future impacts of climate change and other man-made or environmental disasters?
When it comes to building resilience and adapting to climate change and other extreme events, local government is vitally important. I define resilience as the capability of a community or society to maintain its core functions and adapt in the face of shocks and stresses. It is at the level of local government where much of the land-use planning, environmental management, and societal dialogue required to build resilience are actually put into practice. Especially for Japan’s smaller municipal governments, it is crucial that there are both the financial and human resources to ensure that municipalities can understand what climate change means for them and plan accordingly. Staff in local government departments such as environmental management, urban planning, and social welfare must possess the skills to know what climate adaptation is, and what the actions are that are needed to manage the local impacts.
Against a backdrop of an aging and declining population and diminishing tax returns, it can be challenging for some local governments to recruit people who have such knowledge and skills. However, climate change impacts such as extreme heat, flooding, and ocean acidification will hit already vulnerable people and places first, and will heighten pressure on activities such as coastal fishing that are already marginal due to the small size of boats, declining fish stocks from overfishing, and rising average age of fishers. Therefore, whether it is through organizing structured training for existing employees or seconding staff from elsewhere, enhancing capability in managing climate impacts will also help local authorities best respond to the multiple pressures they are facing.
In many ways, it is difficult to draw a clear distinction between disasters that are related to climate change, and those that are not. While hazards such as earthquakes and volcanic eruptions are of course unrelated to climate change, many other hazards, such as landslides, typhoons, and heatwaves, though always existing in some form, are now becoming stronger or more frequent due to human-induced climate change. On the one hand, all these hazards require a common response: namely, to recognize that those who are least empowered and least well-off will be affected the most, and that decisions about what and who are protected, and what gets rebuilt and where, are always social and political decisions. On the other hand, climate change is also taking us into uncharted territory, where the pace, scale, and extent of change can exceed anything we as a society have experienced before and overwhelm the infrastructure, processes, and knowledge we have for coping with extreme events.
This is why in the Japanese context it is vital that researchers and governments at all levels do not become complacent about their existing disaster prevention measures. Very often, I hear that Japan will be able to adapt well to climate change because the country has a long history of dealing with natural hazards. However, while it is true that historical experience with hazards can produce policies and infrastructure that can help reduce climate risks, events such as the landslides in Atami in Shizuoka Prefecture in 2021 and the deadly flooding in Hiroshima Prefecture and Kyushu in the same year show that climate-related extreme events may overwhelm Japan’s infrastructure and disaster planning. Hence, at the national, prefectural, and local levels, there is a need to upgrade physical infrastructure such as roads and railways to make them climate-resilient, as well as to review and update existing risk communication and disaster management plans to ensure that they are still relevant for extreme events such as heatwaves and coastal flooding.
The term “just transitions,” which garnered attention during the 26th Conference of the Parties (COP26), is still a developing concept that is starting to gain traction globally. How do you see conversations taking place within Japan, and what are the obstacles to achieving just transitions in different localities throughout the nation?
Japan is perhaps a bit different to some of the other countries in which ideas about just transitions have developed—for example, Canada, Australia, and Scotland—in that Japan does not have a large sector of people working directly in fossil fuel extraction. Nonetheless, NGOs, academics, and political parties in Japan have engaged with the question of what happens to people working in facilities such as thermal power plants, petrochemical refineries, steelworks, and indeed nuclear power plants, whose jobs may not be compatible with a sustainable net-zero society. There is also historical experience within Japan of coal-mining cities, such as Yubari in Hokkaido and Omuta in Kyushu, that have struggled financially after Japan’s energy system moved away from coal in the 1970s and domestic coal mines closed.
A critical challenge for a just transition within Japan at the moment is, therefore, matching up the regions and municipalities that currently have a disproportionately large workforce in sectors such as thermal power generation, steel, and petrochemicals with the regions where net-zero opportunities such as offshore wind and mega solar projects, construction of carrier ships for hydrogen and carbon dioxide, and installation or retrofit of domestic solar photovoltaics (PV) are located. A key component of this must be ensuring that workers’ skills match up to the skill requirements for net-zero infrastructure, and that support for retraining is provided where required.
Moreover, it is also important that the places that need to shoulder the burden of net-zero infrastructure are able to see tangible benefits locally in terms of quality jobs and long-term economic returns. It is especially exciting to see a place such as Muroran in Hokkaido unveil an ambitious plan to use its existing high-emitting steelworks and deepwater port to make the city into a hub for offshore wind turbine manufacturing and installation. Finding ways to use existing skills, infrastructure, and local identity as a force for good in helping meet climate change and sustainability goals has to be a core component of a just transition in Japan.
What do you hope to see at COP27? What agreements or policies would indicate progress to better prepare communities for the economic and social impacts of climate change and other disasters?
From a Japanese point of view, the absolutely critical action we need to see at COP27 is a much stronger commitment to completely phasing out coal from the energy mix. This means a clear timeline for phasing out coal power domestically and also a commitment not to fund any new coal plants overseas, especially in Southeast and South Asia. The Japanese government talked a lot at COP26 about how it was making financing available to support climate change adaptation in less economically developed countries; however, this needs to be matched with a stronger commitment to mitigating climate change in the first place, as well as to compensating the less well-off nations for loss and damage associated with climate change.
At the same time, though, it is important that we do not expect too much of the COP process. The conference and the broader UN Framework Convention on Climate Change process are very important in setting a benchmark for climate change action and enabling structured negotiation between nations. But in practice COP27 will be just one of many forums for shaping climate change action globally. Actions at the subnational level—for example, pacts and agreements between cities and regions around the world—may not be legally binding, but they can be very effective platforms for enabling communities and the people who govern them to commit to high climate ambitions and to exchange their knowledge and experience with each other.
Kyoto City, for example, in 2021 signed up to the Powering Past Coal Alliance, committing the city to phasing fossil fuels out of its energy mix and transitioning to renewable energy. In doing so, Kyoto became the first local government in Japan to join the alliance and signaled a stronger commitment to phasing out coal than the national government. This is a good example of how vision and leadership at the local level can lead to more ambitious climate action in the face of weak commitments at national level.
Elsewhere in Japan, local government and civil society organizations in Yubari City in Hokkaido have played an important role in rebuilding community resilience, following the closure of the city’s coal mines in the early 1990s and subsequent bankruptcy in the mid-2000s. Yubari is often seen as a famous case of industrial decline in Japan, thanks to the significant population decrease and legacy of decaying coal-mining infrastructure that followed the end of the mining industry.
What gets less attention is the work that has happened since. The local government has ambitious plans to “shrink” the city by building new housing in a smaller, compact core to increase livability and attract new residents. Civil society organizations in Yubari like the Shimizusawa Project, meanwhile, have initiated activities to build community connectivity and enhance resilience, such as walking tours, a lunch club for children, and conservation of the coal mining cultural heritage. The city is thus an interesting example of how a just transition to a more resilient urban form is possible within areas in Japan that have relied on carbon-intensive activity to sustain jobs and the local economy.
Are there any other ideas or issues you would like to discuss?
I’m the principal investigator for a British Academy–funded project into just transitions for a net-zero sustainable society in Japan, along with researchers from Kyoto University and Kyushu University in Japan. The project is wide-ranging. We have reviewed existing policy and research into just transitions in Japan, analyzed regional labor force statistics and carbon-intensive infrastructure, surveyed the Japanese public on their attitudes toward the energy transition and hydrogen in the energy system, and taken a deep dive into a few locations across Japan to see what a just transition means at the local level. The recently released project reports can be viewed online.
Leslie Mabon is a Lecturer in Environmental Systems at the Open University in the United Kingdom. He is an environmental social scientist, who is interested in just transitions to resilient and sustainable societies for coastal regions. Dr. Mabon has extensive research experience in Japan and Taiwan, as well as his native Scotland, and was recently principal investigator on a British Academy–funded project into just transitions in Japan. You can read his research blog at resilientcoastal.zone or follow him on Twitter @ljmabon.
This interview was conducted and translated into Japanese by Chihiro Aita, a project associate with the Energy and Environmental Affairs team at NBR.