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Opinion

Climate change threatens sakura, sushi and sake

Cherry blossom's early arrival should alert Japan to need for green measures

| Japan
Kyoto is witnessing sakura at dates not often seen in 1,200 years of record keeping.   © Reuters

While Japan is known for preserving ancient customs, climate change poses a threat to some of its cultural legacies. The clearest sign of change due to warming temperatures, despite the recent snow flurries in Tokyo, is in cherry blossom viewing, or hanami, a tradition stretching back centuries.

March 14 marked the earliest ever start of the flowers opening in Tokyo, twelve days before average. Kyoto is witnessing sakura at dates not often seen in 1,200 years of record keeping. This timing may do more than spoil tourists' travel plans; it can also have an economic impact on local communities holding cherry blossom festivals.

There are further examples of climate change's effects on Japanese culture. Warming oceans are disrupting marine ecosystems, affecting sushi. Production of nori, the seaweed used in sushi, has dropped by more than a third since 2001. Pacific bluefin tuna stocks, already almost wiped out by overfishing, are now seeking cooler temperatures closer to the poles.

Future generations may see a snow-capped Mount Fuji only in photographs or a Hokusai print. In 2019, the mountain's first snow was three weeks later than average, and even this snowline will recede farther as Fuji-San's permafrost is now several hundred meters higher up the mountain compared to the 1970s.

Beyond this, warmer temperatures dull the color of Japanese maple leaves and affect the growth of special rice used to make sake.

What differentiates climate change-influenced cultural impacts from many other kinds of change, beyond lack of choice and comparatively slow arrival, is their relative permanence. Even if all global carbon dioxide production were stopped tomorrow, temperatures would continue to rise due to accumulated emissions.

Therefore the modifications caused by warming, even when subtler, will become a new normal, here for generations and centuries to come.

Despite these circumstances the Japanese public, on the whole, still appears largely unaware of or indifferent to their own role in averting climate change.

A December 2019 Ipsos survey asked respondents in 28 countries about lifestyle adjustments due to climate change concerns. Japan was a clear outlier, with only 31% saying they had taken action. In every other country, from China to Saudi Arabia, more than half responded affirmatively.

Furthermore, when global climate strikes took place last year, 270,000 showed up in Berlin, 250,000 in New York City, 100,000 in London and only 2,800 in Tokyo.

This is happening as scientists' warnings about climate change become ever more dire and after national governments attending the COP25 climate change conference failed to make the commitments necessary to truly reduce their national carbon footprints.

So what can Japan and other highly developed countries do? One place to start is by further catching the media's and public's attention. They naturally focus on major climate change-related events, such as the 2019 heat wave which caused 57 deaths and 18,000 hospitalizations; last October's record-breaking typhoon; and how temperature predictions for the Olympics had led organizers to shift the marathon to Sapporo, 830 kilometers northward.

Information about cultural loss, which may further inspire action, remains more limited, but examples include a Central Environment Council assessment about climate change impacts, which refers to culture and history, and a 2008 World Wildlife Fund report titled "Nippon Changes: Climate Impacts Threatening Japan Today and Tomorrow."

At the level of government and businesses, action must be more profound than anything yet proposed. This includes a dramatic ramping up of renewable energy sources, since Japan still relies on fossil fuels for 87% of its energy needs and its government continues to export coal-power generation technology to neighboring Asian countries.

There must also be a further shift to a circular-economy approach which produces little to no carbon-intensive waste.

For individuals wishing to take action, steps like taxing plastic bags or further recycling of bottles are less impactful than the public imagines and will not alone avert climate change. Research indicates that a move away from meat-based diets and a reduction of air travel serve as two major steps.

A foundation for making these systemic and personal adjustments will be an increase in social consciousness and widespread activism on climate change.

Although Japan's cultural symbols will not disappear altogether, their gradual change may represent a subtler loss to society.

Dr. David D. Sussman is a lecturer at Tokai University, where he teaches a course focused on sustainability and climate change, and a Visiting Scholar at the Global Development and Environment Institute at Tufts University.

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