Slowind Down Japan

Slowing Down Japan

From the Tokyo Jungle to tiny villages tucked away in the mountains, something is stirring in Japan. This summer 7 million people joined in the ‘Candlenight’ campaign to turn off their electricity for 2 hours – a campaign that began only 3 years ago. Spontaneous groups are starting up all over the country inspired by a Quichua folk tale about a hummingbird trying to put out a forest fire with single drops of water. The Hachidori Book, by Keibo Oiwa, which includes the personal actions of many Japanese and international activists, is a best seller. Slow Life and ‘LOHAS’ (Lifestyles of Health and Sustainability) concepts have become the current market trends.

These ideas and campaigns were all introduced or promoted in Japan by Keibo Oiwa, best selling author and co-founder of the Sloth Club. They may help answer the need to find a place between denial and despair when facing the ecological catastrophe we have created.

The Sloth Club began as a simple emotive response to the plight of a rainforest species (albeit a warm and fuzzy creature) and has evolved into a broad-based, integrated movement that links the themes of peace, environment, health and lifestyle. The main mission of this group is to encourage people to be ‘Sloth’ - to slow down, live simply and enjoy life without destroying the planet – to change our culture. It promotes and markets fair trade, organic products to raise funds for the protection of Sloth habitat and support for local communities helping to protect the forest. It has supported a wide range of initiatives from LETS trading systems, bioregionalism, permaculture and seedsavers networks, new ecological companies, local communities, Slow tourism, the Slow Business School and Company and Café Slow – a nerve centre in Tokyo for this fresh and positive movement.

I have been coming to Japan once or twice a year for the past 18 years. In 1999 I co-founded the Sloth Club with Keibo Oiwa and Ryuchi Nakamura. As an activist I have travelled the length and breadth of this country, campaigning on forest, indigenous peoples and nuclear issues. It has been immensely fulfilling to witness the growth of the Sloth Club and the Slow movement in Japan – despite the scale of the challenge ahead.

In November, The Sloth Club, with support from the Japan Foundation, invited me to Japan again to join the GNH (Gross National Happiness) tour joining representatives from Bhutan and Canada. GNH was first promoted by the King of Bhutan to challenge the idea of measuring a countries wealth purely by its economic output – or GNP (Gross National Product). It may be that Japan (and the world) is ready to understand and support the idea of GNH as a response to the ecological catastrophe we have created through our relentless pursuit of GNP.

For the past 2 months I have been lecturing, performing and networking throughout Japan in a wide range of venues on the theme of GNH and positive action. My two young children, Pacha and Yani, have travelled with me, sharing the stage from time to time, helping carry baggage, charming and shocking local hosts – and constantly reminding us of the future generations that we must take action on behalf of.

For the past week, over New Year, we have been able to slow down ourselves, sharing the home of Yumiko Otani and her family in the snow-laden mountains of Yamagata. Yumiko has led the campaign to reintroduce traditional grains to Japan, the ‘tsubu tsubu’ millet movement. Eating these grains is not only extremely healthy, but promotes a more gentle lifestyle for the Earth. Yumiko has developed recipes (available in the 20 books she has produced to date) that completely replace the need for any animal products in the diet and supports many environmental campaigns – especially those focussed on protecting seed diversity. Twenty eight people shared her house over New Year, crowding into the kitchen to help create incredible vegan feasts. Her husband, Kazuo, guides the group in the eco-design of the house (the warmest house I have been since coming to Japan), complete with biogas digester to produce gas for cooking from our own biological wastes.

The past week has been a sharp contrast to the sometimes hectic schedule in the Tokyo and Yokohama area as well as the west and south of Japan.

Our first events in early November were in Yokohama and Tokyo at Meiji University and the Lifestyle forum in Shinjuku with Jigme and Pema from Burma and Michael Nicoll of the Haida nation. Burma represents a last, fragile vestige of a simple, sustainable lifestyle, balanced with a light-hearted, fun-loving yet humble approach to life. It seems a lifetime away from the over-stressed, exhausted people I squeeze in with on the Tokyo trains…

Highlights of the tour include reconnecting with people and places I hadn’t met for many years before, like Fukunaga-san in Nagano, whose sons were teenagers when we first met in 1990 when they were campaigning to save the rainforests of Costa Rica. Now Echiro and Jiro are edging 30 and have started the only company in Japan that produces snowboards from domestic timber. Their attitude to life is free and fun-loving, yet responsible in acknowledging their human impact and doing what they can to respond.

In Nagoya, the local Hummingbird group networked with at least 10 other groups to organise an event with the Nagoya expo choir. We sang the newly released song about the Hummingbird story ‘Kurikindi’ that I wrote last year. It seems to be the theme song of the Hummingbird movement in Japan.

Returning to Tokyo, I was invited to perform and speak at the Greens Party Symposium, joining the rising Japanese Green political stars with the mammoth task ahead to raise a groundswell to win seats in the upcoming local and federal elections. Their main interest was in helping motivate people to run as Green candidates and to inspire members with success stories from Australia. In Japan not many people know of my Green political action and are surprised to hear that I have run for the Greens 5 times so far and intend to keep running whenever the opportunity arises. They were very interested in my motivation for running not with an expectation of necessarily winning the seat but to provide a choice and campaign on issues that other politicians may not otherwise address. At the symposium I met Ryuhei Kawada, a haemophiliac suffering from AIDs due to a botched blood transfusion (for which he has received little or no compensation), who will be the lead Green senate candidate for the federal election. His nomination is being supported by my friends Keibo Oiwa and Jun Hoshikawa (head of Greenpeace Japan) along with other key Japanese campaigners.

In Uozu, Oguni and Aso mountain our events were deep within the local community, with children and grandparents joining the audience. In Kanazawa a funky, hippy, culture edge concert in a trailer community called “Nature-lab”. In Kumamoto talks with the environment network and the fair trade movement, celebrating the first anniversary of the Hachidori (Hummingbird) Cafe attended by the Mayor. In Fukuoka I joined an event marking the anniversaries of the Minamata and Chernobyl disasters. In Aka-mura I travelled and stayed with members of the ‘Slow Business School’, started by Ryuchi Nakamura, who are trying to revive the local community by finding niche products and markets with the ethics of fair trade, organic, local, sustainable and with a spirit of voluntary simplicity.

In Yakushima, a world heritage island in the south of Japan that is home to the world’s oldest cedar trees, I facilitated a deep ecology workshop with Tamio Nakano and Lima Kimura. We came to the end of the two-day workshop committed not only to reduce, reuse, recycle, but to reconnect, remember and rejoice our capacity and potential to respond to the ecological crisis. Tessei Shiba, a local councillor, Sloth Club member and leader of the successful campaign to protect these ancient forests from logging, shared his story and vision for the future of Yakushima to encourage local ‘control’ of the tourism industry that now threatens the ancient forests and to promote a resurgence of the ‘jomon’ (ancient) culture that held these forests in such deep reverence.

Back in Tokyo, thanks to our ‘world expo’ connections (I was one of 3 Australian ‘Earth Lovers’ invited to perform at the world expo in Nagoya in 2005) we were able to make an appearance at the huge ‘eco-products’ exhibition in the massive Tokyo Exhibition centre. What a strange feeling – standing in this huge, incredibly noisy and bustling building, opposite the Toyota stall singing and talking about feeling connected with the Earth…I mean, even Coca-Cola had a stall there (with calico bags being given away) – which means we must really have hit the main stream –and a major gasoline seller in Japan… oh so confusing! The NGO section was typically small but very heartening, with universities and high schools tacking up their low-tech posters on the walls of the cubicles beside groups like Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace. The Sloth Club also had a stall. Interestingly some people came to the next event in the centre of Tokyo after the speil we had there. Some people are looking for something more real than Corporate Greenwash…

It was a completely opposite atmosphere at the Slow Mother Gathering in Fujno the following weekend. This was two days of music, workshops and a wide range of natural parenting/eco products themed to support an emergence of natural, ecological parenting and childbirth options as well as environmental action. The audience was filled with children of all ages, men and women bedecked with slings full of babies. It was the first time I could relax completely as Pacha and Yani (and the many other children there) were taken care of by the collective good-heartedness of the 300 or so participants. We will continue to explore the Slow Mother theme and hopefully have more events like this in the future in Japan.

It is ironic that the Japanese government is worrying so much about the low birth rate – when there seems to be no effort in creating a child friendly country. It is hard to find a decent park for children anywhere in Tokyo and travelling by train with kids is a nightmare. So much money was and is still spent on un-needed construction works throughout the country, yet almost nothing has been spent on creating a quality of life for future generations.

In Tokyo I also met my old friend and now Director of Greenpeace Japan, Jun Hoshikawa, at the Greenpeace office in Shinjuku to talk mostly about Climate Change campaign, Green politics and the whaling issue. He has a huge challenge ahead to re-frame the Greenpeace position on whaling, moving it away from an issue of stubborn nationalistic pride, while maintaining the strong anti-whaling position of Greenpeace. He also has to explain to the rest of the world the more complex picture of the history of Japanese industrial whaling (originally promoted by the US after the WWII) and to help create a more effective and sophisticated approach than just Japan bashing. In talking in depth with many Japanese people over this issue over many years, I believe that the majority of people, especially young people, have no real attachment or interest in whaling or eating whale meat - actually most young Japanese people love whales and dolphins. But nobody likes being told what to do or what they can’t do. For the Australian government to make such a ‘show’ of their opposition to whaling (which is a very easy position to take with no Australian economic interest in whaling) – while having an arguably criminally negligent position on global warming (Australian Greenhouse emissions are the highest per capita in the world) is extremely cynical to me.

On solstice I joined the other founders of the Sloth Club, Keibo Oiwa and Ryuichi Nakamura, for the final event at the now famous Café Slow. Over 100 people squeezed into the place for a candlenight event incorporating theatre, music, talk and star gazing. Telescopes were set up outside to try to see the milkyway beyond the haze of Tokyo (bit of a challenge…).

As an organization the Sloth Club is now moving to a new stage. With close to a thousand members and a number of companies that have begun as offshoots of the group, it is now looking for a larger office space in Tokyo. Thanks to the wonderfully efficient and effective secretary, Naoko Baba, it has received funding and support from a wide range of groups that have helped a near constant flow of speakers and activists visit Japan. While dedicated to promoting a lifestyle/culture change, it doesn’t hesitate to take an active role in campaigns, including the two major ones unfolding in Japan right now; protesting the Rokkasho nuclear fast breeder reactor (and promoting safe and sustainable solutions to climate change) and lobbying to protect the Japanese constitution from losing article 9, the law prohibiting Japan from engaging in war against any other nation.

To most people outside Japan, the Japanese culture is quite enigmatic, fast paced, high tech, nature dominating yet with customs and traditions honouring nature and spirituality. I find people pretty much as alienated from each other and nature as anywhere else in the world, but perhaps with just a little more reason to want to change and a few more reference points in their own culture that only 100 years ago maintained a sustainable, relatively peaceful society. Despite its current wealth and success, Japan is ranked way down at 80 in the world’s list of happiest countries – some 30 000 people commit suicide in Japan each year. Young people are seriously questioning the life choices of their parents and are looking for something more meaningful. Older people left behind in the tucked away mountain villages all over Japan have had their pride in their traditional self sufficient farming culture battered by modern consumerism and techno-gadgets blaring at them from their TV sets and their community decision making process stolen by central political authority. Very slowly young people are moving back to the mountains and are asking to learn more about their grandparent’s wisdom.

And 7 million people are switching off their lights and lighting a candle at solstice in what is becoming a new ritual of peace, reflection and ecological awakening. Looking out from the Shinkansen, there were solar panels on about 5% of the houses we bulleted past – well maybe it was only 2% - but definitely more than I have ever seen in Australia. Are we ready to look at Japan beyond the single issue of whaling and feel some inspiration and solidarity about what is happening here? I hope so – we desperately need to find common ground and shared commitment to rescue the future.



We are back in our peaceful Ayr home after visiting my family on the Gold Coast. It was a welcome recovery time after the busy election! Our final result was the
best it has ever been in this region - just over 4% of the vote. This seems very small and some people may feel disheartened by these kinds of results - to me it
was very well worth the effort to introduce new ideas and solutions. I think it is so important to offer people a viable alternative and as the environmental issues start affecting people in their daily lives they may start looking for alternative political options. The local newspaper printed every one of the 8 press releases I sent them almost without editing - so this was worthwhile in itself I think (if you would like to read these please let me know!).

Over the next month we will be preparing for our upcoming visit to Japan and I'll be finishing off my teacher's aide course while preparing the house and garden for a period of hibernation. Hopefully someone will take up the opportunity to live here while I am away (see message attached) - but if not our lovely neighbours Don and Colleen are happy to look after the chickens. It's a little sad that the mango project will have to be put on hold - maybe the right person will come to carry this through next year.

Since the election we have had two waves of environmental inspiration - the visit of David Suzuki and the release of the film by Al Gore: "An Inconvenient Truth". I couldn't make it to David's speech, but I am already seeing the impacts in this
local area with people feeling a renewed commitment and being more empowered about holding the local council responsible for bad development decisions. I went to see "An Inconvenient Truth "about global warming despite wondering if I needed to because I am quite aware of the issue. It is not a fun movie - but it is something we must all see and is a very straightforward and clear explanation about the causes and consequences of our activities on the planet. I felt responses on many different levels but especially on the issue of how to respond.

Where is the space between denial and despair? How can we feel empowered enough to think that the little things we do have any impact at all? We search for absolute perfection in what we see as environmental leaders (including Al Gore) but must accept that we are not perfect and just have to do the best we can and support each other in our journey to live simply and joyfully.

There is a rumour around that Al Gore likes Ferrari cars - does that diminish the truth of the message he is presenting? At the end of the movie there are many pieces of advice about what we can do, including voting for politicians that will make a change - and if there are not those politicians available to run yourself for political office. It was good to hear this after running for the Greens once again!

My sister, Inge, often points out my inconsistencies, especially the way I fly across the Earth to sing environmental songs in Japan.how can I really justify this? It is not easy, planting thousands of trees is not enough, can I really believe this music touches people deeply enough to have a profound shift, or empowers people to do something?

So, I too battle a sense of despair especially that what I am doing is enough and is actually causing more damage to Mother Earth. At the same time I feel a sense of urgency in fully owning my role on the planet as someone who has been involved in these issues my whole life, taking a stronger leadership role. It is a hard choice, the choice I have been facing since a young teenager, made even more complex with my beautiful children facing these choices with me - escape to live a purely ecological life (El Milagro) or directly face the monster of our own making destroying our planet and ourselves. I imagine it will be a combination of both, as it always has been.

At least for next I have committed to trying to expand my school permaculture garden project next year and offer this project to the other schools in this region. This will hopefully result in planting many seeds - vegetables, flowers, trees and very importantly, inspiration and empowerment for young people.

And for the near future I look so much forward to meeting my friends in Japan soon. Pacha and I are practising the Kurikindi song together and all of us are very excited! Running the workshops this time will be interesting and important - I hope they are a source of deep empowerment for all.