Green tides in the land of the rising sun

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Four University of Manitoba students had the opportunity to travel to Tokyo, Japan as part of the Japan-Canada Academic Consortium (JACAC), to discuss environmental issues and sustainable innovation during its first ever forum.

The event was held in February and is slated to become an annual affair, with Japan and Canada alternating as hosts.

JACAC’s original mission was to promote cross-collaboration and cooperation through semester and year-long academic exchanges. The forum was designed to connect a greater number of students, professors and researchers, allowing them to share accumulated knowledge and learn from one another.

This year’s forum had seminars by Canadian and Japanese graduate and undergraduate students, professors and researchers, with topics ranging from wetland reclamation and species migration to ecologically sustainable economic development.

A major topic of concern was waste management, a serious problem in a city as large as Tokyo and one that even in Canada — where space is decidedly not a problem — is rapidly becoming an issue of public concern.

Throughout the conference senior undergraduate students also had the opportunity to collaborate on group research projects, which were presented to visiting dignitaries at the Canadian Embassy on the last day of the forum.

Another major element of the learning experience was the practical component, including field trips and excursions.

Held nearly every day and spanning from one end of the city to the other — no small feat in a city as large as Tokyo — these trips included discussions on economic development and cooperation between Japan and Canada at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The trip also included a visit to a state-of-the art green building complex in Roppongi Hills, being taught how to make traditional Japanese foods by a rural women’s cooperative and a visit to garbage and recycling facilities that service a major portion of the city.

By far, the most interesting part of the Roppongi Hills consortium was a weekend trip to Okutama, a typical rural countryside that is actually the westernmost ‘neighbourhood’ of Tokyo.

Here students were introduced to Takayuki Kasumi, a well-known Japanese activist and leader of the Juon Network, a nationwide rural revitalization and ecological protection initiative, whose primary mandate is to reintroduce the benefits of rural life into an increasingly urban population.

In Japan, 67 per cent of the land area is forest. Since it is cheaper to import timber than to harvest it internally, the quality of Japan’s remaining native forest is rapidly deteriorating as rare tree species are quickly harvested, urban sprawl increases and farmers cease to participate in what has become an unprofitable industry.

The wood obtained from the Juon Network’s culling of cultured timber and forest clearing is used to make wooden chopsticks that are sold and used in Japanese Student Federation cafeterias. The fabrication creates employment opportunities for workers with disabilities. Through this, the Network hopes to reduce Japan’s reliance on imported chopsticks, 90 per cent of which come from China.

This may seem rather trivial. Why care about chopsticks? They give them away for free and the Japanese aren’t cutting down native forests to make them! However, it’s a bigger issue than most realize.

To put it in perspective, the Japanese chopstick industry amounts to about $426 million CDN annually. Proponents of a shift to local production point to huge economic benefits.

Imagine what the Canadian economy could look like if this same mindset of keeping it local, protecting the environment and creating job opportunities was truly implemented here. There’s also an unintended but beneficial spinoff here; China’s forests are in a worse state than Japan’s, and any shift in production may help force change in a country notorious for ignoring environmental concerns.

As Environment, Earth and Resources students, it was inspiring to see that real-world solutions to environmental problems exist. We came home invigorated with possibilities for improvements and actions that we could take not only as individuals but also as a nation.