An island nation with no domestic oil supply, Japan offers a glimpse into the world’s energy future, when oil reserves decline to unsustainable levels and alternatives are the only alternative. Unlike the vast and swaggering United States, Japan has confronted the reality of limited oil, especially in its energy conservation efforts. According to the International Energy Agency, Japan’s energy consumption as a percentage of gross domestic product is the lowest in the world.
Nearly 10 years after it hosted the Kyoto global warming summit, the country still claims a leadership role in reducing carbon emissions. The national expression of concern for the earth dovetails nicely with the traditional Japanese reverence for nature (Shintoism sees gods in every mountain, rock, and tree), but in fact Japan has no choice: The country imports almost all its oil and 60 percent of its food. It is self-sufficient only in rice.
However, Japan has managed to drive down energy use dramatically without sacrificing the comforts of an affluent society. The per capita consumption of energy in Japan is nearly half that in the United States, but the per capita incomes are roughly the same. So prosperity alone doesn’t explain why the United States burns so much more oil.
Japan’s economy is still the second largest in the world. Its office towers and shopping malls teem with innovation and commerce. Its continued prowess in innovation and design keeps the Japanese well-stocked in consumer gadgets: cellphones with GPS maps, high-tech toys, the peculiarly appealing new electric toilet.
How do they do it? Partly, the Japanese have invented their way out of energy abuse. Hybrid cars from Toyota and Honda are just the most obvious examples. Four of the world’s five largest producers of solar panels are Japanese, with Sanyo commanding 24 percent of the market. The government’s New Energy and Industrial Technology Development Organization (NEDO) is busy testing thin, flexible solar panels that, among many other uses, can be carried along to recharge a cellphone on the go.
“This is a problem of moral dimensions,” said Japan’s minister of environment, Masatoshi Wakabayashi. With a green feather in his lapel and a copy of Al Gore’s book on his desk, Wakabayashi is a bureaucrat with a cause. “I think we are receiving the message that our mother earth is in crisis,” he said. “We have a common consciousness of this fact.”