No.007 (July 2007) Presenting Effective Solutions for Issues in the Real World
Professor Hironori Hamanaka
Professor of the Faculty of Environment and Information Studies, Keio University
of the University of Tokyo, Faculty of Engineering.
He was the Vice-Minister for Global Environmental Affairs at the Ministry of the Environment. He served with the Government of Japan for more than 35 years, mostly in the field of environmental policies. He has devoted his administrative career to intergovernmental negotiations in areas including the Kyoto Protocol and its implementing rules.
----First let me ask how did you spend your childhood? And please tell us what led you to be interested in environmental issues.
When I was at elementary school, I lived near Kokubunji station in Tokyo. It was an area of rich natural countryside, where I often played with the local children. We used to pick up sticks from the woods to use as our swords and ran around acting out scenes from “Chanbara (samurai) movies”, which all boys at the time loved. Rice fields stretched into the distance, and in the little streams, there were killifish and pond snail, and even fireflies. But the area suddenly started to be urbanised when I was about 12 or 13 years old, and the surroundings changed completely. I feel I was so lucky to have spent my early years as a child in such a wonderfully natural environment.
In junior and senior high school, I was very interested in geography and I especially enjoyed studying maps. I then gradually became interested in cities and entered the Department of Urban Engineering at the University of Tokyo with dreams of becoming a city planner. At the time, Japan was going through a period of high economic growth and there were many new departments of science and technology being set up at universities. The Department of Urban Engineering was part of that new trend. In my final year at university, I took the National Public Service exam and passed, but after some thought, I decided to continue my studies at postgraduate level and began my research on urban design.
Experience of campus unrest
Around that time, disruptions at the University of Tokyo had just started. Even at the Department of Urban Engineering, it was felt that “industry-university joint research” might damage the autonomy and independence of the university. There was a debate on the “need for reform” and suddenly it wasn't someone else's problem anymore! In fact, undergraduate students were at the centre of a strike that spread to the whole university, and from there to universities all over Japan, causing a huge commotion.
In the middle of all this, I was beginning to think seriously about my future career. Up until that point, I had an idea that I would like to go into urban design, but I began to think again about what it was I would really like to do. It was then that one of my assistant professors said to me “There are people responsible for pollution problems at the Ministry of Health and Welfare (now the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare) so how about starting your career there?” It was a career that I had not even thought of, and I wondered for quite a while what kind of job it would entail, but weighing up all the options, I realised it was certainly one path I could take. So I entered the Ministry of Health and Welfare, and began my work on pollution and later, on the environment.
----When you entered the Ministry of Health and Welfare, what did your work consist of?
A new employee trained out in the field
One year before I started work at the ministry, in 1968, there had been official recognition that Itai-itai disease and Minamata disease had been caused by pollution. My job was to conduct a health survey of those people living in areas polluted by cadmium, which was identified as chemical substance that caused Itai-itai disease. When waste water from mines was not treated properly, cadmium flowed in the lower reaches of rivers and polluted the rice paddies and surrounding environment, and in the worst case scenario, there was the risk of a further outbreak of Itai-itai disease. So what we did was to ask the local people to prepare food for our studies, just as they would for a normal meal, and we ground it all up and put it through an analyser to test it for cadmium levels. We also took samples of blood and urine from the local citizens to test the amount of cadmium in their bodies. In addition, we examined how much cadmium was polluting the environment. I was very impressed with the fact that the experience of such field studies can lead to an understanding of the mechanisms of how human health is affected by environmental pollution from toxic substances.
I also remember very well an air pollution survey in Nishiyodagawa Ward in Osaka. At the time, it was known as the location of the worst air pollution in the whole of Japan, with a great number of people suffering from respiratory diseases such as asthma. As I was the new recruit, I was assigned to the field survey. Sure enough, the air there was terrible, filled with sulphur dioxide, and the visibility was also very poor. Osaka was known as the “city of smog” and that is exactly what it was like.
I also conducted a survey on weather conditions as preventative measures for air pollution. There were plans for industrial development on the outskirts of Sendai, and all the equipment was loaded into a helicopter to study the weather conditions of the area by measuring temperature, wind directions and wind speed. I had just gone to the area as a new recruit, but I was told “You are in charge of measuring, so we will take you up in a helicopter”, and so I jumped in! (laughs) The helicopter took off as usual but then we were buffeted this way and that because of the wind from the sea. I sat clutching all the measuring equipment rather fearfully, but it was actually quite exciting.
Usually a national government employee does desk work, but in my case I had many opportunities to work on site, so it was a very rewarding experience.
---- What do you remember most about your time at the Ministry of the Environment?
That would be the international negotiations for the Kyoto Protocol. At the Ministry of Health and Welfare, I had dealt with domestic issues, so I never imagined that I would be taking on this kind of international work. I was transferred to the Environment Agency (now the Ministry of the Environment), and after spending some years there, I was then assigned to the Permanent Delegation of Japan to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) in Paris. This was what opened my eyes to international affairs, I think. It was at the end of the 1980s when global environmental issues were attracting a great deal of attention internationally. The Environment Agency created the “Global Environment Department” and I was the very first director of the Planning Division. I took up the position of Director-General of the Global Environment Department in 1995, and one of my first major tasks was to get approval for Japan to host the Third Session of the Conference of the Parties to the UNFCCC (COP3, Kyoto Conference). So began a truly tumultuous time for me.
International Negotiations for the Kyoto Protocol
I had participated at the 1992 Earth Summit as a director, but I did not have a major role in the negotiations. However, at the Kyoto Conference I became one of the key players in the front line negotiations among three parties - the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI) (now the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry) and the Environment Agency. International negotiations directly reflect the interests of each country, and especially in the final few days of the Kyoto Conference, there were some dynamic turns of events that I couldn't have imagined. It was then that I learned first-hand how one goes about creating an international agreement like the Kyoto Protocol.
The Environment Agency and MITI had differing opinions on the extent of reductions. MITI were insisting very strongly that reductions were impossible, and that even with the greatest of effort, levels could only be brought down to those of 1990. However, the Environment Agency was of the view that much more could - and should - be done. Of course, Japan was the host of the conference and had to finalise its proposals. The Prime Minister's office carried out the coordination and attended the conference, but from MITI's point of view, any reductions beyond what the Japanese government had proposed were impossible. Since no one was able to anticipate fully what would be the final result of international negotiations at Kyoto, we at the Environment Agency conversely assumed that if an agreement looked like being reached on higher reductions, then all the better.
In fact, at the start of the Kyoto Conference, there were no such unpredictable developments. It was actually Vice-President Al Gore who urged the US representative to be more flexible, at which point, the US put their next card on the table by announcing “If you accept our conditions, then we will consider further reductions”. Well, then the EU, which had been wanting further reductions anyway, closed in on the US, and negotiations suddenly took off. With serious negotiations underway for a US-EU consensus, Japan could not be seen to be alone in rejecting the idea. As the host of the conference, it would be politically impossible for Japan to decide to ruin its own meeting. So, with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs at the centre, we worked towards building a new consensus among Japan, the US and the EU. Eventually, however, to lessen the impact on its own reduction policies, Japan had no choice but to change its position on the issue of carbon sequestration by forests.
In this way, we saw a marked shift in the final stages of negotiations towards consensus, with key players the US and EU reaching a compromise, which in turn differed from the Japanese Ministries' position. Because there was no consensus among representatives on the Japanese side to try and meet half way, it was an extremely difficult negotiation process for Japan. I still have a slight feeling that even now Japan faces the same issues.
---- We have heard that you mounted a campaign as part of your seminar at Keio University to “cut down on plastic bags”. Do you think it is important to learn not just on paper, but in practice too?
Keio University has a tradition of emphasising practical studies, and particularly at the Shonan Fujisawa campus where I teach, there is a great deal of emphasis put on “finding the problem, and showing how to fix it”. There is also the method of “you learn some, you teach some”, whereby teaching is not carried out one-way, from teacher to student, but also from student to teacher. Students are extraordinarily receptive and have boundless energy, and they have a certain spirit which makes them eager to face an actual problem and work hard to solve it alongside their teacher. Students at my campus are told to clarify first what they want to achieve in their four years at university and to create their own curriculum so they can attain their goals. In my career in administration, I faced actual problems and had to decide which policies were best to deal with them so I feel I should teach my students the finer points.
Face the problem, come up with a solution
For my seminar (at Keio, it is called a “research project”), I have the students choose a theme and study it. The students always come up with a major issue. This is great, but when they actually touch on the issue, they have to follow a process. This involves talking and negotiating with stakeholders, finding the best solution from the discussions, then trying it out with them, and examining it to see if it works. If they don't follow the process, it ends up as mere theory. So in addition to their individual study, I decided to launch a campaign to “cut down on plastic shopping bags” which required the participation of all the students in my seminar. To implement the campaign, we studied past campaigns by other universities and engaged in discussions with the University Co-op society. The Co-op agreed to run the campaign if it was a system of charging a fee for the plastic shopping bags, and so the campaign began.
In April, we began by charging 10 yen per bag. We decided to have a 2 month trial, and after a review, make it a permanent policy. Before charging a fee, on average about 650 plastic bags were used each day. Now that number is about 80. The students and I were really surprised at the reduction. Try something, review it, and then find a better solution ? that is the PDCA (Plan-Do-Check-Action) cycle. I believe it will be a fantastic experience for my students. Last year, there was an amendment to the Law for Promotion of Sorted Collection and Recycling of Containers and Packaging, which was enforced from this April. This has resulted in many supermarkets trying out fee-charging for plastic bags and encouraging customers to bring their own bags. With the national policy trend and movement, I feel our campaign theme and its timing were just right.
---- Finally, could you tell us what your hopes are for IGES and your aspirations as Chair of the Board of Directors?
From an administrative point of view and for my current university work as well, I have been concerned with how to present effective solutions for issues in the real world. IGES, focusing mainly on Asia, also has a mission to find effective solutions for actual problems. IGES will celebrate its 10th anniversary next year (2008) and the institute must demonstrate more varied ways to deal with the wide-ranging problems that face Asia. The rest of the world is now paying great attention to how Asia will tread the path to sustainable development, and if the region is successful, the outlook will be brighter for global sustainable development. If, on the other hand, it does not work out well, there would be extremely serious consequences. IGES holds a unique position as an international research institute in Asia. It has the ability to contribute to sustainable development in Asia, and I think that is our biggest challenge.
At IGES, many of the researchers are still young and relatively inexperienced. In order to produce research results that are useful for solving the world's problems, researchers should understand stakeholders' views and actions and identify what is an issue as well as what needs to be done to solve it. I want IGES researchers to be more aware of this point. As Chair of the Board of Directors, I believe it is my job to encourage the researchers in their efforts and give them the motivation to succeed.