I lived in Nagoya, Japan for almost three years learning about sustainability. While I had my fair share of challenges, Japan opened my eyes to a slower, more appreciative lifestyle. The lessons I learned in Japan feel increasingly relevant in the West today.

I saw how the Japanese would inherently take the time needed for the most important things in life. Time for rest, eating, family, and experiences are cultural priorities. The mentality of a common goal is ever-present in Japan. The Japanese work together to make their community stronger, more resilient, and more beautiful.

Busy? Try the speed read.

The scoop: I lived in Japan for almost three years and learned a lot about sustainable living through cultural norms and traditional mentality.

Key Sustainability Lessons From Japan

  • The Japanese are a very cohesive group of people who inherently share common goals for the good of the country
  • Certain cultural norms in Japan have helped the country to reduce carbon and promote sustainable living
  • Living conditions in Japan naturally encourage careful use of resources such as water, energy, and food
  • Urban and rural transportation systems are a huge factor in the reduction of greenhouse gases
  • Care for mental and physical health improves conditions towards a sustainable lifestyle

Dig Deeper →  5 min

Throughout these life lessons, I came to see how their practices towards quality and doing things right, also emphasized sustainability: a natural tendency to care for the earth and preserve the world around them. 

Here I share with you some of the ways that Japan can teach us about sustainability, to be more conscious and eco-friendly. 

Waste Not, Want Not

Sustainability in Japan starts with spending.

There is a common old-school mentality that teaches how one should avoid waste at all costs. “Mottainai” is a Japanese phrase for needless waste. The mentality asserts that one must repurpose and/or repair goods before discarding.

The Japanese are aware that the mounds of non-recyclable garbage end up burnt, as land is scarce and there is no place for landfills. The desire to limit burnable garbage is common in Japan, as most citizens are aware of the tremendous effect that it has on air quality. 

People even use disposable items twice. In the Junior High school where I taught, students cleaned the school windows daily using newspapers and vinegar.

For more information about reusing and reducing waste check out The Zero Waste Challenge.

Careful Use of Resources

Every family in Japan is conscious of their resources at home. In my apartment, the water that filled the toilet tank was also the water that first washed your hands first. Even our bath water heated locally, using a very tricky crank.

Gas for heating is locally sourced. This means that the idea of the main household thermostat is non-existent. Instead, the Japanese warm and cool each room independently as the inhabitants see fit. People are very conscious of what to use and when to use it.

Gas used to heat locally

In Japan, sustainability principles tie into food shopping habits too.

Vendors sell food in small, usable portions. Smaller portions limit food waste, which is so common in the West.

Instead of buying the whole celery, you buy only a stick at a time. That holds true for many fresh foods that Americans may buy in bunches.

Water for the toilet used twice. First to wash hands and then to flush. 

Use of space is also an important aspect of sustainability in Japan.

Nagoya is the third-largest city in population in Japan, and it is very obvious that space is at a premium. In my bachelor’s apartment, even the ceiling space had a platform connected to a ladder for sleeping or storage.

Malls are often in high-rise buildings or underground. Maximizing the efficiency of space is important to limit unnecessary use of resources. This in turn helps to lower carbon emissions. 

Cars Are Unpopular

The average corporate worker may actually have a car. However, many view them as recreational vehicles for weekends. The workweek is reserved for train commutes and not cars.

A common sight in Japan is to see conductors pushing more commuters onto a car during rush hour. Bicycles are also a very popular mode of transport.  Bike racks are seen along the train lines as commuters first bike to the station.  

From the doorman to the CEO, everyone takes the train to work. This common understanding helps Japan to save millions of tons of carbon emissions every year. Most trains are electrically powered.

Power plants are making the transition from non-renewable to renewable sources of energy. The public transit system is so efficient that it doesn’t even make sense to take a car. This is one lesson we have yet to develop in most parts of North America. 

Everyone Does Their Part

There are no menial jobs in Japan. Everyone plays an important part in the need to support the country. Unemployment hovers less than 3% in any given year, much lower than that of the west.

People take pride in whatever job they perform. From the gas attendant to the waitress, every job is taken seriously. Everyone feels like a contributor, and citizens respect each other’s professions. 

This mentality cultivates consciousness towards a common goal. People respect one another, and as a result the environment is cared for as well. Because of this principle, litter is non-existent. Eating, smoking, or drinking coffee while walking down the street is not common. This keeps streets clean, and respect for common areas.

The Majority of Their Diet is Plant-Based 

The Japanese eat incredibly healthy food. The majority of the diet is plant-based, with small portions of seafood, and meat. All children in schools eat the same school lunch which is often made up of soup, rice, fish, and seaweed. Here is a picture of typical school lunch: 

Seaweed is an incredible crop for food, energy, and goods alike. If you would like more information on the future of seaweed farming, take a look at the article: 10 Myths About Sustainability Solved by Seaweed Farms. 

Plant-based diets have lower carbon emissions. Meat and poultry need large plots of land and emit harmful greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. The Japanese diet has proven sustainable over the long term.

Okinawa Japan is one of the few areas in the world to have the most centenarians as a result of their healthy diet and lifestyle. A healthy population is a foundation for a healthy environment. 

Most restaurants have a display of their menu items on the outside.  The majority of the Japanese diet is plant based.  

Moments and Memories Over Things

One of the practices I noticed while living in Japan is the constant motivation to cultivate experiences. The Japanese have cyclical lifestyles. They engage in certain cultural activities each year at a certain time.

For example, during the fall season, it is customary to visit the foliage displays on day trips or weekend events. During the spring, they have parties under the cherry blossoms. In winter, a visit to a hot spring or ski resort is a common practice. Holidays and celebrations are regarded as very special events and warrant money spent towards them. 

Moments and memories in Japan have a very important place in the culture. They preside over material goods. These practices contribute to less: less production, less stress, and less carbon footprint. 

Visiting local temples and nearby cities is a common weekend practice in Japan. A picture of me visiting Nara.  

Bringing Japanese Sustainability Home

The cultural differences I experienced in Japan have allowed me to live differently and with greater respect for our planet. I no longer spend the time looking to accumulate more stuff or rush around without notice.

Since then, I take the time to appreciate simple things like the changing of the seasons, and the quality of our food. I realize that caring for oneself properly also means caring for our environment. We can all afford to take a lesson from Japan and shift our mentality to be more conscious and eco-friendly. 

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