Interview series “Japan’s approach to challenges facing the world” Vol.2 (Dr. Hiroshi Komiyama, Chairman, Mitsubishi Research Institute)
post date : 2014.11.10
With seniors 65 or over accounting for more than 25% of the total population, Japan has entered an unprecedented era of an aging society. As the population continues to decline, all eyes are on how the country will solve issues such as regional impoverishment, energy conservation, and maintaining the pension and medical systems, in order to bring about sustainable economic growth. The FPCJ will post interviews with experts in order to learn more about these issues.
In the second part of our interview with Mitsubishi Research Institute, Inc. Chairman Hiroshi Komiyama, we asked him about Japanese achievements in solving issues and future developments.
Q: What kind of issues has Japan solved in the past?
A: The first was likely the arrival of the Black Ships from the USA. While Japan was isolating itself during the Edo period, the Industrial Revolution occurred in Great Britain. As this revolution spread overseas, other Western countries and Australia industrialized and became advanced nations. Africa, Asia and South America did not industrialize, and so the countries in these regions all became colonies, or functionally equivalent to colonies.
The arrival of the Black Ships was a crisis for Japan, but Japan did not become a colony. The country successfully industrialized, to the extent that it won the First Sino-Japanese War and the Russo-Japanese War. At the time, Japan was the only non-Western country to quickly become an advanced nation. The reason for this is that Edo period Japan was no ordinary developing country. It had an education system and an information network using messengers. It would not have been surprising if the country was occupied and made into a colony, but Japan managed to avoid that fate. That was a major issue solved. Then industrialization was carried out at a brisk pace.
Q: Can you give any other examples?
A: Japan encountered serious industrial pollution in the past, but overcame it and created the most environmental nation in the world. There were also the energy crises of the 1970s. Japanese industrialization relied 100% on cheap oil imports. The price of that oil increased 10 to 20 times over during the post-war period of economic growth. Although it was a crisis worldwide, it was particularly bad for Japan. But Japan turned that crisis into an opportunity by becoming a global frontrunner in improving energy efficiency thanks to its monozukuri (craftsmanship) industry.
Q: Japan is currently facing a number of issues such as a declining birthrate, aging society, healthcare, pensions, and energy. Will Japan be the first in the world to solve these problems?
A: I am convinced that it is possible. It is not something that will happen on its own, so we must have the determination to carry it out. “The aging population means the labor force aged 15 to 65 will decline, so Japan has no future.” This kind of attitude won’t solve anything. To start with, the labor force should be considered as ages 20 to 70, and we should also consider raising that 70 to 80. The determination to build a new society like this is necessary.
When it comes to energy issues, there is the problem of what to do with the existing nuclear power plants, but the long-term solution will be renewable energy. Renewable energy is available throughout the world, including Japan. I have been saying that it is important to set a goal such as “by 2050”, but it could just as easily be 2030. We have to narrow the target and decide on a course of action by then. This is the beginning of a new era, so a significant change in direction must be made.
Q: What kind of change in direction should be made?
A: Japan should become a resource self-sufficient nation. There is an extremely rational model for resource self-sufficiency. It is a model for self-sufficiency in energy, minerals, food, timber and water, and I believe it is the only way for Japan to survive. It is also the model that the planet as a whole should work towards. With energy shortages worldwide, renewable energy will be used. The issue of acquiring resources such as rare earths can be solved with recycling.
Q: For resources such as steel and aluminum, recycling consumes less energy than refining them from raw materials.
A: Exactly. Resources oxidize when exposed to air, creating ferric oxide or aluminum oxide. Refining is necessary to remove the oxygen from these compounds. The recovered resources in this case would be scrap, and melting them would be good enough. The energy to melt these resources compared to the energy to refine them is 1:27 for iron and 1:83 for aluminum. Rare earths are used for manufacturing high quality magnets, and large magnets are already recovered. Appliances and vehicles are also recycled, and resources can be taken from them. It will be necessary to create a system for recovering resources from smaller items such as smartphones, but this is entirely possible.
Q: It has been seven years since Country with Advanced Issues was published. Has Japan made any progress solving issues since then?
A: I believe it is falling behind. Making changes is probably not one of Japan’s strong points. Transition management for shifting to a sustainable system is a difficult issue globally as well. The systems of developed countries are already complete. When changing a completed system, there are going to be people who suffer losses. These people will be vehemently opposed to change. Although the changes may be rational, there is the issue of who will convince those people that oppose change. Academics are just talking, and politicians are afraid that trying to convince people will negatively influence their chance for election. Essentially, I believe the problem is that Japan lacks experience in implementing change with democratic consensus.
Read more about government approaches to overcoming population decline and vitalizing local economies, and how successes in solving issues should be advertised overseas in the third part of the interview….