Tokyo's Path Forward in Sustainability
My grandfather, who passed away earlier this year, was an umbrella craftsman and a true Edokko（Person born and raised in the Tokyo, previously named Edo). Armed with outstanding skills, he had always taken great care to produce high-quality Western-brand umbrellas, at his home located in Shitamachi, the traditional downtown area of Tokyo, which also served as his workshop. When he was alive, he would go and sell his products to a famous department store in Tokyo together with my grandmother, and he was always proud of the fact that they had never received a single complaint. He often told me, "Akira, don't use plastic umbrellas that you would have to throw away after a while." Therefore, I have been using a folding umbrella made by my grandparents since elementary school, as well as a water bottle pouch that was made with the leftover fabric scraps.
Although it may be presumptuous of me to suggest this, I believe what my grandparents did for a living may have shed light on a direction that Tokyo can take to maximize its potential in a globalized economy. Tokyo should draw inspiration from the concept of "kaizen," or continuous improvement, to create a sustainable way of life with different cultures co-existing harmoniously. As a city that has committed to achieving the SDGs, Tokyo unveiled the sustainability concept of "Be better, together" for the recent Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games, where it made an impression on the international community through initiatives such as forging medals from metal recovered at urban mines and utilizing hydrogen as a source of energy. However, in order to inherit this powerful message as its legacy and evolve into a city that can contribute to the SDGs in a sustainable manner, Tokyo needs to develop a holistic growth strategy.
This is especially the case in the context of sustainability, as there is a genuine risk that Tokyo, or even Japan, may be passed over by others. When I attended an international conference on the circular economy, an idea that is inextricable from the vision of a carbon-free society, it struck me that the case studies and initiatives of Japan have not been communicated very well. While the companies and governments of developed European countries have shown an interest in Japan's initiatives, the inadequate dissemination of information has resulted in them looking instead to collaborate with partners in other countries. This is an unfortunate situation given Tokyo's advantage of having a massive consumer market and countless large corporations based in the city, which makes it a melting pot of different cultures with "kaizen" as its abiding principle.
What can we do about this? Articulating a worthy cause, or "Purpose" is the starting point of creating any virtuous cycle. It appears that Amsterdam in the Netherlands and other cities have taken the lead in terms of transitioning to a zero-carbon city or a circular city, but there is still room for Tokyo to position itself as a city that is committed to worthy causes centered on addressing multiple social issues in a synergistic way. This is a concept that seeks to achieve two objectives at once: it affirms the need to tackle multiple issues in line with the aims of the SDGs, while simultaneously drawing on Japan's situational advantages as a developed country that is the forerunner in confronting a host of emerging issues in our modern world.
In fact, some Japanese companies have become active players in the sustainability market by announcing their commitment to causes that involve tackling different issues in a synergistic way. One of the best examples is Odakyu Electric Railway. Based in Shinjuku Station, the busiest railway station in the world, Odakyu has collaborated with Rubicon Global, an American unicorn that has committed to the cause of achieving a zero-waste future, to transform into a circular economy. The company has also worked with the local government of Zama City in Kanagawa Prefecture to promote urban development by creating a circular economy while improving the well-being of its residents (through addressing the declining birthrate and aging population) in a synergistic manner, an initiative that has been recognized with an award from the Finnish quasi-public fund Sitra. As someone involved in the launch of this project which officially announced its beginning of the business this September, I witnessed how the company has worked diligently to constantly improve (or conduct kaizen) the on-site processes of waste collection and transportation while co-existing with the different cultures of American startups.
For Tokyo to maximize its appeal and become a city that can make tangible contributions to the SDGs, I believe that it would need to commit to causes that draw on the synergy between the public and private sectors and harness the city's strength as a close-knit society. The first step that perhaps Japanese companies need to take is to confidently commit to an ambitious "Purpose" and let it be known. It would also be a good idea for market players to knock on the door of Japan with an ambitious "Purpose."