This year, I served as a helper ALT at our anticipated/dreaded Yashiro orientation. I decided to volunteer to help in part because the preparations would give me something to do during the summer besides bum around on social networking, and in part because I recently quit drinking, and thought that the Beer Garden welcome party would ultimately be wasted on a sober vegetarian. I wanted a different opportunity to meet newcomers, but also, because I anticipate this being my last year as a JET, I felt compelled to pass my torch somehow.
Because eco-friendly explorations have recently become a focal point in my life, I wondered how much it might come up at this orientation. I spoke in the first Miso Green I wrote about how jarring it was to arrive in Japan to so much plastic, and how long it took me to find solutions, and I wondered if many other new JETs felt the same way. I anxiously awaited Q&A sessions, when I might be able to share the effective ways I’ve found to improve my life in Japan.
It didn’t come up as much as I had hoped. I managed to share a couple of my favorite ideas, including one about omiyage (rather than buying a ton of individually packaged, suitcase-dominating snack boxes, buy a famous ingredient from the place you are visiting, and when you get back to Japan, make snacks that utilize it to distribute. Brilliant, right?) I also encouraged a JET who lives in my region and was looking for kitchenware to head to my favorite recycle shop instead of a Daiso, but I (rather reluctantly) gave him directions to both. Later, I bit my tongue about mentioning the fact that I write this article when our dear editor made her pitch about submissions to the Hyogo Times to the crowd because I didn’t want to draw focus away from the point she wanted to make (we could always use more contributors, nudge-nudge).
As I reflect on my experience at the orientation, I notice so many similarities regarding my desires and hesitations about sharing how I live, and those of the religious devotees I’ve met over the years. This certainly isn’t a novel idea; a quick Google search of “green religion” or similar terms yields many links to many articles celebrating the global sustainability movement as the next great era of humanity, or demonizing profiteers and followers as worshipping a false god (of which, I don’t personally believe Al Gore is one, though it makes for a great image). I agree with much of this, and like any religion, there is a good and a bad way to practice it.
There are currently a couple of Latter-Day Saints patrolling the area around Himeji station. They first approached me after I had just stumbled into a friend on my way to the tracks. As they began to talk, my friend immediately got on his phone. I don’t know if this was on purpose or just coincidence, but convenient nonetheless. I was in a bit of a rush, but took a moment to talk to them. It turned out that one had gone to university in my home state, and I brought up what little ties to the Mormon community I knew about. At one point, they asked if I was Mormon, and I said a simple “no,” and that was the end of their pitch to me. I asked how their mission was going, and while they didn’t want to complain, they mentioned that the language barrier was certainly making it tough. I wished them luck. They gave me a flyer for the eikaiwa they hosted and asked me to spread the word about, which I later forgot about and lost. However I found their passive approach considerate, and now when I see them bike along my commute, we warmly yell salutations and wave to each other. The oft-present discomfort I feel around missionaries isn’t there when I run into them.
Ecologically-minded practices are the same in this regard, in that they are usually the most effective when they are not advertised as such. Even if a recently discovered innovation could change lives, if it’s not presented to the right audience, people go on the attack. In an article about gas light indicators on Lifehacker, a commenter mentioned that he had an electric car and didn’t share the problem, and then on came a slew of comments calling him both a baseless do-gooder (I bet you’re also a vegan who recycles) and a hypocrite (Those batteries are terrible! Get a bike like me).
The truth is that some sustainable solutions work for some people, and some don’t. Some work better than others. Some work in some situations and not in others. I would love to cycle to work, but a 3-and-a-half hour commute every day just isn’t feasible for me. I’m lucky to have public transportation, but if I didn’t, I’d sure as hell try to get an electric car over a gas guzzler. It’s far from the ideal solution, but it’s at least a step in the right direction, philosophically if not technologically.
There are also times when I knowingly falter from the lifestyle I’m trying to maintain. In January I declared abstinence from convenience stores, but occasionally since I’ve ended up with saran-wrapped soba bentos after waking up too late to pack my own lunch. In my sleepless fog, I forgot to pack my metal water bottle and dehydrated coconut water for my trip to Yashiro, and reluctantly bought several bottles of sports drinks from vending machines to battle the ever-present dehydration headaches we all experienced there. It happens, and I’m never excited about it. Like religious devotees, I admit that I do not set a perfect example, but I let my indiscretions reaffirm my commitment. Perfect practice is an impossible goal, but still the goal.
I write this article, and I attempt to live this way because I believe that society as we know it is ultimately unsustainable. When a summer day reaches upwards of 40 degrees, or when an early spring day doesn’t require a jacket, I am reminded about global warming. When I see young ladies on trains decked out in all things kawaii, I envision every item they wear in its eventual landfill home. Every time a politician turns a blind eye to an unforeseen impact caused by emissions, or genetic modification of food, I realize that apathetic leaders beget apathetic followers. The world feels too big in many ways and not big enough in others, and I worry about it often. Like many religious proselytizers, I desperately want people to pay attention to the dark fate we appear to be facing and make even miniscule changes toward a better one, but I also know that force and intimidation are the worst ways to change anyone’s mind.
But even for people who doubt the impact of plastics and emissions and oversized industry on global well-being, there is still so much to gain out of pursuing a life of simplicity and quality. My partner and I each manage to send home about half of our take home pays every month by doing the things I talk about in this article, but there’s even more that we could be doing; I know a family of four in northern Hyogo that lives on just 70,000 yen a month, and I think I’ll get to introduce them to you in October.
However, regardless of whether your motivation for reading Miso Green is to cut back on waste, find local food, save money, or quell guilt over what humanity has done to the environment, or whether you’re just reading out of curiosity, or whether you’re a member of my immediate family who just wants to see what I’m up to, I hope you are getting something out of this, and that it doesn’t come off as too preachy.