Nakamura-san is not a Japanese: Sustainable Urbanism and Its Political Consequences [1]

By Marco Kusumawijaya[2]

Last night I met a man by the name of Nakamura. His bloodline is purely Japanese. Both his mother and father have pure Japanese bloodlines. He speaks impeccable Japanese. But, he is not a Japanese.

He has lived in Japan for about 40 years, and worked and paid tax continuously, and proportionally at least in equal amount to any working Japanese, in the same town of Kawasaki for over 25 years. He is married to a Japanese woman and has a grown-up and a teenage children. But he has no voting right in Japan. He cannot participate in decision making process that would effect his lifelihood in the past 40 years and the future. He is not represented in anyway. He has continuously feel no job security. His wife and children are Japanese citizens. But, he is not a Japanese not. His attempt to apply for Japanese citizenship has been given discouraging comments from officials in charge. That stopped him for trying again. Ironically, he has a voting right to ellect public officials in Canada, a country that has very little thing to do with him for the last 40 years.

His first name is Norman. He was born in Canada and moved to Japan when he was 10 years old, and he went to Japanese schools. But he, in his own words, “is not Japanese enough”. He experienced many discrimination as many his foreign workers colleagues do. There are about 30,000 foreign workers in Kawasaki, over 2 % of the total population of the township.

I told you that story because it shows how impossibly absurd our democratic system is all over the world, actually, not only in Japan.

It indicates the need to change.

It also points to the fact that city is the locus of many of our modern problems. A city is the port d’entrée of many things.  Last year, half of the world’s population became urban, living in cities or in urbanised conditions. 80 %  of Japanese population, and so the country’s economy, are located in the chain of urban agglomeration of Tokyo, Yokohama, Nagoya, Kyoto, Osaka and Kobe. Cities are the center of intensified production and consumption. Unfortunately, they also suck resources from all over the countryside. A city like London has an ecological footprint 20 times larger than its area.

Therefore, changes must take place in the cities.

But what changes?

Sustainable urbanism is not only about ecology (climate change and all that).  It is also about social and cultural sustainability. Hence the story of Norman Nakamura.

And climate change is not the only ecological problem the world is having, depending on how one perceives the idea of “problem”. For example: the loss of many species of bananas for me is a problem, but maybe not for the producers of only (more or less) three species of bananas now available in our supermarkets. Indonesia used to have between 700 and 800 species of bananas.

Suppose I am right, so our ecological problem also relates to our whole system of production and consumption, our way of “growth” that have made many species extinct and irreversible damage to land, forest, rivers, lake, and the sea. Our mode of “growth” have depleted the planet, instead of “growing together” with it.

Climate change has of course been made the most spectacular a threat recently, by a due 25 years of continuous campaign and its clear and present existential menace to humankind. But it has also opened up the whole array of many other problems that was not being paid attention to before. More than that, most importantly, the thoughts and practices to prevent climate change have also made us realise that we can have a different life, which is more healthy, happy, just and with quality.

There are practices all over the world that are proving that that different life is possible. Organic farmers in Takahata, Yamagata, has won a 30 years struggle with the recently enforced ordinance called “The Takahata Food and Agriculture Ordinance”. Pioneers at Chubu Recycle Association in Nagoya has managed to recycle 30 % of waste there, and so saved a wetland (imprtant for the migratory birds) from becoming a land-fill project. A new initiative is trying to replan and relink Toyoda City with its forested region. People like Norman Nakamura san, even if he still have to struggle a long way, are starting to get organised. Conceptual thoughts and technical researches are also being carried out. Interculturalism instead of multiculturalism (German approach). Craddle-to-Craddle (Bill McDonough, no waste, “mottanai”), sun-based economy (Yasuo Yamazaki), farmed fishery, community-based sanitation system (Yuyun Ismawaty, winner of Goldman prize for environment), etc., will form just a small part of the list.

The list of initiatives and practices are endless, if to include those from all over the world. However, what is true is that all those practices pose challenges to our political system and process, for example:

–       Ruling based on “bio-regions” (instead of “electoral districts”) requires integration and collaboration of different administrative jurisdictions.

–       As more under-represented groups (the oppressed, the discounted, the marginalised, the non-humans) and increasing diversity in general are discovered, there is need to improve our democratic system to accommodate more diverse needs and groups.

–       Many of current sustainability practices, despite the fact that they have proved successful, replicate slowly because of the inertia of available political process to support their up-scaling. We need not only more sensitive and knowledgeable politicians (and bureaucrats), but changes in the systems to be more accomodating and swift in effecting changes. W cannot wait for 35 years like the farmers in Takahata.

–       The changes required are as deep as value-level, while at the same time requires quick changes in practical behavioural patterns. They require exemplary and efficient leadership, system to support them to be sustainable changes, trust (that all will change together) and a lot of collaboration.

–       Changes also require both local actions and global collaboration simultaneously. International politics are now so much interdependent with local politics.

Aspiration for sustainable urbanism make politics more complex, but also potentially more focused with a sense of urgency. It re-asserts the very basic of democratic processes: transparancy and accountability in real (almost scientific) sense. With recent progress in science, technology and collaborative institutions, humankind are actually well-equipped to face the challenge successfully. (as compard to the last glacial age 11,000 years ago, for example, when humankind were completely powerless). We can undo global warming while develop new ways of living better. But it will remains a potential if we take it for granted. The challenge needs to be responded actively.

[1] For discussion with students of Law and Politics at Rikkyo University, Prof. Chiharu Takenaka’s seminar class, October 28, 2009.

[2] Urbanist, fellow at Asian Leaders Fellowship Programme (ALFP) 2009, Japan Foundation and the International House of Japan.

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2 Responses to Nakamura-san is not a Japanese: Sustainable Urbanism and Its Political Consequences [1]

  1. Marc Humbert says:

    Dear Marco Kusumawijaya,
    Thank you very much for this text and for your stimulating ideas. I have been working for years on the same wave of length and it is thanks to a lot of resistance places as that of Takahata that the planet has not yet exploded, however the threat is greater everyday.. I came to Japan 14 months ago as a director of the French Research Center (abroad for France) in Tokyo, located at nichifutsukaikan (French Japanese House). Among our Research Programmes we have one about direct sales of local, -organic- farmers products and another one about the assesment and measure of societal progress.
    I would be pleased to get an opportunity to meet and discuss.
    Marc Humbert


    • Dear Marc Humbert,
      Thank you for reading our posting. I would love to meet and share ideas and concerns with you. But, I am now located in Jakarta, Indonesia. I was in Japan for Asian Leadership Fellow Programme (ALFP) in September-November last year. Please, if you have a chance to visit Jakarta, let me know so we can meet.


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