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Japanese and American academics discuss Asian environmentalism

By Elias Kamal Jabbe

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LOS ANGELES — Scholars from Japan and the United States analyzed the history of Asian Buddhist environmental advocacy at the University of Southern California East Asian Library on September 6, 2013. The 2013 Joint Symposium on Buddhist Environmentalism was co-sponsored by the Institute of Oriental Philosophy (IOP), the Asia Society Southern California and USC's Center for Japanese Religions and Culture (CJRC).

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In this photo released by the USC Center for Japanese Religions and Culture, Tokyo-based conference interpreter Angella Kawashima (far left) is seen translating comments made by Japanese scholars to English at the USC East Asian Library in Los Angeles on September 6, 2013. Photo: Martin Cohen www.martincohenphotography.com

The discussions about environmentalism’s role in Japan’s history shed light on various philosophies which were influential during previous centuries while also remaining in the shadow of the March 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster. In the aftermath of the latter, the Japanese government is currently moving towards its critical goal of abandoning nuclear energy by 2030 and continuing its progress in monitoring radiation with tools created by citizen science collective SafeCast and other partners. But Dr. Shuichi Yamamoto, a senior researcher at IOP and engineering professor at Soka University, explained that Japan’s ancient history could teach important lessons that are still applicable to the present and beyond.

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“One of the symbolic cultural origins of the country that can be attributed to its successful restoration to ecological balance (after pollution in the 1960s and 1970s) can be traced back to the social ecosystem that flourished during the Edo period (1603-1868) during the 17th to 19th century which cherished productive forests,” said Yamamoto, who has also researched deforestation in the Amazon region.

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Yamamoto’s message was one that urged people in Japan and other East Asian countries evolving in this current era of globalization to remember important Edo period virtues such as Motta-nai (a regret of waste) and ‘knowing satisfaction’ while having life’s bare essentials.

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IOP Director Dr. Yoichi Kawada echoed Yamamoto’s sentiments and expressed a desire for Japanese society to start following the philosophy of “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” (i.e. the three R’s) on a larger scale as it prepares for post-nuclear life in just a few decades.

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“Because solar technology just can't produce as much energy as nuclear, Japan is going to have to come to terms with using less energy and existing as an island nation that can reduce, reuse and recycle. It can learn from its own history of living efficiently by studying the practices of its ancestors during the Edo period,” said Kawada through English interpreter Angella Kawashima.

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In this photo released by the USC Center for Japanese Religions and Culture, Institute of Oriental Philosophy Director Dr. Yoichi Kawada (center) is seen speaking about environmentalism during Japan's Edo period as his colleague Dr. Shuichi Yamamoto (left) listens at the USC East Asian Library in Los Angeles on September 6, 2013. Photo: Martin Cohen www.martincohenphotography.com

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A presentation by Harvard University Professor Dr. Donald Swearer broadened the symposium’s perspective by analyzing a different country and era. Swearer, who has spent much of his career researching the roles of Buddhist monks in Thai society, explained that a historical concept called anurak still lives on today in Thai green movements.

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“From an environmental perspective, I render the Thai term, anurak, as ‘conservation.’ Many Thai monks are involved in efforts to stop the exploitation of forests in their districts and provinces. They have been called ‘forest conservation monks,’” said Swearer, who cited Sulak Sivaraksa as an example of a monk who currently uses modern tools like online marketing to advocate for social and environmental justice.

Anurak, the ability to be in a state of empathy, is fundamentally linked to non-attachment or liberation from preoccupation with self.”

In this photo released by the USC Center for Japanese Religions and Culture, Harvard Professor Dr. Donald Swearer is seen writing the names of influential Thai Buddhist monks Buddhadasa Bhikkhu, P.A. Payutto and Sulak Sivaraksa on a board at the USC East Asian Library in Los Angeles on September 6, 2013. Photo: Martin Cohen www.martincohenphotography.com

After Swearer discussed how alternative consumerism’s a part of the philosophies taught by some of the aforementioned Thai monks, USC CJRC Director Duncan Williams—who previously spent many years living in Tokyo—shared an update on Japanese solar energy initiatives.

“A group of Buddhist monks in the Edogawa ward of Tokyo wants to develop a solar technology in which they can create a thin film that can attach to the tiles of their temple. This would let them maintain the traditional architecture of their temple and generate solar energy at the same time,” said Williams, who also provided commentary on all of the presentations made during the symposium.

As the symposium came to its end after nearly eight hours, Swearer reminded the environmentally conscious audience of a saying by a legendary Asian leader which summarized the bigger picture.

“In the words of Mahatma Gandhi, let’s ‘live simply so others may simply live.’”

Elias Kamal Jabbe is a Los Angeles-based journalist and PR Specialist and the Founder of Multicultural Matters, an online news publication which promotes cultural discovery, sustainability and entrepreneurship. Feel free to connect with Elias via LinkedIn or Twitter.com/Elias213.



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