Education About Asia: Online Archives

Teaching about Environmental Issues in Japan

Back to search results
Download PDF

History of Environmental Education: Trends in Japan Schools

Environmental education in Japan’s schools has become more active in the last sixty years in both research and practical application. It is often said that environmental education in Japanese schools is now in the third phase of its development.

In the first phase, during the 1960s, study of industrial pollution was the focus. Social studies curricula in elementary schools, as well as in lower and upper secondary schools, included lessons on the ways environmental pollution (river, seacoast, and air pollution by chemical and petrochemical industries) affected the population. In particular, four court cases of industrial pollution—Minamata, Yokkaichi, Toyama, and Niigata—were broadly studied.

In the second phase of environmental education in Japan’s schools, from the mid-1970s to the 1990s the focus shifted from industrial pollution toward urban pollution. Social studies students examined contamination of rivers by domestic and commercial sanitary sewage, air pollution by au­tomobile exhaust gases, and the excess of solid waste from households and business establishments. Especially in elementary schools, problems cre­ated by excessive household waste were widely used in classrooms for en­vironmental education case studies.

Environmental education in the third phase in the 1990s evolved into the study of such pressing issues as global warming, acid rain, and ozone layer depletion. In this third phase, that still continues, elementary, lower, and upper secondary school social studies and science classes also study the problems of natural resources and energy.

Participants of the 1992 Earth Summit United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro accentuated the al­ready existing calls for environmental education centered on global prob­lems, and the conference had a major influence on Japanese environmental education. Japan’s Ministry of Education, Science and Culture (MEXT) is­sued Guidelines on Environmental Education for Lower and Upper Second­ary Schools in 1991 and in 1992 issued elementary school guidelines. After the Third Conference of the Parties on Climate Change (COPS) in Kyoto, Japan in 1997, global environmental issues, particularly global warming, became popular topics of study in social studies.

Solid waste problems continue to be studied in elementary schools dur­ing this phase. However, rather than simply dealing with the safe treatment of waste, the problem of limited land available for depositing waste and re­source recycling have been added to the curriculum. Moreover, environ­mental education that incorporates students’ experiences in nature, observation of the natural environment, and participation in nature preser­vation activities is now a part of the classroom. In this third phase, interdis­ciplinary education on food and agriculture is also incorporated into environmental education curricula in order to make students aware of how growing, processing, and cooking food in an environmentally safe way ben­efits both the human body and the larger society.

Japan’s Ministry of Education, Science and Culture (MEXT) issued Guidelines on Environmental Education for Lower and Upper Secondary Schools in 1991 and in 1992 issued elementary school guidelines.

Features of Environmental Education in Recent Years

As environmental education in Japanese schools matures, two important features have evolved—environmental education has become a cross-curricular topic, and the theme of the creation of environmentally friendly activities and lifestyles is an institutionalized part of the cur­riculum.

In the first phase, when the focus was on pollution, environmental education was largely conducted in social studies classes. In the second phase, environmental education was still centered in social studies, but it was also introduced in sci­ence and even Japanese language lessons. In the third phase, rather than just being a subject for social studies, environmental education has be­come a cross-curricular theme spanning various subjects and grade levels. In MEXT’s Guidelines on Environmental Education: Lower Secondary and Upper Secondary School’s Edition (grades seven through twelve), under the heading “Guidance of Environmental Education in Each Subject” the fol­lowing subjects are included: social studies, science, life environmental studies, homemaking, physical education, Japanese language, mathemat­ics, and moral and special activities. In the 1999 National Course of Stud­ies, the “Period for Integrated Study” was introduced for elementary school and lower secondary schools, and the “environment” was included as an example of a “broad and integrated issue.” The cross-curricular character of environmental education was emphasized in the integrated studies pub­lications.

In the early years of environmental education in Japanese class­rooms, lessons on pollution were critical of corporations and corporate groups that generated pollution, as well as the government and adminis­trative bodies that seemed unable to prevent pollution. During this pe­riod, the objetive of some lessons was to teach children that pollution was inevitable for corporations in a capitalist society and that the roots of pol­lution could be found in the capitalist system. However, students were not usually taught how to make an individual stand against pollution. In the second phase, rather than assign exclusive blame on any one eco­nomic system, most (but not all) environmental education advocates en­couraged students to take individual responsibility for what they could do to prevent pollution, such as the proper way to put out garbage and use of detergents that do not contribute to pollution. Still, for the most part, teaching people to alter their life styles substantially to protect the envi­ronment was not given high priority in schools. Now, students are en­couraged to modify their lifestyles and to take an active part in changing social and economic systems. For example the MEXT publication, Envi­ronmental Education, contains the following statement:

In addition to adopting environmentally considerate lifestyles and responsible actions, efforts are required to understand the socioe­conomic background to environmental problems and to make the socioeconomic structure more environmentally considerate. (6)

other examples of language in the guide intended to promote substantial lifestyle changes among students and their families included passages such as:

In order for humans to fulfill their responsibility towards environ­mental protection, it is necessary, in the production stage, to re­place substances having a high environmental load with safer substances and not to manufacture throwaway products and prod­ucts containing harmful substances; in the physical distribution stage, to advance energy saving and promote reuse and recycling; and in the consumption stage, to build a circulatory society where environmentally friendly products are purchased and recycling en­vironmental protection activities are aimed for. It is necessary for product selection and decision-making capability based on envi­ronmentally friendly lifestyles to be fostered among consumers. (8)

For a document on education that is supposed to take a neutral position, these were quite bold statements.

Examples of Environmental Content in a Japanese Social Studies Textbook (Grade Nine)

Since textbooks remain important in Japanese classrooms, examples of en­vironmental content from Civics for Lower Secondary School Students, pub­lished by Teikoku Shoinn Limited and authorized by the Ministry of Education in 2005, should be useful in helping foreigners better under­stand classroom treatment of the topic. I am one of the ten authors of the textbook that was edited to conform to the 1998 Course of Studies for Lower Secondary School. The text contains many examples of environment-re­lated topics and what follows is an in depth description of environment-re­lated content in the book intended to provide readers of this essay with a more specific idea of what all Japanese students study.

Chapter 1. History of the Contemporary Society and Our Life, Part 1, “Contemporary Society and Our Life,” there are descriptions such as: After the 1950s, when high economic growth began, televisions, elec­tric washing machines, vacuum cleaners, and refrigerators became popular, resulting in increased refuse and costs to collect, dispose of and recycle the refuse.

At the beginning of the high economic growth, environmental pol­lution increased, as did the anti-pollution movement. The Basic Law for Environmental Pollution was introduced in 1967, and the Ministry of Environment was firmed in 1971. Over time, Japanese businesses and society in general started to work on environmental preservation. After the 1980s, global environmental issues were discussed, and the En­vironmental Basic Law was introduced in 1993. Section 4. Environ­mentally Conscious Consumer Life, Chapter 2: Let’s Think about the Economy as a Consumer, in Part 2: “Our Life and Economy,” Sev­eral topics in the text illustrate the relationship between environmen­tal issues and consumer decision-making including:

Ecology Marked Goods: Many products are labeled ‘environmen­tally conscious” and are marked with an ecology seal that indicates the goods are made from recycled resources and have little or no effect on the environment.

Environment and Consumer Life: Demand for and consumption of energy and resources is increasing, and eventually the supply of fossil fuels will become exhausted. Not only does this increasing demand de­plete natural resources, but use of fossil fuels also increases carbon diox­ide in the atmosphere—one of the main causes of global warming. Everyone can do their part in their daily lives to reduce energy con­sumption, and practicing an environmentally conscious lifestyle does make a difference.

There is also content in this section offering examples of ways that a family can save energy and resources. Section 10. Social Responsibility of a Business, Chapter 3: Let’s Think About the Economy through Business in Part 2:”Our Life and Economy” Some of the content focuses on recent business and environmental history including narrative such as: Environmental Problems and the Efforts of Business. In the 1950s and 1960s, consumers criticized many businesses they believed were polluting the environment. Responding to these criticisms, businesses in Japan increased their efforts to pollute less and produce more “environmentally con­scious” goods. In 2000, the central government enacted a law encouraging government agencies at all levels to purchase eco-friendly goods and services, As a result, many businesses have responded by publicizing their environmental policies regarding the production of their products.

Section 4. Roles of Social Capital, Chapter 4: Let’s Think about the Economy as a Taxpayer in Part 2: “Our Life and Economy,” considers environmental preservation a societal responsibility:

Social capital is considered from an environmental perspec­tive. After enforcement of the “Environmental Basic Law” in 1993, the responsibility of government, business, and con­sumers for the environment increased. Recently some public works have also received attention because of their environ­mental effects.

Section 7. Widening the Idea of fluinan Rights, Chapter 2: Let’s Think About Human Rights in Part 2: “Our Democratic Gov­ernment” includes an environmental issue as an example of in­dividual rights:

In modern society, the effects of economic growth, science, and technology can cause pollution and environmental de­struction, so individual rights for a healthy environment should be respected. There are now laws requiring environ­mental impact assessments before new development. In 2003, a law was passed encouraging owners and managers in public facilities and private businesses, such as restau­rants, to recognize the rights of people to be free from sec­ondhand tobacco smoke.

Chapter 2. Contemplating Our Globe in Part 2: “Living as A Global Citizen” contains content on various global environmental problems. The chapter has five sections: Section 1, Global Environmental Prob­lems—about ozone layer depletion, desertification, deforestation, global warming and acid rain, with photos; Section 2, Global Warming and Its Effects—describes examples of some of the effects of global warming such as The Tuvalu Islands being under water and recent unusual global weather patterns, as well as the link between greenhouse gases and pos­sible global warming. Section 3, International Actions against Global Warming contains a description of international environmental discus­sions and agreements, including the Kyoto Protocol and the refusal of the US to sign it. Also, the case is made that global environmental prob­lems should be solved by international cooperation. There is a discussion of emission trading and the use of other economic incentives to achieve reductions in pollutions emissions. Section 4, North South Problems and Environmental Problems contains content on debates and friction be­tween developed and developing nations regarding solving global envi­ronmental problems. It includes data on the respective volume and per capita discharge of carbon dioxide in major nations including the US, Canada, Germany, Japan, China, and Brazil. Section 5, Living with the Globe, describes possible solutions for global warming including the generation of electricity using wind power, solar energy, and geother­mal power. The case is made in this section for the necessity of energy conservation and how to achieve it. There is an appeal for widespread cooperation to create a recycling society, and Freiburg, Germany is offered as an example of a successful ecological city. Because of common National Course of Study guidelines, other ninth grade civics books in Japan have quite similar environmental content.

Various Approaches to Environmental Education in Japan: Costs and Benefits

Although the national environmental guide­lines in the Course of Study and textbooks that reflect these guidelines are generally a positive educational development, too much of an em­phasis on environmental problems can be problematic, as I’ve addressed in a prior published article entitled, “The Theory of Progressive Envi­ronmental Education.”‘ If achievement of an environmentally friendly lifestyle is the only objective of schools, and other human wants and needs are not taken into account, the successes of Japan’s market econ­omy and the natural impulse of Japanese to better their material condi­tions could potentially be harmed.

The dominant environmental education perspectives, subsequently described, often do not consider economic analysis. Life Environmental Studies might be a good label for one of these perspectives. Life Environ­mental Studies proponents advocate living closely with and experiencing the natural world, volunteering for environmental protection and preser­vation activities, and living an environmentally-friendly lifestyle by cut­ting down on energy consumption at home, school, and the workplace, and by eating organic foods.

There are also environmental educators who take primarily a Scientific/Ecological perspective. These environmental educators tend to be most interested in ecosystems at all levels, their potential or actual destruction, and the facts and theories as to why ecosystems are destroyed.

Although the first two environmental education perspectives, by and large, don’t take economics into account, they both are more focused on positive environmental practices, environmental science, and real or per­ceived damage to ecosystems. Advocates of the third perspective, labeled as Anti-Economic Environmental Educators, promulgate the belief that it is impossible to solve environmental problems unless current Japanese lifestyles and the nation’s economy are radically revised, and they advocate political action to achieve these changes.

There is also a perspective in Japan, known as Economic Environ­mental Education, that is not currently as popular as the other ap­proaches. Proponents of this perspective believe that policies based upon economic incentives and disincentives are essential in order to demo­cratically and efficiently resolve environmental problems. Examples of policies that take economic incentives and disincentives into account in­clude environmental taxes, pollution credits or emissions trading, sur­charges, government or NGO grants for development of environmentally friendly technologies and products, and surcharges on goods and serv­ices that harm the environment.

Many lessons and educational manuals on environmental education have been published in Japan, and almost all of these incorporate the Life Environmental Studies or Scientific/Ecological perspective. In social stud­ies, a Life Environmental Studies lesson might include a practical exercise to experience solid waste gathering and screening, while an investigation of the causes and conditions of depletion of the ozone layer, global warm­ing, acid rain damage, and destruction of rain forests reflects the Scien­tific/Ecological approach.

Introducing economic perspectives into environmental education increases the likelihood that environmental problems will be rationally considered

I do not oppose and, in fact, actively support lessons that reflect these two perspectives. With­out enjoying and experiencing the richness and beauty of nature, without knowing about the ac­tual and potential destruction of the natural envi­ronment, and without taking part in activities to preserve the environment, it is impossible for meaningful environmental education to occur. Nevertheless, if an “Economic Environmental Ed­ucation” perspective is not also emphasized, envi­ronmental education will be easily led down the anti-economic path which is most likely to have negative societal consequences.

If advocates of the first two perspectives do not consistently include analysis based upon economic literacy and rea­soning, “Anti-Economic Environmental Educators” are much better posi­tioned to advocate saving the environment by denying individual freedom and democratic processes destroying Japan’s market economy and ignor­ing the natural human impulse to better one’s material condition. These positions are so contrary to human nature that the most probable result of their expansion in the classroom will be to confuse students about envi­ronmental issues and policies and promote ignorance and negativity about Japaris economic system.

The Significance of Introducing Economic Perspectives in Environmental Education

As an educator who promotes economic education in schools, I consis­tently promote economic reasoning as a potential problem-solving tool for environmental issues—an approach still rare among Japanese teachers. In­troducing economic perspectives into environmental education increases the likelihood that environmental problems will be rationally considered and that students will have a clearer understanding of possible solutions based upon a broad analysis of the societal costs and benefits each solution might impose. Specifically, students whose environmental education in­cludes economic reasoning might better understand:

  • that the environment is a scarce resource and preserving it, like preserving any other resource, has costs and benefits
  • that there are trade-offs between reducing environmental problems and the levels of material wealth for individuals and so­ciety as a whole, but optimal solutions are possible
  • that solutions for environmental problems are best evaluated using several criteria, including, most notably, effectiveness and fairness

Environmental Education: Recent Curricula Changes and the Future

In the latter part of the first decade of the twenty-first century, the envi­ronment has become an even more important part of the Japanese school curriculum than was the case earlier. In both the latest National Courses of Study for Elementary (2008) and for Lower Secondary Schools (2009), “en­vironmental and ecological sustainability” is recognized as an important goal. Environmental issues continue to be included, not just in science and social studies, but in other disciplines such as home economics and phys­ical education. In addition, environmental education is an important theme in Integrated Studies, a mandated interdisciplinary study that is part of the elementary curriculum. Because social studies, along with science, is con­sidered a key subject for environmental education, and my own expertise is social studies education, in the last part of this article I focus on the most recent environmental education changes in social studies and possible fu­ture ramifications of these changes.

Environmental Issues in Social Studies in Lower Secondary Schools

Lower secondary school social studies in Japan consists of three academic disciplines—geography, history, and civics. The January 2008 report of the National Government Central Council for Education described, “aiming to realize sustainable society” as one of the recommendations for improving the social studies curriculum and, particularly for civics, the report rec­ommended “that students think about environmental issues from the per­spective of sustainable society.” Based on the report, the latest National Course of Studies for Lower Secondary Schools was issued in March 2008. The document set the following as new contents of the revised social stud­ies curriculum:

Geography students will (1) understand the current Japanese situation of consuming resources and energy from a world perspective and also resource and energy trends in domestic industries—taking into account environmental issues and environmental preservation, and (2) think about the importance of environmental preservation in a community for constructing a sustainable society, focusing on environmental issues and preservation, industrial development, and society.

Civics students will (1) understand that economic and technological cooperation among nations is important for resolving the earth’s en­vironmental problems as well as global resource, energy, and poverty problems, and (2) research and analyze problems that can be solved by constructing a sustainable society.

In the new lower secondary school social studies, the term “sustain­able society” is a very important goal. Most probably curriculum standards developers were influenced to make the concept “sustainable society” prominent because “sustainable development” constituted such a central theme of the Kyoto Protocol. As the host country of the international con­ference that produced the Kyoto Protocol, the Japanese Government in­sists upon the realization of its goal to decrease greenhouse gas effects and levels of carbon dioxide.

Whether environmental education will contribute to a future sus­tainable society or will help Japanese citizens better understand and solve present and future environmental problems is difficult to predict. We can be certain, though, that environmental education will remain a permanent and important part of the curricula in Japanese schools.


1. Eiji Yamane, ‘Is Economic Education Contradictory to Environmental Education? Critiques of Radical Environmental Education,” The Journal of Social Studies, 76 (Japanese Association for the Social Studies, 1996).