How Climate Change Is Directly Affecting Japan

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“We don’t remember a winter with this little snow,” the locals at Ouchi-juku village in Fukushima Prefecture tell me when I visited in February, their snow festival cut short. I had the same conversation almost to the letter in Aizuwakamatsu, Nikko, Fukui, and it always ended in, “We don’t know why.”

But we do know why, and we’ve known for a while now. Climate change is now being referred to as “climate crisis,” global warming is “global heating,” and Oxford Dictionary declared “climate emergency” word of the year for 2019.

We constantly hear of the ice caps melting, hungry polar bears, tropical beaches smothered in garbage and dead dolphins with bellies full of plastic bags. But all of that seems far away, a nightmare happening to someone else. So I sat down with Edith Mertz, an environmental scientist and PhD candidate in Global Environmental Studies at Sophia University in Tokyo, to ask her how Japan might suffer and what can be done to stop that.

Snowfall Shortages

One of the most obvious changes in the environment in Japan is the ever-diminishing snowfalls and shorter snow seasons. The Sapporo Snow Festival had to resort to importing snow in 2020. This also hit the Japanese ski industry hard, estimated to be worth at least US$1.4 billion annually. With global heating, this will only get worse.

Mertz says that Japanese scientists in 2002, using a +3 degrees Celsius climate change model, predicted that the ski industry would lose 30% of ski visits nationally (with 50% losses predicted in southern ski regions of Japan) by the year 2050. The economic loss, and the cultural loss of winter festivals, is immeasurable.

Temperatures Rising, Cherry Trees Blossoming

Every spring we hear news of cherry blossoms opening earlier than usual, as the days grow warmer. Cherry blossoms are blooming earlier on average each year at a rate of almost one day earlier per decade. In autumn leaves of Japanese maple and ginkgo are changing their colors later each year on average at a rate of around three days later per decade.

The Japan Meteorological Agency (JMA) reported that annual average air temperatures in Japan rose by 1.15°C per century between 1898 and 2010. There is greater warming in Japan compared with the global average warming of 0.74°C ± 0.18°C per century (1906–2005), and prediction models indicate annual temperature in Japan could increase by 2–3°C by 2100 (2081–2100).

Early spring does not mean simply getting to do hanami earlier. With temperatures rising, scientists predict longer and more humid summers in Japan, while other seasons are cut shorter. Moreover, Mertz explained that both temperatures and blossoming are a signal to insects and birds in the ecosystem, and when the signal is perturbed, the whole system crashes.

Migrating birds, like the starling for example, might come back too late, and if trees bloom too soon they will be left without food and die. After one link in the food chain is disturbed, a domino effect will follow and many species will not be able to adapt in time and survive. Some species are more adaptable than others. The iconic cranes of Japan are becoming more reliant on agricultural lands for their survival, which could lead them into conflict with farmers.

Effects on Japanese Agriculture

The change in climate and the thawing of snow might open up farmland for the farming of fruits and vegetables that before thrived only in the south, but at the price of stunting growth of plants that thrive in colder climates right now. At the same time, southern Japan will see a decline in the crops they are currently farming. For example, with a temperature increase of 3°C, northern Japan could see rice yields increase by 13%, while an 8 to 15% yield decrease would be observed in southern regions.

The agriculture and the farmers will need to adapt to climate change, and the societal changes it will incur. If farmers change what they grow, they will need to be retrained and establish new trading chains. For instance, Hokkaido might become able to grow bamboo, but the local farmers have no knowledge how to grow it, how to use it and no trade deals in place for where to sell it. Furthermore, farming communities have long family traditions centered around growing a certain crop that might perish if they change what they grow.

Another option is for the farming communities themselves to move north chasing for the right weather conditions, a displacement which will cause even greater problems with land and house ownership, as well as community and identity.

Effects on Oceans and Fishing

Every coastal area is on high alert when it comes to global warming, as there are more frequent floods and superstorms to be expected. Japan had one of its strongest typhoons on record in October 2019, when typhoon season was supposed to be over. Flooding from the ocean is worse than rivers overflowing, since salty water damages nutrients in soil.

Rising water temperatures bleach corals, destroy seaweed and drive some species of fish away. Similar to farmers being tied to their land and crops, fishing communities in Japan depend on certain fish and seaweed farming in their area. While fishermen are more flexible and already move northwards following fish, seaweed farming is suffering. If the people move upwards, there will be similar displacement issues like in the case of farmers.

What Can Be Done in Japan?

Even though the future seems bleak, Mertz says that well-thought environmental policy and proactive approach might help greatly. Japan is one of the fortunate countries to have vast biodiversity and different weather patterns from Hokkaido to Okinawa, so experts have knowledge and means to deal with changing climate that other countries might not have.

There can be national strategies in place to help species move northward, by replanting corals or seaweed and thus giving them a small push. If we are to expect displacement of farmers and fishers, there can be collaborations, retraining programs and setting up new trade deals in advance. As long as we study and know the potential adverse effects, we can think of ways to mitigate them.


Feature photo: attraction art / Shutterstock.com

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