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Green and growing

Part 1 of a series

AN ISLAND nation with no domestic oil supply, Japan offers a glimpse into the world's energy future, when oil reserves decline to unsustainable levels and alternatives are the only alternative. Unlike the vast and swaggering United States, Japan has confronted the reality of limited oil, especially in its energy conservation efforts. According to the International Energy Agency, Japan's energy consumption as a percentage of gross domestic product is the lowest in the world.

Nearly 10 years after it hosted the Kyoto global warming summit, the country still claims a leadership role in reducing carbon emissions. The national expression of concern for the earth dovetails nicely with the traditional Japanese reverence for nature (Shintoism sees gods in every mountain, rock, and tree), but in fact Japan has no choice: The country imports almost all its oil and 60 percent of its food. It is self-sufficient only in rice.

However, Japan has managed to drive down energy use dramatically without sacrificing the comforts of an affluent society. The per capita consumption of energy in Japan is nearly half that in the United States, but the per capita incomes are roughly the same. So prosperity alone doesn't explain why the United States burns so much more oil.

Japan's economy is still the second largest in the world. Its office towers and shopping malls teem with innovation and commerce. Its continued prowess in innovation and design keeps the Japanese well-stocked in consumer gadgets: cellphones with GPS maps, high-tech toys, the peculiarly appealing new electric toilet.

How do they do it? Partly, the Japanese have invented their way out of energy abuse. Hybrid cars from Toyota and Honda are just the most obvious examples. Four of the world's five largest producers of solar panels are Japanese, with Sanyo commanding 24 percent of the market. The government's New Energy and Industrial Technology Development Organization (NEDO) is busy testing thin, flexible solar panels that, among many other uses, can be carried along to recharge a cellphone on the go.

"This is a problem of moral dimensions," said Japan's minister of environment, Masatoshi Wakabayashi. With a green feather in his lapel and a copy of Al Gore's book on his desk, Wakabayashi is a bureaucrat with a cause. "I think we are receiving the message that our mother earth is in crisis," he said. "We have a common consciousness of this fact."

Indeed, Japan's famous insularity and conformity, burdens in other settings, work to its advantage here. On a recent tour sponsored by the Japan Foreign Press Center, I saw a society that has fully internalized the wisdom of restricting energy imports. Businessmen diligently separate their lunch box trash for recycling. Residential recycling is even more intense, with at least 10 sorting categories, including small metal items, bulky refuse, used cloth, and chopsticks. Neighbors frown if the wrong items are in the bins.

Houses, cars, and appliances here are all much smaller than in the United States, but better designed. Even delivery trucks are hardly bigger than the average suburban Hummer. There is a growing movement called " watashi no hashi" ("my chopsticks") that urges people to carry their own into restaurants so as to cut down on the waste of the disposable kind.

The transportation sector is responsible for 20 percent of Japan's C02 emissions (which overall are the fifth largest in the world). But gasoline is taxed so that a gallon costs roughly $4.50, and the fast, clean, and relatively inexpensive subways (the basic fare is about $1.50) arrive with military precision.

Long-distance travel by the Shinkansen bullet train, though expensive, is almost space age in its efficiency, and easily competes with air travel, especially for business. Travelers adopt a celebratory air with bento box lunches and pretty snacks to eat on board. At the stations, transit workers greet each train like sentries, holding huge bags for the (sorted!) trash.

This isn't a lower standard of living; it's just a different one.

Government campaigns to urge energy conservation are myriad. There are tax deductions for consumers who buy "green tech" appliances and cars; a "top runner" designation for environmentally friendly companies; a " warm biz" and " cool biz" campaign that sanctioned the removal of suit jackets by Japan's decorous businessmen in order to keep air-conditioned offices no cooler than 68 degrees; and a " minus 6 percent team" for citizens to join to help Japan meet its Kyoto goal of a 6 percent annual reduction in greenhouse gases, on the way toward 20 percent below 1990 levels. Wakabayashi says that 1.8 million Japanese citizens have pledged to take six steps to achieve the goal, such as turning off the lights.

It doesn't hurt that Japan is in a race for pride of place with the European Union. Earlier this month, the EU committed to reduce carbon emissions by 20 percent by 2020, with the added challenge that it would achieve 30 percent if the United States agreed to join. But Takayuki Uedo, manager of the New and Renewable Energy Division of the government's natural resources agency, is scornful of the EU's effort. "We are 20 years ahead of the EU countries," he said, pointing to a program to help homeowners purchase domestic hydrogen fuel cells. "We are the only country to realize the household market for fuel cells."

Can the common consciousness of energy conservation in Japan -- a country where commuters form a silent queue on subway platforms and no one jaywalks -- ever be translated to the United States? Let's hope so. With peak oil production already behind us and global warming an urgent reality, oil consumption is getting costlier all the time. Sooner or later, we are all Japan.


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