East Mirrors West – An interview with Yumiko Kohama

As Chairperson of the International Department of Earth Village Network, Japanese environmentalist Yumiko Kohama and staff have begun a series of visits to the United States heralding the tides of change from across the Pacific and the world's second largest economic power. "This is the time for us to speak our voices loudly," says Yumiko. "There are many people on this Earth who are worried about the future of our children and our planet. By seeing the facts and understanding the policies of the USA and Japan, we see that if these two countries make a change now, the whole world can be affected drastically."

According to Yumiko, interest in environmental policies, issues and action is growing steadily among citizens, government officials and business leaders in Japan, creating a green revolution of sorts. "I feel the engine has started to move and the turbo engine will start soon," she declares." The newly elected governor of the prefecture (similar to a state) near Tokyo is a woman who is also an active member of various environmental groups, including Earth Village.

"We see a hope," says Yumiko. "We citizens have strength and it is time for the USA and Japan to work hand in hand."

Carol Bedrosian: Can you start off by telling us what your work in Japan is about?

Yumiko Kohama: I am connected with the network Earth Village and we are the biggest earth environmental and peace NGO [non-governmental organization] in Japan. We have more than 62,000 members all over Japan with nearly 200 regional Earth Villages everywhere and we are still growing. We have villages everywhere, including some areas near Mt. Fuji which is sacred and the highest mountain in Japan. I met Tom [Dostou] when he came to Japan for the peace walk and now have the opportunity to meet him here in the United States because I have come to New York for this project we are working on now.

Carol: What is the project?

Yumiko: Earth Village's aim is to realize the sustainable society which is in harmony with the Earth without any environmental degradation, war, poverty and hunger. So we want to realize a happy and peaceful society. We've done more than 3,000 programs all over Japan and now we've started to be international. Two other representatives of our network and I are coming to New York or other regions near New York to start to work with the United Nations and have connections with other environmental and peace NGOs in the USA, to have connections with people in mass media and other networks.

Carol: What is the most important work and pressing issues that you are facing right now?

Yumiko: Too many issues. We deal with ozone layer depletion, climatic change, chemical contamination. I think one of the biggest ones is climatic change. Four years ago there was a big world conference in Kyoto, Japan. Countries from all over the world came together to talk about how to stop climatic change and global warming. The USA and Japan are the biggest emitters of CO2 gas and very reluctant to work for the reduction of it. So we want to have a connection with citizens or NGOs or networks of people who have the same concerns. This is one big issue.

Carol: What can people do?

Yumiko: We give lectures about 500 times a year to tell citizens to be green consumers. This means to be "green citizens" who think about future life, the environment, not putting the first priority on money or economic growth or materials. So the important thing for us is to become green citizens who think about Earth's environment, the future and life.

Carol: Is this happening in Japan?

Yumiko: Yes.

Carol: People are being green consumers?

Yumiko: Yes.

Carol: It is surprising news that it is taking effect in Japan because in the United States it is not.

Yumiko: Green consumers don't seek materials or money, but they seek happiness and fulfillment.

Carol: And you find that Japanese people are becoming aware of this?

Yumiko: Yes, pretty much so.

Carol: Do you have a sense as to whether people in the United States are aware of this or not?

Yumiko: I have been talking about this to many people after I came to the USA at the end of last month. Many people were very impressed and showed their approval. So I feel this is touching the people. In Japan we've been expanding our economy for more than forty years and we are the second biggest economy after USA. But people are not really happy under the stress, and there is a harsh competition to have a job. The families are separated and individuals are very alone. So Japanese people are starting to question and think something is missing. They listen to our lecture and they begin to think that for their real happiness, it is not in the material but in the connection with people, families and communities.

Carol: So maybe Japan is leading the way in this environmental revolution because I don't see that the United States is moving in that direction. I think people are moving more in the direction of materialism and not being green consumers in the United States.

Yumiko: I see both. I see another type of change in the USA, too. Not only USA, but in the world. I have been meeting many people in Japan because I go to give lectures all over Japan. The representative of our network gives lectures over three hundred times a year all over Japan and each lecture has from 300-500 people in the audience – sometimes more than 1,000 or 3,000 people who want to listen to this. Every month, over 5,000 people join our network to be a green consumer so I can see the wave of change in Japanese society. Also we started to have connections with citizens all over the world. When we talk about this I can feel that this is really touching. I have met many people in many networks who have the same concerns and same ideas.

Carol: So you are hoping that maybe this movement from Japan can also take root in the United States if you bring this message here, put the facts in front of the people and inspire and encourage them to change? In Japan, what age groups are you talking to? School children, high school, college?

Yumiko: It varies. We talk to children too, but I think the environment is changing, the Earth is changing quickly, so it is very urgent and critical to change adults first. Adults need to change their lifestyles, their consciousness, their values. By taking the lead, by showing our change, children will follow. So in our network the age varies from teenagers to 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s. People in their 40s and 50s are very active. The characteristics of our network are that half of the members are women. Women are taking the lead and men are supportive. That is very unique.

Carol: I am wondering if this green movement has taken hold in Japan first because you have more people on a smaller space so it becomes very obvious to your citizens that the change has to happen now. How can we bring that same awareness into the United States where we have seemingly unlimited space and resources and goods on the shelves in our stores?

Yumiko: That is the thing that I want to learn. That is why I came to the USA, to see how we can do it here. I attended some lectures here and I saw people who were impressed in the same way which I have seen in Japan. I think the basic method is the same. For example, in Japan we started to have small groups, we started to talk – even individually -and little by little the group becomes big. We started to have regular meetings and started to organize big lecture meetings. We just start some meetings to share ideas about what is going on with the Earth and what we can do.

Carol: Is there anger from the Japanese people or from the other countries around the world at the United States for being such wasters of energy and resources and not doing more in the way of conservation and clean up?

Yumiko: Yes. I am seeing anger towards the USA and Japan in the world conference for climatic change because we are the big emitters. We never take action, but want to enforce the developing countries such as China and Africa which didn't produce CO2, so people have blames and angers towards us. We are the ones who should take the lead to change society into a sustainable way.

Carol: And you believe that it is possible?

Yumiko: Yes.

Carol: Most people say that the corporate interests are so strong that they fight against these changes for the good of the environment. Can the voice of the people make change possible?

Yumiko: This is the same in Japan too. Sometimes we have pressure from the companies for their own interest, but individually, when people listen to and see the facts of what is really going on without being stuck in their positions or titles of work, they can notice because we all are human beings. Living creatures. So I think that it is very important to see the facts and to feel as individuals.

Carol: I am personally concerned with these changes and I sometimes feel hopeless being a citizen of the United States because our greed is so strong, but you seem to have more optimism. Maybe the leadership in Japan or the corporate leadership is more open to looking at the whole picture instead of just their profits.

Yumiko: No, there is the same problems, but the presidents of some companies are thinking very seriously about the environment in the future. For example a big car company in Japan in executive meetings were talking that in the near future our company won't exist. So they know we cannot keep selling cars eternally because when everybody has a car we don't need anymore and there is no room for them. This current system is not sustainable. So people are starting to notice. In our lectures, people in their 40s or 50s who are the directors or presidents of companies listen to our lectures and they are moved to tears. They remember, "What is a really important thing to survive? What are we living for? What is the real happiness?" When they remember, they are relieved from the pressure and stress. I have seen this a lot in Japan and I don't think that it is impossible to do in the USA too because we are all the same human beings.

Carol: Have you met here in this country with corporate executives and presidents?

Yumiko: I started to make good connections here with people who have those connections, so I am going to meet with those people now. I think it is very important that the leaders change. When the leaders change the bodies, corporations, organizations will change.

I want to talk about the experience of one of our representatives. It is up to you how you listen to his story. He is working as a scientist, yet he had an experience of dying about twenty years ago. He saw the whole process of his body having operations in the hospital and there was no hope for his survival. His heart had stopped for awhile, but he was revived after the death experience, which was wonderful. He received many answers from where we come from, what we are, where we are going when he "died." At that time he saw the future of the Earth.

Prediction is nothing if we change the present. But we have the potentials of the future, now, which are very dangerous. Twenty years ago he saw the future. He saw that in ten years, the Soviet Union will collapse and it happened in 1990. In twenty years – it means maybe this year or soon – the United States of America will collapse after the bubble economy goes. And in forty years the whole world will be collapsed. I think he saw the Third World War.

But we can change. Not by his experience only, but we can see the facts of what is going on around the Earth and by seeing the data and the information of the environmental issues. It is very critical. The resources and the water and the food are very limited, but many countries are growing their economies so fast, following the USA and Japan. Unless the USA and Japan make a change and shift, other countries will follow. So we are going to have a competition over very limited resources. We don't have any guarantee that any singular nuclear warhead won't be flying, which is now 30,000 active on this Earth. So it is time for the citizens to be encouraged to respond.

Carol Bedrosian is publisher and editor of Spirit of Change