Teaching about the environment in Japan: a personal view

- Michael Morris, Ph.D.
Department of Agriculture and Environmental Systems
Shibaura Institute of Technology (SIT)
Fukasaku 307, Saitama 330-8570

Email: Michael@sic.shibaura-it.ac.jp

Eubios Journal of Asian and International Bioethics 11 (2001), 42-44.

I accepted my present position teaching pure ecology, applied ecology and global environment courses in April 1998. The university provides training for future architects, town planners and engineers. Most of the courses offered are vocational, but as part of their general education, students are also required to take some elective courses such as mine.

A recent review on environmentalism in Japan (1), has criticised Japanese government and industry for its overemphasis on "technological fixes" to environmental problems , at the expense of changing overall consumption patterns and public attitudes . With this in mind, I planned my course around a more holistic framework, aiming to challenge the present way of thinking and propose alternatives.

I soon realised two things. Firstly, although I had studied in Japan and had a reasonable grasp of the language, my degree of fluency was not sufficient to dazzle students with my eloquence. Teaching my courses in English was also difficult given the general poor level of English language ability. Secondly, Japanese students regard university as a place to take a break after the extremely grueling and highly competitive entrance examinations. They are in no mood to give their undivided attention to unfamiliar concepts through weeks of lectures.

In addition, although authority figures such as teachers are generally more widely listened to and respected in Japan than the West, we are not the only authority figures out there. Teachers cannot hope to compete on rhetoric with government and corporate representatives who can more strongly influence public opinion by speaking louder, longer and last.

Practical classes

The above considerations therefore required a change in approach, and I therefore concentrated on practical work and field trips for all three courses. In spite of being in an urban area, the campus and its surrounds proved to be a useful asset for this type of approach.

During the Meiji period, the campus surrounds were marshy and the area was crisscrossed with small waterways. The waterways still exist, but are now bounded by concrete and are little more than open drains. The campus was built in the 1960s, and unfortunately under environmental law at that time, there was no necessity to keep construction plans, so I was unable to see exactly what had existed before building started. By talking to older residents however, I was able to ascertain that the area had been forest, swamp and farmland before building started.

Approximately 3-4 hectares of wetlands and a pond still exist 1.2 kilometers from the campus. This area has a high diversity of bird and plant life, and is managed by the Prefectural government as a bird reserve. Approximately 3 hectares of broadleaf forest remnant are preserved on the campus itself. Saitama farmers traditionally planted and maintained small wooded areas of broadleaf forest (heichirin) on their land. The branches from these provide firewood and the leaves provide fertiliser. The total heichirin area in southern Saitama Prefecture started to decline with the demand for land after the Meiji restoration, and dropped further during the economic growth years of the 1990s as farmers sold off their land to developers. However, several farmers in southern Saitama prefecture still rely on leaf compost (ochiba) from heichirin (2).

Ochiba from the heichirin on campus is collected by ground staff and allowed to mature in traditional fashion. There is a field on campus, and the availability of ochiba means that students can gain experience at traditional Japanese organic agriculture.

Two kilometers from the campus is Minuma Tambo, a flood plain of 1260 hectares containing parks, paddies and other vegetable fields. This area has been set aside for flood control and recreation, and as a reserve for rare and endangered species (3).

Practical courses and laboratory experiments were mostly conducted in class time, and utilised the local features. Students were asked to give their impressions of practical classes as part of their assessment. Each year students are also asked to evaluate all their courses. The practical classes that elicited the most positive comments are listed below:

1. Surveying biodiversity in the heichirin, and comparing it with that on the sand baseball field and the concrete quadrangle. Students were encouraged to dig in the soil, turn over leaves and peel away the bark from rotten branches.

2. Growing crops on the campus field. One project involved sowing fast growing crops or spring onion seedlings in beds containing chemical fertiliser, ochiba or no fertiliser and noting the difference in growth rate. A second experiment involved planting radish and rape seeds at different densities in order to learn about interspecific and intraspecific competition.

3. A tour around the whole campus, including the concrete enclosed waterways, the campus shop and cafeteria, the field and the heichirin. Students were asked to list examples of both good and bad environmental management.

4. A field trip to the nearby wetland and pond to observe biodiversity and zonation patterns.

5. A bicycle trip to Minuma Tambo. Points of interest are vegetable gardens intercropped with flowers, the riverside reserve and a park.

6. A field trip to a rocky shore at Hayama, followed by some time in the nearby museum identifying what had been found. This could not be done in class time since the sea shore is a two hour train journey from the campus. Instead I chose weekends with a good low tide to show small groups of students around.

7. Demonstrating the orientation behaviour of woodlice (4).

Student comments

After visiting the heichirin

"I have not had a good excuse to get my hands dirty digging in the soil since I was at kindergarten"

"This was the first time I had entered the forest since I enrolled [18 months ago]. I was surprised at how many animals and plants there were. Seeing praying mantis eggs after such a long time certainly brought back memories".

"Surrounded by all those trees I could believe that I was actually in a natural forest"

"Although I have been coming to this school every day, I never realised just how much diversity there was in the woods. After observing closely, I realised that is more than one type of ant, and as for fungi, so many species are all growing in the same place. " (one other student had a similar comment).

After growing their own crops

"Its been a long time since I grew anything myself and I enjoyed it. It was interesting to watch the progress of the radish and rape crops" (one other student had similar comments)

"I enjoyed the experience of doing my own cultivating and planting"

"After growing our own radishes I understood how farmers feel."

After the campus tour

"I must have been past that waterway every day, but never noticed it before"

"I have been going to SIT for two years, but without noticing my surroundings. This trip has made me realise what is around on this campus"

After visiting the pond

"What I realised from the visit to the pond is that even ordinary looking places are rich in diversity"

After the trip to Minuma Tambo

"In today's world with our dependence on fossil fuels, we are forgetting how pleasurable it is to cycle along the footpath surrounded by nature"

"I have lived in an apartment 5 minutes walking distance from campus for the last 4 years, but have never visited Minuma Tambo which was right under my nose. Seeing the open fields, the flowers and grass and the flowing river, it is almost like being in the countryside"

"At this examination, I could feel very warm atmosphere and see a lot of insects and plants for the first time in a long time (5). (one other student had similar comments).

"I have come to realise how desirable it is for us to preserve of our waterways and to respect nature." (one other student had similar comments).

After the coastal field trip

"It was a valuable experience actually seeing and touching sea hares and other living things that I had so far only seen on television or photographs"

"I have often been to the seaside on holiday, but never really looked at the animals and plants. I was surprised at how many there were, even in the small rock pools"

"I was both surprised and impressed by the sheer numbers of living things "(one other student had similar comments)

"I was surprised at how many living things exist between the tides, all adapted to their own environment. Looking at the real thing gave me a better appreciation of this than a photograph would"

"Even though I knew about the seashore ecosystem from reference books, seeing the real thing was a series of surprises"

"When we were told to put back any rocks we turned over, I realised how important it is that people do not disturb the ecosystem"

"I would strongly like to preserve such wonder"

On woodlice

"It was quite amazing to me that such a small creature could prove to be so interesting when examined closely. We felt like conducting more investigations on other animals."

"I didn't realise that there were rules governing woodlice behaviour. I thought woodlice just behaved without thinking, but it isn't so. Animals are certainly a mystery."


The comments suggest that the most valuable educational experience provided by outdoor classes and laboratory experiments is that students started to notice their immediate environment, to appreciate it and to understand the need to preserve it. Most comments about the practical classes were positive. The only negative comments I received were about my classroom teaching, particularly my language ability.

Before the classes, students did not seem to notice natural areas in the city around them. A similar comment was made by an environmental educator from Canada (6), who pointed out that many students see nature as somewhere "out there", with no relevance to city living. This dichotomy is possibly stronger in students from the strongly urbanised Kanto region since they are less likely to have the same experience of unspoiled wilderness as their counterparts from less crowded countries.

Students seemed especially impressed by the sheer number of plant and animal species , with the seashore trip eliciting the most favorable comments on this theme. The outdoor classes do not in themselves teach about more complex environmental principals such as green economics or environmental ethics, but in stimulating students' interest and awareness of biodiversity, they may encourage them to find out more themselves.

Japanese educational establishments are certainly now aware of the importance of teaching about the environment, but one problem is that environmental issues are often taught by English speakers. With the poor level of English ability of most Japanese students, it is difficult to find text books or other material that can teach them in any depth (7). In an attempt to get around this problem, four environmental education professionals have published a book in simple English which they hope will serve as a text for both English and environmental studies (8).

While this is one constructive way to approach the problem, I suggest that another way is to make classes more practical based, so language becomes less important. I would certainly encourage anyone wanting to teach in Japan to at least make an attempt to learn the language, but nobody should be put off coming here because of limited Japanese ability. My own experience has taught me that enthusiasm and skillful use of local amenities as teaching resources is far more important.


1. Taylor, J. 1999: Japan's global environmentalism: rhetoric and reality. Political Geography 18, 535-562.

2. Inui, T. 1993: Hito to midori no Bunkashi . [The environment as culture]. Mitsuhou Town Council Education Committee. Mitsuhou, Saitama Prefecture (in Japanese).

3. Sakai, K. 1999: Environmental assessment and historical changes in Minuma Tambo, Saitama Prefecture. Bachelor of Engineering thesis, Shibaura Institute of Technology (in Japanese).

4. Morris, M.C. 1999: Using woodlice (Isopoda, Oniscoidea) to demonstrate orientation behaviour. Journal of Biological Education 33, 215-216.

5. This comment was written in English. All other comments have been translated from Japanese.

6. Halaza-DeLay, R. 1997: Remystifying the city: reawakening the sense of wonder in our own back yards. Green Teacher 52 (http://www.greenteacher.com/articles/mystifyeng.html). [Editor please note: The web page, including the mis-spelling, is correct].

7. Hesse, S. 1999: Writer group collaborates to meet environmental education challenge. Japan Times, Jan 11 1999.

8. Hesse, S., Evanoff, R., Paxton, C., and Paxton, H. 1999: Make it or break it: the future of our environment. Sanshusha, Tokyo.

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