Unpacking the circular economy in Japan: what can be learned and improved on?
Japan was an early adopter of Circular Economy (CE) principles and has its own unique way of understanding and implementing the concept. Yet, the Japanese approach to CE has been relatively unexplored in English-language academic research, despite its relevance for addressing the social and ecological challenges of the 21st century. New research from Utrecht University’s Copernicus Institute of Sustainable Development shines a light on Japan's experience with circularity, offering valuable insights for policymakers and stakeholders in the Netherlands and elsewhere who aim to transform their own economies
Japan introduced the Sound Material-Cycle Society concept in the early 2000s. But what does that mean for circular economy policies in the country today? The study in Circular Economy and Sustainability co-authored by Risa Arai, Martin Calisto Friant and Walter Vermeulen explored the diverse views of Japanese Academics, Newspapers, Businesses, Government Authorities, and NGOs.
Technocentrism or transformation?
“Japan’s CE policies largely focus on recycling, energy recovery technologies, economic growth, and innovation,” explains Vermeulen. “This means that they align with a technocentric vision of circularity which disregards social justice elements and doesn’t seek to reduce major drivers of overconsumption and overproduction”. The study underscores that these practices could thus end up replicating and exacerbating current injustices in access to material and energy resources and in the overshoot of planetary boundaries.
Japan's circular economy policies largely align with a technocentric vision of circularity which disregards social justice elements and doesn’t seek to reduce major drivers of overconsumption and overproduction
On the other hand, the researchers also found that certain stakeholders in Japan have a more transformational approach to circularity. For instance, local governments address issues like resource overproduction and overconsumption, and Japanese NGOs champion climate justice and more transformative circularity options such as reducing, reusing, and repairing. “The push for social and environmental considerations in the circular economy often comes from local, bottom-up organizations who usually have more transformative ambitions than high-level policymakers”, says Arai.
An imbalance in power and attitude
At the same time, the research found that NGOs are often excluded from government decision-making meetings at the national level, where private corporations and economists are overrepresented. This power imbalance leads the researchers to raise questions about the lack of inclusivity in the Japanese decision-making process.
The lack of democracy in decision-making replicates current growth-centric policies, which leads to a CE transition that benefits only a few powerful industrial actors and does little to reverse current unsustainable trends.
“The lack of democracy in decision-making replicates current growth-centric policies, which leads to a CE transition that benefits only a few powerful industrial actors and does little to reverse current, unsustainable trends in biodiversity loss, resource overconsumption and overproduction, global poverty, and unequal economic and political relations”, explains Calisto Friant. Moreover, a growth-focused economy is unlikely to be able to meet climate goals, even if it implements circularity principles. “There is no scientific evidence that economic growth can be de-coupled from environmental impacts like carbon emissions quickly enough to avoid climate breakdown and biodiversity collapse”, he explains.
Democracy is key
Looking ahead, the study underscores the importance of democratizing decision-making structures and involving marginalized societal groups in shaping CE policies. The researchers suggest revisiting Japan's holistic ecological philosophy and Buddhist traditions as potential foundations for CE policies. As Arai puts it: “In many Japanese traditions, the ideas of regenerative circles and life in harmony with nature play a key role.” These principles could form the basis for an inclusive circular economy emphasising sustainability, reduced consumption, and enhanced well-being. According to Calisto Friant, the current trends in Japan support this idea: “While Japan has seen a decreasing GDP since 1995, Japanese people report increased happiness and life satisfaction and are moving away from individualism and consumerism in their aspirations and socio-cultural habits.”
In many Japanese traditions, the ideas of regenerative circles and life in harmony with nature play a key role.
The authors conclude that in developing its circularity transition, Japan could take heed of these developments and design degrowth-oriented policies that place human and planetary well-being before profits and economic growth. “Our research thus opens the door to a more inclusive and resilient implementation of circularity in Japan, aligned with socio-ecological justice and sustainability."
Arai, R., Calisto Friant, M. & Vermeulen, W.J.V (2023). The Japanese Circular Economy and Sound Material-Cycle Society Policies: Discourse and Policy Analysis. Circular Economy and Sustainability.