Toshio Kuwako is a professor of value structure in the Department of Value and Decision Science, Graduate School of Decision Science and Technology, Tokyo Institute of Technology. He chairs the Toyota Foundation Research Grant Program Selection Committee. He is the author of Energeia: The Creation of Aristotle’s Philosophy (University of Tokyo Press, 1993), The Philosophy of Ch’i Phase (Shinyosha, 1996), and Space and Body: A New Perspective on Philosophical Investigation (Toshindo, 1998). In 1999 he published Kankyou no Tetsugaku (A Philosophy of Environment).
Professor Kuwako is one of the thought leaders participating in Ideapod’s launch, promoting the “big idea” of Environment versus Development. Sign up for the waiting list at www.ideapod.com to share ideas with Professor Kuwako.
Professor Kuwako, you are a leading Japanese philosopher who has become actively involved on the ground in some of the most contentious development projects in Japan. Unfortunately, your considerable work has yet to be translated into English. Can you please tell us something of how you came to be interested in the environment and later in consensus building?
As a young boy I would spend a good deal of time during holidays playing around the Ara River. I came to love its beauty, its wild flowers and diverse fish and insect species. However, with the Olympic Games, the area was quarried for sand and gravel for the construction of infrastructures such as highways and a network of high-speed railway lines (the Shinkansen). Within a relatively short time, the landscape changed dramatically. Children were no longer able to swim in the river, and were forced to swim in swimming pools that had been built just in those days. My dream at the time was to become a biologist, but gradually I began to think about modern civilization and its relationship to the environment.
So when I went to university I decided to study Hellenic thought which I saw as the basis of Western civilization. I became interested in Plato and Aristotle and wrote my doctoral thesis on Aristotle’s “Energia” which combines the philosophical, ethical and biological aspects of his thought.
Aristotle was critical of Plato’s notion of universal and unchangeable ideas. He saw reality as very complex and changeable. For him, scientific explanations are not reality themselves – it is only a possible understanding of the reality. He saw reality in changeable phenomena, and so he reversed Plato’s way of thinking
Originally I wanted to understand Japan’s changing environment. Japanese literature has traditionally dwelt on the beauty of nature and the human connection with nature. So, I began to research Japanese philosophy and culture, and how it regarded the relationship between human beings and nature.
Japanese culture has been influenced greatly by Chinese civilization. I came to see that Confucianism and neo-Confucianism were very important influences on the Japanese way of thinking about human beings and nature. So, I studied the philosophy of Zushi (a Chinese Confucian scholar), and also Buddhist philosophy. I also wrote a book on the 12th century Japanese poet, Saigyo. He saw the Japanese environmental landscape as an expression of Buddhist truth.
In 1999, shortly after publication of this book and another book on environmental philosophy, government officials began asking me for advice regarding the reform of the government system, especially in relation to land management. I was asked to join a number of committees, and became involved in several development projects.
Some of these projects were extremely difficult. What prompted the relevant ministry to contact me was that the government was in intense conflict with the local people affected by these projects. In 1997 the River Law had been changed to incorporate two new factors: care for the environment and citizen participation.
What led the government to think that change was necessary?
Many intense disputes had arisen, especially in relation to the Nagara River project, between government and the local people, as well as with the environmental movement and journalists.
It is worth pointing out that deep divisions between the people whose lives would be affected by various projects and the various levels of government had effectively brought many public works to a standstill. This was the background to the new Rivers Law introduced in 1997. This law stipulated that in working out a management plan for a river, a prior process of consultation involving academic experts, the residents of the area and regional government had to take place.
The government was trying to change its way of handling the situation, but government thinking was not monolithic. Many in government were skeptical of the value of consensus building. While government officials at the time of the introduction of the new River Law had experienced the difficulties that resulted from the previous lack of consensus building and were enthusiastic about it, subsequent officials who had not experienced the difficulties of conflicts and had no experience of working hard for consensus building were less enthusiastic.
So, I was asked by the Ministry of Construction and later the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism (MLIT) to help devise a methodology for citizen participation and consensus building. My involvement centered on infrastructure projects carried out by regional or national governments, which involved activities that could adversely impact on habitats and ecosystems, lifestyles, the natural landscape, and even the transmission of culture in the region.
Can you briefly describe for us what is entailed in your approach to consensus building?
May I offer two preliminary observations. First, it is important to note that with so many stakeholders included in the decision making process, reaching agreement can become more rather than less difficult. Residents themselves are unlikely to hold the same views, given that different residents are likely to be affected differently by any given project. So, the conflict is not just between citizens and government, but also among different groups of citizens.
Secondly, human beings have no option but to live in the environment and with the resources that are available. The question, then, is to determine how threats posed by the environment are to be dealt with and how resources are to be shared. This question can only be addressed in line with the principle of justice, which then has to be applied to each concrete situation. Inevitably disagreements will arise on what exactly is to be done and how. If these disagreements are not to escalate into major conflicts, and if they are not to be managed by coercion, then the only viable option is resolution through an equitable conversation. This is consensus building.
In such a conversation differences are not necessarily negative – they can be a source of creative interaction. Consensus building should assist the participants to see the issues from multiple perspectives, help them to understand the many dimensions of the problem. Minority viewpoints must be respected. Majority views cannot be imposed. Consensus building is meant to help people form their own well-grounded opinions based on shared information and search for solutions through discussion that leaves space for humor.
In consensus building it is important for participants to understand the positions of the various parties, that is, the nature of the disagreement. But they also need to grasp the reasons behind people’s positions. In any conflict there are interests, and they are the reasons behind those positions and these too have to be understood.
One other consideration is worth stressing. To the extent that a project is likely to impact on a locality, the consensus building process should try and put decision makers in touch with the importance of the locale – ecological, historical, cultural, scenic, economic – for the people who occupy that space. In a real sense the fundamental objective of consensus building is not so much to reach a decision as to gain mutual understanding.
Has there been progress in consensus building in your experience?
Yes, I can say there has been progress, though the path is often difficult and at times slow. Many government officials have acknowledged the importance of consensus building. I am invited by government officials to give lectures every year, and a government training school for officials has been established. There are now more opportunities to initiate consensus building processes, but there is still a great need for education, as experience gained by one group of decision-makers cannot be easily transmitted to another.
Success in consensus building depends, of course, on whether we are dealing with difficult cases, where the divisions are likely to be deep and prolonged, or with less difficult cases.
What in your opinion has been the role of the corporate sector in Japan?
The corporate sector is important, but generally operates behind the scenes. Construction companies played a key role in Japan – particular in the post-war period of reconstruction right through to the 1980s. This was a period when politicians could survive only with the support of construction companies. However, with the economic downturn since the early 1990s their influence has diminished. It is possible that following the 2011 earthquake and tsunami the construction sector will regain some of its former influence, but it is too early to tell.
It is nevertheless fair to say that government and business generally work together, and they both share what can be described as a ‘development mindset’. Both government and business, it should be stressed, are not intent on destroying the environment. They are generally supportive of action to protect the environment. But in development projects, where there is a sharp conflict between economic advantage and environmental values, the likelihood is that they will opt for the former.
Do you think that consensus building can be applied to issues that are national rather than just local in scope? Is, for example, consensus building relevant to developing a national climate change policy?
I believe that consensus building principles would be applicable to the national context, but I have no direct experience of this. I have not been involved in international debates. For consensus building to proceed, normally government needs to take the initiative, at least by acknowledging the constructive role that consensus building could play. It is possible to imagine that when situations reach crisis point, governments may well see the value of exploring consensus building processes. The Fukushima disaster offers perhaps the opportunity for a consensus building approach to the future of Japan’s nuclear energy program. It remains to be seen whether a Japanese government is prepared to follow this path.
This brings us to the larger question of environment versus development. Some people argue that these represent incompatible values. My own view is that they have to be made compatible. There is no way of switching off the engine that runs modern industrial societies. On the other hand, it may be necessary to introduce structural changes to economy and society if we are to preserve the integrity of our ecological systems. There is certainly a growing awareness in Japan that this is needed. In the spirit of Zen Buddhism I would say that the task is both easy and difficult.
Professor Toshio Kuwako interviewed by Professor Emeritus Joseph A. Camilleri OAM, La Trobe University