Sustainable Development

Here's how to shape the future of sustainable development in Japan

The younger generation in Japan are increasingly aware of sustainable development, and keen to collaborate with the rest of the world.

The younger generation in Japan are increasingly aware of sustainable development, and keen to collaborate with the rest of the world. Image: Aleksandar Pasarik for Pixels

Naoko Kutty
Writer, Forum Agenda
Naoko Tochibayashi
Communications Lead, Japan, World Economic Forum Tokyo
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  • Young people in Japan are increasingly aware of sustainable development and international issues.
  • Despite this, the country's non-governmental organizations struggle to attract talent.
  • There is a need for better education around international issues and collaboration.

World Development Information Day, marked this year on the 24 October, was established by the UN in 1972 to draw the attention of the world to development issues and the international cooperation needed to solve them. In Japan, however, 6 October is is designated as "International Cooperation Day". This marks the anniversary of the 1954 Colombo Plan, the earliest postwar international organization for aid to developing countries. The Plan aimed to facilitate economic and technical cooperation among the member countries of the British Commonwealth of Nations. This was the first time Japan had worked government-to-government, to cooperate economically with other countries.

The country has moved a long way since then. The younger generation is increasingly aware of international issues, and keen to collaborate with the rest of the world. This contrasts with what some observers have described as an inward-looking tendency in the culture. “Japan’s presence in the world of international cooperation is unfortunately not large,” noted Sadako Ogata, former UN High Commissioner for Refugees, at a special dialogue on the future of Japan’s international cooperation held by the Japan International Cooperation Agency in 2009.

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A proactive younger generation

Japanese people are now well aware of the UN's Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). According to the consumer survey of 1,400 respondents throughout Japan, 86% of people said that they were aware, and understood the detail, of the SDGs. This survey has been conducted annually for the past four years, and awareness has increased sixfold since the first survey in 2018.

86% of Japanese people now say that they are aware, and understood the detail, of the Sustainable Developemnt Goals
86% of Japanese people now say that they are aware, and understood the detail, of the Sustainable Developemnt Goals Image: Dentsu Inc.

Among Gen Z, aged 15-24, a majority of both men and women said that there were aware of, and understood, the SDGs. They have grown up witnessing a series of natural disasters, notably the Great East Japan Earthquake in 2011, and have seen and heard about global and social issues such as climate change, informal employment, and gender inequality on a daily basis. This generation is also relatively more likely to take action and engage in activities that contribute to the achievement of the SDGs in their daily lives.

Non-governmental organizations and 'social businesses'

Despite the international outlook of the young, Japan's non-governmental organizations find it hard to attract talent. The sector is small, and salaries are nearly 1 million yen less than the average annual salary in the private sector. The financial fragility of the sector also makes it unattractive for young people starting off in their careers. An approach that tends to work better in Japan combines social good and business good.

Nowadays, there are many companies and entrepreneurs in Japan who seek to use new approaches to solve global social issues. These social businesses want to create social impact while also contributing to economic sustainability by generating business revenue. One example is The Ajinomoto Foundation, which works to improve infant nutrition in Ghana by marketing a baby food product called "KoKo Plus". This is a protein/micro-nutrient powder that can be added to a baby's food as they are being weaned, helping to prevent malnutrition.

Young entrepreneurs are also actively engaged in social business. AFRICL, a clothing brand that blends traditional Japanese culture and contemporary styles, is addressing a social issue through manufacturing by collaborating with Japanese craftsmanship and traditional garment-making techniques from Benin, West Africa. As economic growth and national development Westernize people’s lives, the challenge is to support traditional industries. “We want to find a way to realize the development of a country without discontinuing its rich culture that has been passed down from generation to generation” says Hiroko Okita, founder of the company.


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The role of education for Japan's development

In every country, young people need to be taught to face global challenges as their own personal problems and take action to solve them. In Japan, there is a need for educational settings to provide both opportunities for learning about social issues, and opportunities to put learning into practice. To seize this momentum of increased awareness of the SDGs among young people, we must foster young people the awareness that it is essential for multi-stakeholders including government, business, international organization, and NGOs to work together to solve social issues.

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