By Yuka Sugiura
Kyoto is famous for being one of the most beautiful and traditional cities in Japan. It is also known for the Kyoto Protocol, an international agreement on the reduction of greenhouse gases adopted in 1997. In this city, Erina Imai, a 22-year old girl, has stood up to fight against climate change by starting a local Kyoto branch of the international movement Fridays for Future. Fridays for Future is a movement initiated by a young Swedish activist, Greta Thunberg, to strengthen climate measures. This movement has spread across the world and has created a platform for young people to come together to raise awareness around environmental issues by demonstrating inside cities. Erina and Fridays for Future Kyoto are demanding that the city of Kyoto declare a climate emergency and take proactive action to protect the climate. For example, they are asking the city to commit to using 100% renewable energy by 2050 and to stop investing in banks that finance the coal industry.
Erina was first inspired to become an environmental advocate after watching a TED talk about environmental investment. In college, she became involved with organizations focused on the zero waste movement and participated in environmental business competitions. However, during this time, she still felt that her ability to make a difference as an individual was trivial. She doubted that the world would truly change when each step she could take seemed so small. Erina reached a turning point in 2017 when she participated in an international conference on climate change. At the conference, she was struck by a protest against the plans that Japan had to develop coal-fired power plants in South East Asia and Africa. As a Japanese youth, Erina was very ashamed and she felt a strong urge to take more tangible actions about the climate issues happening in her own country. After returning to Japan, Erina demonstrated great leadership as a youth in various environmental issues. She started to lead Climate Youth Japan, one of the largest environmental youth NGOs in Japan, and advocated for the advancement of Japanese environmental policies by directly communicating with policymakers. She also joined an environmental lawsuit as one of the youngest plaintiffs to fight against climate change and the health hazards stemming from the air pollution by coal-fired power plants in Japan.
Founding Fridays for Future Kyoto started when Erina joined a climate strike that was organized by Fridays for Future Tokyo in February 2019. Before this strike, she had hesitated to participate in or start a demonstration herself because she thought it was a little too intense in Japanese society, where demonstrations are not very common. However, during this strike, she felt strongly encouraged to be part of the movement and realized the potential of such visible actions by young people to fight for climate change. Right after this event, she gathered some of her friends who were interested in climate issues and told them that she wanted to start a branch of Fridays for Future in Kyoto. Global Climate Strike Day on March 15 was only one month away and she decided to orchestrate a strike for that day. She created a Facebook page, read articles of previous climate strikes from all over the world, and recruited and rallied individuals to attend. In referring to the movement, she used the word “march” instead of “demonstration” since the word “demonstration” might frighten people just as she had been initially. She also tried to use positive phrases such as “Let’s use renewable energy for our future” rather than negative wording like “Quit coal”. This creative idea and her diligent efforts made the first strike a great success, mobilizing more than 100 people from a diversity of age groups and backgrounds in such a short period of time. The strike drew great media attention, being featured by multiple newspapers and TV programs.
Throughout her movement, Erina has put much effort into educating and empowering the community. She spread information about climate change issues and the movement of Fridays for Future Kyoto through Facebook posts, using not only words but also video messages from various young activists from Kyoto to inspire others. She also hosted a networking event for the participants of the strike so that they can make connections with people who share the same passion and move on to next actions. In addition, Fridays for Future Kyoto gained support from the Kyoto prefectural government and they successfully submitted an opinion paper about climate policy to the head of the climate change department of the city of Kyoto in front of the public audience. Furthermore, the CEO of Patagonia Japan, a company well known for its efforts for the environment, gave a speech in one of the strikes and encouraged the engagement of the local community.
Despite her success, Erina has faced a lot of challenges in her path. One of them was getting individuals together for march. Although her first strike in March mobilized over 100 people, the number of participants did not significantly increase in her second large-scale strike in May. She aspires to involve thousands of people in her strikes and make a greater impact on society. By expanding the movement, she hopes that other young people will get interested in environmental issues and more people will start to take climate change as their own issues.
One of Erina’s future goals for Fridays for Future Kyoto is to provide young people with more opportunities to learn about climate issues. Erina hopes to organize opportunities for young people and policymakers to directly exchange opinions with each other and to submit opinion papers to government officials. Although strikes are a great way for individuals to directly get involved in issues as the first step, she is deeply aware of the importance for the youth to take part in policy development since they are the ones who will have to live with the results of worsening climate change. Erina wants more young people in Japan to acquire a better understanding of science-based climate issues and environmental policies and have constructive discussions as opposed to just demanding change without suggesting any concrete solutions.
Erina decided to organize Fridays for Future Kyoto because she understands the power of people working together. Her achievements as a climate activist are founded in her belief that young people should raise their voices against climate change. She says, “It is wrong to think that you do not have knowledge or skills because you are young. I believe in the potential and power of young people to make a difference. Even if they look small, your steps will expand the circle of participants. I want to create a place where young people can
learn more about climate change issues and exchange their creative ideas so that they can get ‘weapons’ to fight against those issues.”