The other week, I had an eye-opening class at university. In “Environment and Society” I watched parts of the movie “A Plastic Ocean” and it wasn’t necessarily the movie that was such an eye-opening experience but rather the reactions of the students around me. But let me tell you the story from the beginning…

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I have seen many movies about environmental topics and all of them have two things in common: Firstly, they all have the powerful message that change is urgently needed. And, most of the time, that change is possible if people and organisations around the world work together.
The second point is that they all evoke emotions such as shock, unbelief, guilt and helplessness. From my experience, these feelings then silently lead to a dynamic that develops within the audience.
So last week, after seeing the clips I was sitting in the classroom with a stirred heart and my thoughts racing. Waiting for everyone’s reaction. For the debate that I was expecting.

And that’s where the Japanese students shocked me!

Let me tell you why…
In my life in Europe, it was absolutely normal to be aware of and informed about the climate change, the negative effects of plastic on our planet, fast fashion and other factors contributing to the pollution of our environment. Almost every single one of my friends isn’t only conscious of those factors but also actively does something to “make the world a better place”. Or at least, to not make it worse

image courtesy: Quinebaug Valley Community College

The things my friends do are smaller to bigger commitments to protect the environment such as:

  • simply separating rubbish
  • using reusable bottles and boxes to carry their own drinks and food
  • being vegetarian
  • being vegan
  • buying products from local farms despite the often higher price
  • primarily shopping fair trade and sustainable products including food, clothes, cosmetics etc.

The list goes on but in the end, everyone consciously(!) makes choices when it comes to his/her impact on our planet. This doesn’t mean that we are all angels or that we all live a zero-waste life, but at least we all have an idea of what role we play in this chain. This has the effect that, whenever I watched a movie at school or with my friends, we were all on the same boat: We were all shocked about the things we learned but even more so motivated to contribute to an improvement of the condition of our planet. And we shared these feelings in our hearts as well as in our conversations.

It felt like we were part of the same spirit and although watching the movie made us feel guilty at first, we then all felt like, together, we had the power to make a change.

So when I was watching Plastic Ocean with the 70 other students, I also anticipated this strong urge to change something together. To use the direct power we have to make immediate changes, things such as not using the vending machines as often and trying to avoid plastic packaging as well as plastic bags when buying the daily bento for lunch were the first ideas that came to my mind.

But contrary to my expectations, I was part of a minority that seemed to be moved enough to believe that their own personal decisions on the daily basis could actually make a change. I do not intend to offend anyone but many students simply seemed indifferent.

Maybe it is the cultural difference of not showing too many emotions. Maybe it was wrong to expect this because not everyone in the world cares as much about our planet as the Germans do, for example. And in hence sight, it was probably wrong to assume that the reactions of students with a completely different cultural and educational background would be just like mine.

Nevertheless, my first and unfiltered reaction was disappointment. Disappointment which got even stronger when I found some of the students seemingly indifferent to the topic of saving the environment in the short and superficial discussion afterwards.

I couldn’t get this experience out of my head because I realised that my positive prejudice of Japan being a throughout highly developed nation had been shaken in its roots.

After talking to my Japanese friends, I found out that this is obviously not the attitude of the majority of all people here. However, what I found to be missing in the conversation with a lot of Japanese was the sense of responsibility and the awareness of the fact that they can actually have a great impact with their daily choices.

Lifestyle changes I have already made

All this has made me think more about my own behaviour and what impact it has on our planet. My conscience and my “German sense of responsibility” as well as the knowledge that I actually do have the power to change something, finally made me change the following things immediately:

  • I learned how to say “fukuro iranaidesu”(I don’t need a plastic bag) and now have fun seeing the puzzled view of the ladies behind the till when I return their plastic bags they put into my basket and then take out my own recyclable bag to carry my groceries.
  • I try to bring my own “bento”(lunchbox) for lunch instead of buying food that is offered on and around the campus and conveniently packaged in four layers of plastic.
  • Wherever I go, I always have my own “hashi”(chopsticks) with me.
  • I avoid buying bottled “mizu” (water) in shops or at the vending machines or shops and rather refill my bottle although I don’t really fancy the taste of the tap water here.

What this means for me in the future

I’ve already found a lot of inspiration regarding a sustainable lifestyle on blogs, in podcasts and on social media. This inspired me to now always reconsider my buying choices with a focus on packaged food as well as fashion. Despite the fact that Japan is such a highly developed country, its sense of environmental responsibility as a nation and as an individual is on a, for me, shockingly low level. But that is why I am curious to see what opportunities I can find to have a positive impact during my time left in Japan. On the other hand, I will use this experience as a motivation to not only educate the people around me here but to also live more sustainably and consciously when I’m back in Europe.

image courtesy: mine

Since I’m a naturally curious creature, I’d love you to tell me what you think about this topic. Have you made similar experiences in Japan or another country? How do you feel about hearing how the situation is in Japan in comparison to European countries?

If you are now curious about the movie, you can find the trailer here or you could also watch it on Netflix. There’s also a Plastic Oceans website where you can find a lot more information about the topic of plastic polluting our oceans and a step by step guide of what you can do to help. I especially recommend their blog where you can read about a variety of stories and get inspired.

(this post was originally published June 6, 2018 on my medium account)