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Climate Change Communication in Japan

Summary and Keywords

Climate change communication in Japan is characterized by governmental campaigns for carbon dioxide emission reduction and mass media coverage of international events on climate change issues. A series of governmental campaigns included “Cool Biz,” “Warm Biz,” and “Team Minus 6%” for the Kyoto protocol; “Challenge 25” for the Hatoyama initiative; “Fun to Share” and “Cool Choice” for the new mid-term Greenhouse gas emissions reduction target of 26%. Those campaigns are popular among public. As for media coverage of international events on climate change issues, one of the biggest events was the COP3 in Kyoto, in 1997; another is the release of AR5 from 2006 to early 2007, and following events of the G8 summits of Heiligendamm, Germany in 2007, and of Toyako, Japan in 2008.

Until now, not much attention has been paid to climate change communication research, as social scientists seldom join research projects concerning climate change science. But recent severe weather, such as stronger or early-season typhoons, heavier rainfalls, early arrival of spring (e.g., earlier bloom of cherry blossoms), and the bleaching of coral reefs bring awareness not only to the general public but also to social scientists. Lack of participation by social scientists in climate change communication research has meant a very narrow range of communication with the public. Experts try to “teach” the science of climate change, and actions such as “50 easy things for tackling global warming,” but it seems those are not what ordinary people want to know. Furthermore, there seems to be no debate on what climate change will bring us, what kinds of energy we should choose, who might be more vulnerable. Debate on ethical issues, justice issues, and sharing of responsibility will be need to be part of future climate change communication.

Keywords: mass media coverage, newspaper, television program, international events, focus group interviews, governmental campaign


In general, communication is defined as the exchange of information among various stakeholders and is driven by outcomes the communicator aims to achieve. In some situations, it is used as a means of persuasion, while in others, it can be used to guide decision making or to improve relevant stakeholders’ understanding of related issues. In the case of climate change, communication is key to enhance public understanding of the science, social aspects (impact on everyday lives), and policies (reduction targets and actions needed to meet goals) related to climate change.

In Japan, the mass media has played a vital role in framing environmental issues and the formation of environmental policies. This has been true not only for the case of climate change, but also for other environmental issues and policies. The history of environmental issues in Japan is unique because they are defined by the relationships among citizens, the government, and industries. Japan’s first environmental issues were spurred by serious health problems caused by emissions from industrial activities, especially before and after World Wars I and II.

The most serious health impact by industrial pollution was Minamata disease, which occurred in Minamata City in the southern part of Japan officially recognized by the government in the 1950s. Minamata disease was caused by the 30 years of discharged wastewater containing methylmercury that contaminated fish and shellfish (McKean, 1981). By the 1960s, the Japanese government recognized the severe health consequences it posed including Minamata disease, yet the issue was still relatively obscure in the media. One reason was that Japan was undergoing economic development, and the government propagated slogans such as “recovery from the war” and “income-doubling plan.” As such, environmental issues, which could potentially be viewed as opposing the policy of economic development, were denounced by the media (Oishi, 1998, p. 137).

This changed in the late 1960s to 1970s, when, due to the severity of the situation, the general public gradually became more aware of environmental issues. Pollution levels in many of the most industrialized regions reached critical levels and victims of pollution, including residents of Minamata in Kumamoto Prefecture (Minamata disease), the Jintsugawa River area in Toyama Prefecture (Itai-itai disease), the Aganogawa River area in Niigata Prefecture (Niigata Minamata disease), and Yokkaichi-shi (city) in Mie Prefecture (heavy air pollution) sued the companies responsible for emitting wastewater and gases into the environment. Some groups of victims of Minamata disease from Kumamoto (McKean, 1981, p. 53), and their supporters, participated in demonstrations in front of the polluting companies’ headquarters in Tokyo. This made those victims visible to the mass media, and the mass media covered these events and issues, causing the public to become more aware of the “disease” aspect of pollution. This led to the establishment of the Environmental Agency in the early 1970s.

One reason why people were slow to take action or express support for the victims of pollution is unique to Japan’s culture. McKean (1981, p. 15) wrote in her book, “Japan’s cultural heritage—a carry-over from the ‘subject’ culture in the past—discouraged the open expression of conflict and resistance towards authority.” In regions with severe pollution and outbreaks of pollution-related diseases, companies that emitted waste or smoke from their factories were dominant in terms of tax revenues for local government from those polluting companies, employment of the polluting companies, and other social networks (Kada, Tanaka, Aoyagi-Usui, Arakaki, Watanabe, & Hoffman, 2006, p. 116). Thus, victims suffered severe discrimination in terms of employment, social relationships, and in their everyday lives instead of receiving support, whether formally or informally from the larger society (Kada et al., 2006, p. 113). Support groups and protest organizations were seen as wicked and anti-government. Before 1995, civil organizations could not have basic infrastructures, such as telephone numbers, for their official social status.

There were, however, some support groups aiding victims, especially in the Minamata disease cases in Minamata city and the Aganogawa River region in Niigata. Without them, it would have been challenging for victims to file lawsuits and gain compensation from companies or receive attention from the government. Large companies and the government came to be perceived as “wicked,” as they were associated with environmental problems. This negative perception of government and industry, combined with the victimization of ordinary people, shaped public attitudes towards solving environmental problems.

It seems strange that both supporters’ groups/organizations of victims and large companies and the government are seen as “wicked.” But from the viewpoint of the majority of people, anti-pollution or environmental organizations such as supporter groups that express strong opposition against their government are “wicked,” while from the viewpoint of the victims, companies and government who did nothing to solve the issues are “wicked.”

However, after the UN Conference of Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, and the Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake in 1995, conditions gradually changed. Agenda 21, which was accepted at the 1992 Rio conference, emphasized the role of all stakeholders, including citizens and civil society. In the aftermath of the 1995 earthquake, civil society (e.g., residents’ organizations and non-profit organizations) made significant contributions towards recovery efforts. After this incident, people began to recognize the importance of such organizations, and their social positions were elevated. In 1998, a law to promote specified (registered) non-profit activities was implemented. Since this law was passed by the legislative diet, organizations often ask for equal partnership in the creation and implementation of policies related to their various interests.

Climate Change Communication as Political Communication

Dietz (2013, p. 14081) wrote, “The public learns about science in three ways: mass media, organized education, and the processes labeled as public participation.” In addition, he argued that the concept of “values” is required in science communication to enhance good decision making, but “science communication usually focuses on facts, not on values.” He suggested that climate change communication needs to include not only science communication but also “values,” for good decision making.

In this article, climate change communication is discussed in the context of political communication, instead of simply science communication, as climate change communication often emphasizes the need for “action” to reduce carbon dioxide emissions in either governmental campaigns or grassroots promotional activities. The reduction target is a political goal of climate change policy. This means that a person or organization communicating about climate change issues often has specific actions intended for its audience to undertake. Communication by research institutes, organizations, or researchers in the field often focus on the science of climate change, which has a limited reach. In the field of risk communication, it is often emphasized that communication should be interactive, to encourage the sharing and exchange of knowledge among stakeholders, as everyone has a role to play in managing risk. However, political communication differs in that it seeks to achieve political goals instead. Thus, it focuses on implementing policies for reducing greenhouse gas emissions below a specified target level instead of avoiding or minimizing loss or damage caused by climate change. But this goal of getting “below the target level” is a product of political processes and international and domestic negotiations, and it is not entirely based on climate change science.

Furthermore, in the context of political communication, the flow of information tends to adopt a “top-down” approach in terms of policy making and implementation. This top-down approach functions in a way such that information flows from government to the public, particularly in the early stages, due to the uneven distribution of knowledge about climate change. The issue of climate change was initially raised by climate scientists to encourage governments to consider the possibility of climate change risk in the future. Climate scientists and government officials had the most information regarding the issue of climate change, such as its scientific attributes, risks, and measures needed to mitigate the risk. Governments then used several tools to disseminate information on greenhouse gas emission reduction targets, with the intention of encouraging the public to support and take actions towards aiding emissions reductions. Thus, although sharing information, discussing targets, and understanding the science of climate change among stakeholders were key factors to ensure that all parties involved were sufficiently knowledgeable about the issue of climate change, they were often overlooked in the political context of climate change communication.

In this article, climate change communication is discussed as follows: (a) the overview of mass media coverage of climate change and people’s information sources to examine the public’s exposure to the climate change issue; (b) the impact of mass media coverage on public perception and knowledge formation, using focus group interviews from two different time periods; (c) the effects of lectures and Q&A sessions with professionals as a method of climate change communication; and (d) the shifts in Japan’s energy policy caused by the Great East Japan Earthquake of March 2011.

Media Coverage of Climate Change in Japan

Information Sources

Figure 1 shows the information sources that people use in everyday life to learn about social issues. Television programs are the most popular option, followed by newspapers (print). Most people in Japan still learn social issues from the conventional mass media. Figure 2 shows the breakdown by gender and age groups of Figure 1. This figure tells us that there are significant differences in information sources by gender and age groups. Those are: (a) the younger groups prefer digital versions of newspapers/news site (brown line) to print ones (blue line); (b) the younger groups, especially females, are more apt to prefer SNS (social networking system, such as Twitter, Facebook, etc.) than older groups (red bold line); (c) the younger male groups and all ages of female groups are fond of information from family members and friends (dark green dotted line). In sum, the younger groups, especially female, tend to rely on “word of mouth” sources, family members and friends, SNS, than older groups. This implies that those younger age groups often fail to get chances for counter opinion; they get information about what they want to get or about what is easy to accept.

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Figure 1. Responses to the question: “Which information source do you usually use to learn about news or events in society in general (up to three items)?”

Source: NIES 2015 lifestyle survey (nationwide for those 20 years and older, 2,000 nationally representative responses).

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Figure 2. Distribution of response rate for gender and age groups responses to “Which information source do you usually use about the news or events in the society in general (up to three items)?”

Source: NIES 2015 lifestyle survey (male and female, 20 years old and over, 3,000 nationally representative samples, 1,481 effective responses).

The most trusted sources of information about environmental issues, nuclear power generation, and radiation issues are shown in Figure 3. Journalists/critics (commentators) who appear on TV programs are the most popular, followed by the national government, environmental organizations, researchers and professors at universities or research institutes, and local governments. Even though they are chosen as the most “trusted” information source, journalists and commentators are not usually science professionals. This often causes problems in scientific communication of climate change issues.

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Figure 3. Which information source do you trust most about the environmental issues, nuclear power generation, and radiation issues? Pick from the below (up to three).

Source: NIES 2015 lifestyle survey (male and female, 20 years old and over, 3,000 nationally representative samples, 1,481 effective responses).

Mass media in Japan has an extensive reach, with a daily home delivery newspaper distribution system that includes more than 95% of households (Nippon Shimbun Kyokai, 2016). The number of newspapers circulated per 1,000 adults in Japan is 410; this number is outstanding among reported countries, followed by Norway (368) and Finland (337), according to the “World Press Trends” by World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers (WAN-IFRA) in 2014 (Nippon Shimbun Kyokai, 2016). This means that the newspaper is the main source of information for social issues, and this tendency is stronger in Japan than in any other countries.

The popularity of the Internet has made digital versions of newspaper contents more accessible, and some of those newspaper contents are provided for free. The reports from the Japan Newspaper Publishers & Editors Association showed the decline of the proportion of readers of conventional newspapers. In 2001, 94.1% of adults regularly read newspaper(s), and did so 5.8 times in a week on average (Nippon Shimbun Kyokai, 2001, p. 7). But in 2015, those decreased to 77.7% and 5.4 times in a week on average (Nippon Shimbun Kyokai, 2015, pp. 24–25).

There are three nationally circulated newspapers (Asahi Shimbun, Yomiuri Shimbun, and Mainichi Shimbun) and one economic newspaper (Nikkei Shimbun), and several other large regional ones. Among the three nationally circulated and the economic newspapers, there are slight differences in ideological positioning, but not nearly as large as the differences in, for example, European newspapers. This has resulted in almost no ideological impact on public perception of social issues by the differences of subscription of newspapers. Mass media is still dominant in news coverage in Japan, although the use of printed newspapers has been decreasing, especially for the younger generations. Younger people tend to use the Internet (online newspapers or social network sites [SNS]) to access information.

Newspaper Coverage

Figure 4 shows the trend of newspaper (print) coverage of climate change issues. Articles were searched for using keywords; “climate change,” “global warming,” and “greenhouse gas” on the G-search and Nifty databases. Several peaks were evident. The first occurred in mid-2001, due to the reinstatement of the COP6 meeting held in Bonn, Germany that was previously broken up in November 2000, as well as the United States’ announcement of its withdrawal from the Kyoto Protocol. These events collectively resulted in an increased interest towards the climate change debate. The second peak occurred in early 2005, after the Russian ratification of the Kyoto Protocol in late 2004; the Protocol entered into effect in February 2005. The third peak took place in the summer of 2005, when Japan’s government began the “Cool Biz” campaign, with its “No neck-tie, No jacket” slogan.

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Figure 4. Newspaper (printed) coverage on “climate change,” “global warming,” or “greenhouse effect”: numbers of articles from January 2000 to February 2016.

The following peaks observed were higher and lasted for a longer period of time, from January 2007 to September 2008 and from October 2009 to December 2009. The first period coincided with the release of the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) Fourth Assessment Reports and the release of the movie, An Inconvenient Truth (2006, Al Gore & Davis Guggenheim, Paramount), in mid-January in Japan. Notably, the highest peak coincided with the G8 Summit in Japan, in which climate change was the main topic. Japan, like much of the rest of the world, suffered from the financial shocks and financial crisis of the summer of 2008. The Japanese economy worsened, and unemployment hit record-high levels in 2009–2010, only the second time that unemployment exceeded 5% after the 1950s. Even so, the second period coincided with the COP15 in Copenhagen in December 2009. The financial crisis in 2008 had impacted various aspects of Japanese climate change policy making. First, because economic activities had fallen, Japanese carbon dioxide emission decreased significantly. According to the greenhouse gas emission report from the Ministry of the Environment (MOE, 2015), Japanese total greenhouse gas (GHG) emission in 2009 was 1,250 Mt (CO2 equivalent); this is a12% decrease from the 2007 GHG emission, which was the peak emission level since 1990, and a 1.6% decrease from the 1990 GHG emission level. The main reason for the decrease was the drop of emissions from industry sectors.

Japan experienced many economic and political changes between 2008 and 2015. After the financial shock of 2008, the Japanese economy worsened, and the mass media paid attention to the rapidly increasing unemployment rate and the increasing number of homeless people in metropolitan areas. The long dominant Liberal Democratic Party lost the general election in the summer of 2009, and Yukio Hatoyama, the leader of the Democratic Party, was appointed as Prime Minister on of September 16. Immediately after the appointment, on September 22, he made a speech at the UN Conference on Climate Change in New York, announcing a 25% mid-term greenhouse gas emission reduction target based on 1990 emission level (the “Hatoyama Initiative”). This 25% reduction target was very challenging, as the then target was 15% reduction, based on 2005 emission levels; the 25% reduction is equal to the 8% reduction based on 1990 emission level, announced by the former Prime Minister Taro Aso on June 10, 2009, aiming at the L’Aquila G8 Summit for the next month.

The Hatoyama Initiative was criticized for being unfeasible and too challenging, and there appeared to be little input from climate change experts when setting the target. Many news articles pointed out that this was challenging in number and there was no-evidence based target.

Japan’s basic energy plan was revised in 2010, and to be consistent with the ambitious greenhouse gas emission reduction target in 2009, the revised energy plan relied heavily on increasing nuclear power generation. According to the press release (Enerugi kihon keikaku in Japanese, pp. 9–10 []), nuclear power generation and renewable energy contributed 34% of the electric supply in 2010, but this contribution was to increase to 50% in 2020 and 70% in 2030. In 2011, the renewable energy contribution was less than 5%, so almost all of the contribution was from nuclear power. This was also a target of criticism by news articles.

Television Program Coverage

Figure 5 reflects Japan’s television coverage of climate change issues in terms of the number of programs and the number of airtime minutes between January 2007 and February 2016. The data was collected by searching keywords; “climate change,” “global warming,” and “greenhouse effect,” using the M-Data television databases. The peak trends observed were similar to those reflected in Figure 3 and corresponded to similar events. The G8 summits in July 2007 (Germany) and July 2008 (Toyako Lake, Japan) correspond to two peaks during the same periods. The December 2007 to March 2008 peak coincides with the COP13 (December 2007), the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to the IPCC (December 2007), and the beginning of the first commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol in April 2008. The mid-2009 peak corresponds with the L’Aquila G8 summit, where a main theme was climate change. The December 2009 peak coincides with the COP15, held at Copenhagen. Since 2010, a peak in television coverage occurs every December, the same period the COP meetings are held annually. The large peak in December 2015 coincides with the delegates agreeing to a new target in the Paris Agreement at the COP21.

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Figure 5. Television programs coverage of “climate change,” “global warming,” or “greenhouse effect”: numbers of articles and minutes from January 2007 to February 2016, Tokyo area, eight broadcast companies, all programs combined.

Government Marketing Campaigns

After the Kyoto Protocol was put into effect, the Ministry of Environment launched a “Cool Biz” campaign in 2005, which was promoted by the environment minister along with the directors of department stores or top business leaders, such as the head of the Keidanren (Japan Economic Federation), on television programs. The campaign aimed to get people to raise the temperature setting of air conditioners in office buildings to allow companies to save electricity during the day. This move was welcomed by many female office workers who perceived the conventional temperature setting as being too low. A survey conducted at the end of the first year of the campaign showed that over 90% of office workers who responded to this survey were aware of the campaign, and it was estimated that companies who joined this campaign could reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 46 million tons. The success of this brought another campaign for winter season, “Warm Biz,” where office workers were encouraged to wear warmer clothing in order to reduce energy required for heating. Following its success, a new campaign “Super Cool Biz” was launched in May 2012. This campaign took place during summer, and it encouraged more casual wear in the office during the hottest season in Japan.

Other campaigns aimed at various global warming emissions reduction targets include “Team Minus 6%” for the Kyoto Protocol, “Challenge 25” for the Hatoyama Initiative, as well as “Fun to Share” and “Cool Choice” for the new mid-term reduction target of 26%. Of them, Team Minus 6% was the most popular campaign and received extensive coverage in newspaper advertisements, television commercials, and related articles in popular magazines. Companies taking part in this campaign can include the campaign’s logo on their products as a testament of their participation. The other campaigns share similar frameworks, but they have not been as popular as Team Minus 6%.

Public Response to Mass Media Coverage

Mass media coverage peaked during big promotional campaigns or immediately after international events (Sampei & Aoyagi-Usui, 2009). Previous research has shown that there is a statistically significant relationship between mass media coverage and public awareness of environmental issues (Sampei & Aoyagi-Usui, 2009). In this section, I examine the results of focus group interviews and the impact of the mass media coverage on public perception and awareness of climate change.

Focus Group Interviews

Focus group interviews were conducted five times between February 2006 and 2008. As noted previously, mass media coverage of climate change began increasing from January 2007 and remained high through the summer of 2008. For that reason, this article focuses on the results of the February 2006 interviews (when the coverage was relatively low) and the February 2008 interviews (when coverage was high) to compare the changes of participants’ awareness and perception of climate change issues (Figure 6).

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Figure 6. Timing of two focus group interviews.

There were six interview groups, with seven participants in each group, in the 2006 interviews (42 participants in total) (Figure 7). There were 12 groups with six participants each in the 2008 interviews (72 participants in total) (Figure 8). The participant’s demographics were the same for both groups. Participants were recruited from the Tokyo Metropolitan Area in three age groups (20–35 years old, 35–45 years old, and 45–60 years old). There was one male and one female group in each age group, for a total of six groups in 2006. In 2008, we used the same method, but there were two groups in each of the six categories for a total of 12 groups. People whose employment was related to power generation, governmental officers, or environmental fields were excluded.

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Figure 7. Participants of a 2006 focus group survey.

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Figure 8. Participants of a 2008 focus group survey.

All focus groups were presented with informational materials. Text materials for the February 2006 interviews, a short video, and two short lectures plus a Q&A session with experts, for the February 2008 interviews were used. In this article, however, the impacts of presentation materials were not evaluated (Figure 9).

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Figure 9. Interview flow of 2006 and 2007 focus group surveys.

The basic structure of the 2006 interviews were (a) rapport building (self-introduction), (b) discussion of environmental issues in general, (c) talking about global warming in particular, (d) introduction of informational materials, and (e) discussing the information provided. In 2008, steps (a) and (b) were the same, but the presentation format was altered. The participants (c) watched a short video about the mechanisms of climate change and the impacts of climate change (e.g., melting ice in the Arctic Ocean, agricultural products that are damaged by high-temperature, etc.), (d) discussed the video, (e) heard a brief lecture by a university professor on the current status of carbon dioxide emissions in Japan and the currently proposed emission reduction targets, (f) heard a second lecture by an advisory specialist for consumer affairs about ways of saving energy at home and future perspectives in a low-carbon society, and (g) discussed climate change. The whole process took about 2–2.5 hours for each group.

Participants’ Initial Responses

In the self-introduction phase, participants were asked to talk about their family members, hobbies, and things that interested them in both years. Before presenting any information, the facilitator asked participants to talk about “environmental issues.” Of 42 participants, 27 mentioned global warming as an issue they were worried about in their everyday lives. However, Figures 10 and 11 reflect a great disparity in the general level of information the participants possessed regarding the issue in 2006 and 2008.

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Figure 10. Cognition map of climate change by participants of a focus group interview (February 2006).

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Figure 11. Cognition map of climate change by participants of a focus group interview (February 2006 and 2008).

In 2006, very few participants understood the mechanism causes and effects of global warming (Figure 10). Only one or two members in each group elaborated on the mechanism of global warming, with explanations such as, “Carbon dioxide destroys the ozone layer, and more sunlight comes in” and “Carbon dioxide traps the hot air, so that heat is not released from the atmosphere” (Aoyagi, 2009, p. 3, in Japanese, translation by author). In addition, many participants connected “hot air,” such as air emitted from the outdoor unit of air conditioners or hot air over paved roads in the summer, with global warming. Many believed the consequences of global warming were “melting ice at the North or South Pole,” “small islands far away from our country might sink,” and “Venice could be under water.”

Figure 11 shows the results of 2008 interviews (in blue) along with those of 2006 (in black). People clearly had more knowledge of the climate change issue in 2008 than in 2006, even though the interview recruiting conditions and demographics were the same for both sets of interviews. In the initial discussions in 2008, participants seemed more comfortable revealing their gaps in knowledge or actions with regards to climate change. For example, some commented that, “Oh my god, others also do not know about climate change” and “It is not only me who has not taken action.” However, in comparison to 2006, participants in 2008 participated more in actions that contributed to saving energy, even though they were still not confident about their knowledge of climate change. One participant shared: “When my father planned to build our new house, our builder proposed installing a solar water heating system. The builder explained that this is good way to save energy. We were unsure of its usefulness, so we didn’t install it” (Aoyagi, 2009, p. 14, in Japanese, translation by author).

In terms of the cause of climate change, most participants in 2008 shared the idea that carbon dioxide was a cause of climate change (or global warming). Again, this was not the case in 2006. Participants in 2008 interviews said that “burning things” seemed to be a cause of global warming, such as vehicles, or in factories in China. However, there was still a good deal of confusion in 2008 about the mechanism of climate change. For example, typical responses were “CO2 seems to be a cause, but why does the temperature rise?” and “I think CFCs or CO2 deteriorate the ozone layer and ultra-violet light becomes stronger. Then more sunlight gets through and that heats the earth more than before.” It seemed people knew bits and pieces of the climate change mechanism, but they could not connect those pieces or they confused them with other irrelevant items.

There were also differences in knowledge about the effects of climate change. In 2006, responses were “melting ice at the North or South Pole,” “small islands far away from our country might sink,” and “Venice could be under water,” which were not differentiated from causes. In 2008, responses were far more diverse, including “polar bears die,” “heat wave last summer that has never been experienced,” “unusual weather,” “stronger typhoons,” “invasive tropical species,” “desertification,” “photochemical smog,” “solar activities,” “ecosystem destruction (for example, tropical fish in Tokyo Bay),” and “more frequent tornados.”

Participants were asked how they formed their view, that is, where they got their information, in both the 2006 and 2008 interviews. The responses in both years were “television programs,” and some more specifically mentioned television news programs, documentaries, or weather news. Most participants in 2008 said that they actually “felt” something had changed in the climate. Most of the participants felt that it has become much hotter in summer, and there is a less clear shift in the seasons. An owner of a fashion store said, “Consumers do not buy coats anymore because it is warmer in winter” (Aoyagi, 2009, p 581, in Japanese, translation by author).

Mass Media’s Impact on Public Perception

It is clear that people were more knowledgeable about certain aspects of climate change in 2008. As noted previously (Figure 6), media coverage in 2008 was far more intense than it was in 2006. Participants’ primary information source was television programs, including news programs, documentaries, and weather news. Even though people became more knowledgeable about climate change through watching television news and other programs, reading newspapers, or simply talking to others about climate change or global warming, these bits of “knowledge” appear to be disjointed pieces of information. People did not appear to understand the relationship among the concepts and words. For example, people used the words “polar bear,” “carbon dioxide,” “CFCs,” and “ozone layer,” but they did not seem to know how carbon dioxide and polar bears are related. Even though some science programs provide explanation for the mechanisms of global warming or ozone layer depletion, the audience pool for these types of “educational” television programs remained relatively small.

As Miller and Riechert (2000) pointed out,

Journalists do not report environmental risk; they report news. When journalists scrutinize the world looking for news, they evaluate what they see according to news values. These values are criteria for deciding what to report and how much emphasis to provide. Nearly all introductory reporting textbooks contain lists of news values which include such things as consequence, timeliness, proximity, prominence and human interest.

Environmental risk, in our view, is an abstraction about the possibility of damage and, by itself, does not possess any news value. Rather, it enters news by association with such things as newsworthy events (for example human made or natural disasters) or conflict over policy by contending stakeholders, or the activities and afflictions of celebrities. Journalists operate according to business imperatives and the norms of their profession. The fundamentals here are that news must be factful and must attract an audience. Adherence to the facts assures continued access to officials, celebrities and other newsmakers, while adherence to news values such as proximity, timeliness and interest assures attractiveness to audiences. (Miller & Riechert, 2000, pp. 47–48)

Public understanding of climate change is highly dependent on mass media, but as Miller and Reichert wrote, the mass media is not responsible for communicating environmental risks to the public. It covers what it deems significant based on the above-mentioned news values, which are generally not concerned about the scientific mechanisms of climate change. Unless a new scientific discovery is made, the mass media does not pay much attention to these types of issues and report them to their audiences. There are new discoveries made every year, but there are too many of them, they are often ignored or overlooked by the public. The rapid increase in publication of climate change news articles in early 2007 represented a missed opportunity to educate readers and viewers on a better, more systematic understanding of climate change.

Effects of Lectures and Q&A Sessions with Professionals

In the 2008 focus group interview, we tried to determine the effects of watching a short video about the mechanisms and effects of climate change and listening to lectures by professionals towards understanding climate change science and in spurring actual actions. Figure 12 shows the score distribution of one of the focus groups (one of the groups of males, 20–35 years of age) and the mean scores of all participants in all groups. Participants were asked to indicate scores towards “willingness to learn about the climate change issue” and “willingness to take actions” on a scale from 1 (not willing) to 9 (very willing) at three points in time: before the focus group interview (while the participants were waiting for other participants to take their seats), after watching a short video, and after hearing two lectures by two professionals. The scores for participant 1 and 6 were missing in the “before the interview” phase of Figure 12, because they arrived late and did not mark these scores. The results clearly reflected that scores rose across the board after participants viewed the video and again after hearing the lectures. The changes shown in Figure 12 for the younger group of males (20–35 years of age) were observed in most of the other groups as well. In one of the younger groups, however, four or five of the participants appeared skeptical about climate change and their scores remained stable.

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Figure 12. The levels of willingness to learn and to take action (2008) (the changes of “willingness scores” from an example of one group out of 12 groups).

During the discussions after viewing the video, some participants said they had already seen similar stories in television documentaries. Participants were able to connect the pieces of information and gain a better understanding of their relationships. Some participants were very surprised about the impacts of climate change, while others turned pale from shock at the contents of the video. Others asked what they could do to help with climate change.

The first lecture was by a university professor about current conditions of emissions and target reductions. Most people seldom have the opportunity to listen to a lecture and talk to a university professor. While some said they enjoyed the experience, they were apprehensive about the targets projected, asking questions such as “Is it possible to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 70%?” and “Is it possible to achieve the goal?” The second lecture was given by an advisory specialist for consumer affairs about ways to save energy at home and the future images of a low-carbon society using “future scenarios” proposed by research groups from energy fields. Participant responses were mainly related to their own individual situations, such as “my television set [air conditioner, car, etc.] is five years old—should I replace it with a newer, more energy efficient one?” Other participants talked about their own experiences with saving energy, such as “when I built my home, I decided to have a solar water heating system installed.”

In the final discussion about overall issues, some participants said that they wanted to bring the day’s materials to their homes or offices, to share with their family members or colleagues, because they felt better having a more complete picture of the climate change story.

Post-Disaster Communication for Climate Change

On March 11, 2011, Japan suffered the Great East Japan Earthquake and the ensuing disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. Within a year, all nuclear power generation plants had to cease operations. Japanese government had to re-think almost all energy-related basic plans, including their basic energy plan and greenhouse gas emission reduction target. In the summer of 2012, the Cabinet conducted” Deliberative Polling” to revise their basic energy plan. The “zero nuclear power generation” scenario was the most popular selection among 0, 15, and 20–25 nuclear power generation scenarios (e.g., the “15 Scenario” means that 15% of the total electrical power supply would be generated by nuclear power). This result was never reflected in the revised basic energy plan, because the Democratic Party lost too many seats in the next general election of December 2012, and the leader of the Liberal Democratic Party, Mr. Shinzo Abe, was appointed as Prime Minister in December 2012. Furthermore, before the general election (in November 2012), previous climate change prevention measures were scrapped because the period of the Kyoto Protocol had ended. The new Cabinet proposed a new law related to climate change prevention, in which the 25% emissions reduction target was abandoned and a new target was not clearly defined. Instead of a 25% reduction, the government submitted a temporary 3.8% reduction target from the 2005 level in November 2013. In June 2015, at the COP21 in Paris, the Japanese government submitted a target of a 26% reduction from the 2013 emission level. This corresponds to the peak newspaper coverage in late 2015 in Figures 3 and 4.

Post-accident public perception against nuclear power plants was said to be changed significantly, but this change seemed to be not directly related to the accident. Poortinga, Aoyagi, and Pidgeon found the following:

The study found that already before the accident the Japanese public were less supportive of nuclear power than the British. While British attitudes have remained remarkably stable over time, the Japanese public appear to have completely lost trust in nuclear safety and regulation, and have become less receptive of nuclear power even if it would contribute to climate change mitigation or energy security. (Poortinga, Aoyagi, & Pidgeon, 2013, p. 1204)

Concerning the climate change policy and the nuclear power policy or more general energy choice issues, Aoyagi (2016) argued the public support of nuclear power generation. She found in, her October 2014 public opinion survey, that (a), 29% of respondents answered that the benefit of nuclear power far or slightly outweighs risk, while 40% responded opposite (risk of nuclear power far or slightly outweighs benefit); (b), comparing to her previous surveys in 2006, 2011(February; before the accident), and 2013, lesser respondents supported the opinion of “I am willing to accept the building of new nuclear power stations if it would help to tackle climate change”; and (c), as for the opinion of “If we had safer nuclear power stations, I’d be prepared to support new ones being built,” the “strongly agree” and “agree” responses dropped more than 10% in 2011 from the 2006 survey, but were almost stable in 2011, 2013, and 2014.

This means events between the 2006 survey and February 2011 survey had some impact on public attitudes towards the nuclear power generations, and this seemed to be the shutdown and leakage of radioactivity of the Kashiwazaki-Kariya Nuclear power plant in Niigata prefecture in 2007 and 2009, caused by the Chuetsu Offshore Earthquake. It had captured huge media attention.


Climate change communication in Japan is very dependent on mass media coverage of climate change issues. Intensive media campaigns such as “Team minus 6 percent,” “Cool Biz,” and “Cool Share” are popular among the general public. Newspaper articles and television programs have been very effective in raising public awareness about climate change. Effective cooperation with mass media is a key to raising awareness of climate change in public relation strategies for climate change.

There is a problem, however, in gaining a consistent, systematic understanding of the science behind the climate change mechanism and the necessary mitigation and adaptation countermeasures. Although people understand bits and pieces of information, they sometimes misunderstand the general concepts or relationships. Group discussions with multi-media presentations and lectures are shown to be an effective way to promote better understanding of these topics, but they are time consuming and labor intensive, and there are limitations to the number of people we can reach. We may need to use “mixed approaches” that employ both top-down and bottom-up strategies. The top-down approach can reach huge numbers of people but may not be suitable for giving a comprehensive understanding about climate change issues. The bottom-up approach, for example, using well-designed lectures by professionals, can be very effective in increasing people’s comprehensive understanding of climate change issues, but this approach can reach only a very limited number of people.

Climate change policies in the broader national energy policy context have to be taken into account as well. The public’s negative responses to nuclear power have been stronger in the 2000s, even before the Fukushima accident, although Japan’s 2030 carbon dioxide emission reduction target, submitted to the COP21 in 2015 as 26% of the 2013 emission level, insists that nuclear power generation would contribute 22–20% of total power generation by 2030.


This research was supported by the Environment Research and Technology Development Fund (1-1406) of the Ministry of the Environment, Japan, as well as by “A Study for Public Understanding and Response to Climate Change Issues” from the Japan Science and Technology Agency (JST) and the Research Institute of Science and Technology for Society (RISTEX), under the program “Science and Technology, Literacy in the 21st Century.”


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