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  • Writer's pictureHirokazu Kobayashi

Japanese culture has been concerned with SDGs since ancient times!

Updated: May 19

Hirokazu Kobayashi

CEO, Green Insight Japan, Inc.

Professor Emeritus and Visiting Professor, University of Shizuoka


My late grandmother, born in 1908, believed God existed in all tangible things. This is thought to be due to nature belief (worship) and is the concept of the so-called Japanese “Eight Million Gods." If we replace “God'' with “soul," it leads to “animism (the attribution of a living soul to plants, inanimate objects, and natural phenomena)." My late mother was physically weak, and she worked, so I was raised by my grandmother throughout my childhood. Since my younger sister and I are 7 years apart, I was an only child for most of my childhood. As a result, I was worried about going to nursery or elementary school alone, but my grandmother taught me that I do not feel lonely because I have God on my shoulders. I was also taught that there is a god in each grain of rice, so I should eat every grain of rice, and I honestly believed in this belief. The gods on either side of a person's shoulders are called "Kushojin," a Buddhist concept that also seems to have origins in nature belief. This nature belief can be found in many different peoples and cultures worldwide. In ancient Greece and Rome, they personified natural forces and phenomena and worshiped them as gods. The Celts worshiped natural places such as forests, rivers, and lakes and worshiped the spirits and gods that existed within them. Many Native American tribes believed in animism and totemism (certain natural objects). Hinduism believed that many gods symbolized various elements of the natural world. The Germanic peoples of Northern Europe created and worshiped gods associated with natural phenomena such as forests, rivers, mountains, and lightning. After AD, these values were gradually weeded out by monotheistic religions such as Christianity and Islam.


Nature belief has been an important element in Japan from ancient to modern times. In Shinto, natural areas such as mountains, forests, rivers, the sea, and rocks were worshiped as sacred areas. In particular, mountains are regarded as sacred places, mountain gods and spirits are respected, and mountain faith is developed to pursue spiritual growth through mountain training and climbing. They also believed that gods resided in natural phenomena and elements, and worshiped the sun, moon, wind, thunder, etc. as gods. Many seasonal festivals and events in Japan celebrate the blessings of nature and the changing seasons. Specifically, these include Shinto rituals and prayers in the New Year, cherry blossom viewing in the spring, Bon dances in the summer, and harvest festivals in the fall. Furthermore, much of Japanese culture and art uses nature as a motif, and the beauty of nature and the changing seasons are expressed in gardens, landscape paintings, haiku (short-form poetry), tea ceremonies, and more. Japan restricted the influx of foreign culture through the Bateren Edict, the Christianity banishment order (1587), and the isolationist foreign policy (1639-1854), which is why nature belief remains so strong today.


The Industrial Revolution, which began in England in the mid-1700s, opposed “animism,” a way of thinking that utilized and consumed natural materials. Although this has brought many benefits to humanity, it has led to the destruction of the natural environment, and we have come to realize that the earth is finite. 2015, the SDGs (Sustainable Development Goals) were adopted at the United Nations Summit. Japan has been implementing the SDGs since ancient times, and the SDGs feel a little late.

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