How a Lack of Natural Energy Resources Sparked Japan's Energy Innovation

In this clip, Yoriko Kawaguchi describes the challenge of securing reliable energy resources in a country without a natural supply of coal, oil, or natural gas. (4 min., 12 sec.)

The earthquake, tsunami, and Fukushima nuclear meltdown in March 2011 was Japan's worst disaster in decades, claiming over 60,000 lives and causing billions of dollars in damages. Five years later, the country has parlayed a fear of nuclear weapons into developing alternative and efficient energy resources.

Speaking at Asia Society New York during a panel discussion with David Sandalow, the Inagural Fellow at Columbia University's Center on Global Energy Policy, Yoriko Kawaguchi, the former Japanese Minister of the Environment and former Minister for Foreign Affairs, described the tremendous challenges Japan has had to overcome.

“One very basic element that you have to understand about Japan when it comes to energy is that Japan does not have any domestic energy source. We have no petroleum, we used to have some coal, but we have no coal being produced in any commercially beneficial terms anymore. We have no natural gas — we have nothing,” Kawaguchi said. “Our desire since around the [time of the] Meiji restoration has been to secure our own source of energy supply. We thought we found it in nuclear power. But there was a disaster that changed the minds of the Japanese people drastically.”

While Japan still factors the use of some nuclear energy into its larger sustainability plans, a robust push toward renewable energy technologies has become a priority, Kawaguchi said.

Japan’s reputation for cutting-edge technology contributed to its economic success in the decades since the Second World War. More recently, the country’s impressive motor-vehicle industry has become a pioneer in equipping electric vehicles and hybrid electric vehicles. As of this May, reports found that Japan has more electric car charging points than gas stations.

These efforts are also largely driven by the efforts made through government policy tools like regulations and incentive programs. However, Kawaguchi offered a reminder that sustainability depends on progress made at all levels of society — even the individual level.

“When it comes to global warming, every person’s efforts count. Because you are emitting yourself — you are emitting greenhouse gases,” she said. “You are responsible for the amount of greenhouse gases that you emit. So each individual, each person in the international community, needs to work to reduce.”

Check out the video below to watch the full program:

Yoriko Kawaguchi, a professor at the Meiji Institute for Global Affairs in Tokyo and former Minister of Foreign Affairs for Japan, and David Sandalow, the inaugural fellow at the Columbia University Center on Global Energy Policy, discussed energy innovation and climate change in Japan at Asia Society on Wednesday. Jackson Ewing, the Director of Asian Sustainability at the Asia Society Policy Institute, moderated the discussion. (1 hr., 4 min.)

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Michelle FlorCruz is a Content Producer at Asia Society. She was previously a reporter for, focusing on stories relating to business and culture in China and other areas of Asia.