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Colourful little wheels: How Japan is showing its commitment to UN sustainable goals

A few years ago, a new accessory began to appear on the lapels of salarymen across Japan: a small badge, shaped like a roulette wheel and divided into 17 rainbow-colored sections. Soon, it was seemingly everywhere

By Ben Dooley and Hisako Ueno
Published: Aug 27, 2022

Colourful little wheels: How Japan is showing its commitment to UN sustainable goalsAn advertisement for the Itochu Sustainable Development Goals Studio’s Kids Park workshop in Tokyo, Aug. 17, 2022. With the support of Japan’s biggest business federation, Keidanren, the country has embraced the U.N. campaign to aspire to become a better place by ending poverty, improving education and reducing inequality. (Noriko Hayashi/The New York Times)

TOKYO — A few years ago, a colorful new accessory suddenly began to appear on the lapels of dark-suited salarymen across Japan: a small badge, shaped like a roulette wheel and divided into 17 rainbow-colored sections.

Soon, the logo was seemingly everywhere, proudly displayed in hip boutiques, at children’s playgrounds and on the websites of Buddhist temples.

The object of that zeal? The 17-point U.N. framework known as the Sustainable Development Goals.

SDGs, as they are called, encourage every nation to become a better place, with such hard-to-argue-against aspirations as ending poverty, improving education and reducing inequality.

But perhaps no country has embraced the campaign as visibly as Japan, where it has offered a chance to demonstrate the country’s good standing as a global citizen — and where image-conscious corporations have jumped onto the bandwagon with both feet.

Today, there are SDGs board games in Japan. SDGs comic books. Children can play on SDGs playgrounds, and travel companies offer SDGs trips, where travelers learn about how Japan is working toward achieving the goals. An animated music video about SDGs by public broadcaster NHK has more than 930,000 views on YouTube.

In the United States, when people have heard of the development goals at all, it is often from right-wing media portraying them as part of a radical socialist plot. A less polarized, more community-oriented (and perhaps less cynical) Japan has coalesced around the goals as a feel-good, and in theory do-good, endeavor.

The goals became official national policy in 2016, when the government established a task force on them under the prime minister. But it wasn’t until the next year — when Japan’s biggest business federation, Keidanren, added them to its charter — that they started appearing on suit jackets nationwide.

Over the past year or two, the term SDGs — referred to in Japan by the English letters — “has really become a part of daily conversation,” said Rie Takeshima, who leads a division of the marketing giant Dentsu that employs 320 people to advise companies on incorporating the goals into their businesses.

“There’s no industry, no company, where SDGs aren’t relevant,” she said.

Nearly 40% of Japanese businesses were working toward the goals in 2021, according to a survey by Teikoku Databank, a credit research company.

The Sustainable Development Goals are a sweeping vision for improving the lives of the world’s people by 2030, agreed to seven years ago by the United Nations’ membership.

The goals are as ambitious as they are ill defined. In Japan, the government has portrayed both its poverty alleviation efforts and its highly contentious whaling program as examples of its pursuit of the U.N. objectives.

Whales, the argument goes, consume a ruinous quantity of fish, and controlling their population is critical for preserving the oceans’ diversity. An online video from an industry association recommends eating the mammals “to protect the balance of the marine ecosystem and contribute to marine SDGs!”

Colourful little wheels: How Japan is showing its commitment to UN sustainable goalsA subway train in Tokyo promoting the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals campaign, Aug. 19, 2022. With the support of Japan’s biggest business federation, Keidanren, the country has embraced the U.N. campaign to aspire to become a better place by ending poverty, improving education and reducing inequality. (Noriko Hayashi/The New York Times)

While hardly anyone in Japan had heard of the development goals three years ago, messages like these are ubiquitous today. A poll by Dentsu found that nearly 90% of Japanese were now aware of the goals. Only around a third, however, could describe them.

Children are roughly twice as likely as their elders to demonstrate an understanding of the concepts, the poll found. The education ministry has encouraged schools to incorporate the goals into their lesson plans, and many parents have dutifully added the subject to their extracurricular activity list.

On a recent rainy afternoon, a group of children gathered in the atrium of an upscale Tokyo high-rise for a series of talks and games meant to familiarize them with the goals and how their country is working toward achieving them.

It was a vacation day, but the 20 elementary schoolers — parents looking on — gamely answered trivia questions about the lives of children in less privileged countries before playing an SDGs-themed board game, somewhat reminiscent of the Game of Life. Investments in programs like wind farms moved players up one of 17 rainbow-colored tracks. Events like a recession or a pandemic set players back.

One mother, Mayuko Yamane, who had brought her two sons from nearby Chiba prefecture, said the older one, 11-year-old Kotaro, was learning about the goals in social studies class.

“He knows more than me,” she said, adding that her children had begun peppering her with concerns about sustainability and gender equality.

“I was a little surprised that they’re learning about this stuff,” said Yamane, 41. “Thirty years ago, we weren’t doing anything like that.”

It’s not clear how much of that enthusiasm has translated into direct action.

In 2015, Japan ranked No. 13 on the development goals in an annual report compiled by the Sustainable Development Solutions Network, a nonprofit under the United Nations. Like many wealthy countries, it scored highly in categories such as education and hunger alleviation.

Since then, Japan has dropped to 19th place, passed by countries like Poland and Latvia, which have made steady progress while Japan has stagnated. (Finland is in first place, and the United States is 41st.)

A 2021 report by the Japanese government to the United Nations said the country had succeeded in raising awareness of the goals but was still “lagging behind” in the development of “objective” and “science-based” targets for its programs.

While the United Nations has recognized Japan’s progress in areas like education and infrastructure, other problems seem intractable. One glaring area is gender equality. After years of lip service about improving women’s position in the workplace and politics, Japan placed 116th out of 146 countries in the World Economic Forum’s 2022 gender gap report.

Also read: Indian philanthropists need to become bolder, lead with trust, look for new areas to fund: Rohini Nilekani

There have also been concerns that companies and government agencies are publicly supporting the goals as a way to burnish their image rather than make real change — a phenomenon that has been labeled “SDGs washing.”

In the rush to jump on board and score some PR points, companies and government agencies have retroactively labeled projects as development-goals-friendly or put the imprimatur on initiatives with only a tenuous connection to the goals.

Colourful little wheels: How Japan is showing its commitment to UN sustainable goalsLogos promoting the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals campaign on screens at a workshop for children in Tokyo, Aug. 17, 2022. With the support of Japan’s biggest business federation, Keidanren, the country has embraced the U.N. campaign to aspire to become a better place by ending poverty, improving education and reducing inequality. (Noriko Hayashi/The New York Times)

Speaking after the children’s event in Tokyo, Masaru Ihara, a manager at the travel company Club Tourism International, said he had seen many companies put on a development-goals badge more out of a feeling of obligation than out of an alignment with the goals.

“People aren’t wearing it because they understand the SDGs. They’re doing it as a symbolic gesture,” he said.

In much the same way, many of the small restaurants and hotels that Ihara works with feel social pressure to align their business practices with the goals, even if they’re not yet sure why or how.

But as more and more people learn about the development goals, he believes, the pin will move from a fad to a symbol of real change.

“It’s creating an atmosphere where people feel they have to do something,” he said.

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©2019 New York Times News Service

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