Junko Edahiro: Life beyond growth offers new economic ideas as alternatives to GDP

Author, interpreter, translator, environmental journalist and policy consultant Junko Edahiro is also one of Japan’s leading advisors and communicators in the field of sustainability. The founder of Japan for Sustainability shares with Eleanor Chen her thoughts on how developed nations can pursue growth beyond economic expansion.

Despite the environmental hype, there are still not many true-blue greenies in Asia. Environmentalists who are female and Asian are even fewer, which is why Junko Edahiro is refreshingly unique.

For someone who only started learning English at 29, Junko is incredibly accomplished. The inspiration behind several of Japan’s environmental information networks – including Japan for Sustainability (JFS) – she is a household name in her home country.

Junku Edahiro, chief executive of Japan for Sustainability (photo credit: ISHES)

Junko set herself the goal to become a simultaneous interpreter and started learning English from scratch while with her husband – who was studying at Princeton University – in the US. Between 1991 and 1993, she taught herself English up to a level where she could work as a simultaneous interpreter. 

Back in Japan, she first worked as an interpreter. It was a happy coincidence when she met Lester Brown, then-president of the Worldwatch Institute, in 1993. Her meeting with the renowned thinker and writer on environmental and global issues inspired Junko to work in the environmental field. She later translated many books on the environment into Japanese.

In 2002, she founded JFS, a non-profit environmental communication platform, along with other collaborators to provide information on Japan’s activities in promoting sustainability. Junko dreams of making the JFS concept a worldwide platform for sharing wisdom, successful cases, and encouragement to help people onto a more sustainable course.

She initiated Candle Night in 2003 where five million people turned off the lights at night during the summer and winter solstices to think about the environment and peace – four years before Earth Hour started. 

In April 2004, she set up e’s Inc, which helps adult learners master English, the environment and self-empowerment. The following April, Junko founded Change Agent Inc to educate more “change agents” like herself, to help transform the world in a positive way. She sees her role as that of an interface, linking people and information in the area of sustainability.

To lessen modern society’s obsession with constant economic growth, Junko launched the Institute of Studies in Happiness, Economy and Society (ISHES) in 2011 to determine the factors, systemic malfunctions and unexpected outcomes that hinder our happiness.

ISHES commissioned the “Life Beyond Growth” study which describes new economic ideas as viable alternatives to the gross domestic product (GDP). In an email interview, Junko said, “We face climate change, biodiversity loss and many more threats to the sustainability of our civilisation and the globe. We should tackle the root causes, not results, of the problems. I strongly believe that never-ending pursuit of economic growth is one of the main causes. In order to clarify the structure, we commissioned the report.”

Junko and ISHES hope to position “Life Beyond Growth” as a basis and invitation for dialogue on economic growth and happiness among a wider audience. “I hope more people in Japan and the world will have the opportunity and guidance to think about what really matters to them,” she says. 

She believes that the human footprint on Earth is growing and wants to be able to say that she contributed to reversing this trend. “I believe the root cause of many of our problems today is the loss of interconnectedness. We are less connected to ourselves, to each other, to nature; our actions seem not to be connected.”

Junko speaking at an event she organised to consider energy issues from the viewpoint of women (photo credit: ISHES)

“We live not for economic growth. We live for happiness in our daily lives and we hope generations to come can enjoy their happiness. Economies and societies should do something to serve this purpose and should take on different forms and structures if they fail to meet their goals.” 

On the prospects of alternative economic ideas expounded in “Life Beyond Growth” eventually replacing the GDP as a measure of progress in the next five to ten years, Junko does not think Gross National Happiness (GNH) is something which would replace GDP, since they have different objectives for measurement. “Without question, Japan and other governments of major countries will be using alternative indicators to GDP to understand and measure a more comprehensive and whole picture of its nation/society.” 

She believes many developed nations, including Japan, can no longer guarantee lasting economic growth for their people and have to shift the yardstick to show their progress from economic aspects to more promising fields, which include happiness and sustainability.

With a degree in Education and a Master’s in Educational Psychology from the University of Tokyo, Junko has delivered hundreds of lectures and speeches on the environment, sustainability, corporate social responsibility and corporate communication. A regular on Japanese television and radio, Junko still talks about future energy policies on television since the Fukushima nuclear disaster in 2011. 

Her workshops on happiness, sustainability and world trends on growth introduce Bhutan’s use of GNH indicators and de-growth research to study the relationship among happiness, economy and society.

When asked how the trend to measure well-being and social progress in ways that go beyond GDP can be made consistent across countries and regions, she replied: “I don’t think a standardised measure of well-being of the people among different countries is feasible. Happiness has a subjective aspect and is different from person to person and from society to society.”

“What you can standardise is the basic philosophy. That is the obligation of any government – to secure and improve enabling conditions for their people to pursue their own happiness within the limits of sustainability on Earth.” 

Biodata of Junko Edahiro

Born in Kyoto, Japan

Chief executive of Japan for Sustainability 

President of e’s Inc

Chairperson of Change Agent Inc 

President of Institute for Studies in Happiness, Economy and Society (ISHES) 

Lectures, publishes and translates on the environment 

Published dozens of translations including “An Inconvenient Truth” and “Limits to Growth: The 30-year Update”. Her publications include “Beyond ‘Eco’ – How to Make a Happy Future,” “A Way Out of Energy Crisis,” and “How to Fix the Earth.”

Visiting researcher at the University of Tokyo

Member of the Advisory Committee for the Agency for Natural Resources and Energy, an advisory panel to the Minister of Economy, Trade and Industry.