Winifred Bird

Reporting on the environment, design, and all things Japanese.


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  1. Back in 1971, the brilliant scholar of Japanese literature Donald Keene had a series of wide-ranging conversations about Japanese culture with historical novelist Shiba Ryotaro. The conversations were published in a book called The People and Culture of Japan, which was released in English for the first time this spring. I had the pleasure of editing the excellent translation by Tony Gonzalez, who dutifully educated himself on everything from ancient Chinese poetry to Edo-era puppet theatre and Meiji political novels in order to keep pace with the conversation. Over the course of the project Keene and Shiba came into focus not only as mind-bogglingly erudite men, but also as quirky individuals -- Keene with his calm, tenacious wisdom, Shiba with his humor and probing curiosity. For both, the creative souls of the distant past seem to be as present and human as anyone alive today. The book is available from the Japan Library. (May 2016)

  2. Today is the fifth anniversary of the tsunami, earthquake, and nuclear disaster that killed over 19,000 people and forced hundreds of thousands from their homes on Japan’s northeastern coast. My thoughts are with those who lost loved ones and those who are still struggling to rebuild their own lives and communities. Many people in Japan are working to create positive change from the tragic events of March 11, 2011. I was able to meet with some of them last November and tell their stories here. (March 2016)

  3. I’m delighted to announce that Japanese high school students preparing for the entrance exam at the University of Tokyo will now sharpen their English skills by listening to practice tests about biomimicry, wildlife overpasses, biodiversity and agriculture, and microbes from Mars. In a non-journalistic writing project last year, I composed scripts for Todai English Listening, released by Kadokawa this January, and managed to sneak in quite a few environmental topics along the way.  In other book news, Kadokawa has published several more volumes in the Japanology series that I’ve been contributing to: Kiriko, on Japanese cut glass, and Rimpa, on the Rimpa school of painting. Finally, and most exciting for cheese-lovers like me...the Oxford Companion to Cheese is coming soon, with an entry on Japanese cheese (yes, it exists, and has a history that reaches back to the sixth century!).

  4. Coming soon...articles on a bohemian stove-maker in the Japan Alps, contemporary architecture in Tokyo and Yamanashi, Fukushima (almost) five years on, and the plight of Pacific bluefin tuna. (December 2015)

  5. Hand-printed chiyogami paper, intricately carved netsuke, flamboyant goldfish...these are a few of the topics in a new book series from Kadokawa Shoten called Japanology (available here). Most of the text is in Japanese, but I’ve been helping out with captions and cover blurbs in English. Fortunately the books are gorgeously illustrated with full-color photos, so I think they’ll be of interest to those who don’t read Japanese as well as those who do. In addition to the topics above, there are books on yokai (spirits and monsters), wagashi (Japanese sweets), bonsai, Kyoto cuisine (with recipes!), Imari porcelain, and--coming later this month--paintings in the Rimpa school and kiriko cut glass. The books are small enough to tuck into a purse to liven up your subway ride.

  6. I year ago, I collaborated with Kyoto University professor Jane Singer on a chapter about Fukushima for Jane’s book on displacement in the Asia-Pacific region, Global Implications of Development, Disasters and Climate Change. My task was to travel to Fukushima, Tokyo, and Nagano to interview dozens of people displaced by the nuclear disaster. Witnessing the extreme range of ways in which people respond to a disaster like this was an experience I will never forget. I came away with two main impressions. First, the resilience of the human spirit is incredible. Second, there will always be individuals who cannot bounce back when their life is crushed by a disaster like this. The government has a responsibility to support these individuals and give them the freedom to decide for themselves whether they will return or resettle elsewhere. This is especially true when responsibility for the disaster lies, in whole or part, with the government itself. The book is now available for order from Routledge. (August 2015) 

  7. Hot off the press -- the summer issue of the San Francisco Public Press exposes $21 billion in new and planned construction threatened by sea-level rise. Bay Area cities are waking up to the problem, but it may be too late to avoid huge public expenditure to protect the projects that are going up right now. I worked on the issue with reporter Kevin Stark, editor-in-chief Michael Stoll, and a great group of interns, editors, artists, photographers, and cartographers. Some content is available on the SF Public Press website, but for the best reading experience, pick up a newsprint copy at your local Bay Area bookstore. Featured on KALW, KQED, and in Mother Jones, the San Francisco Examiner, Earth Island Journal, and Bay Nature. (July 2015)

  8. Kyoto Journal has just released its tour de force on food, edited by Kyoto gourmand and writer John Ashburne. I contributed a Q (for quail) to the gorgeously illustrated food alphabet that is just one part of the package.  (July 2015)

  9. This week, I joined a great group of journalists on a two-day tour of the Chicago area called “Energy on the Move: Oil & Gas Transportation in the Great Lakes,” organized by the Institute for Journalism & Natural Resources. From oil trains and piles of petcoke to the enormous steel heart of Alberta tar sands processing, we saw it all firsthand. I feel incredibly fortunate to have had this chance to learn from community members, activists, and public officials - not to mention my fellow journalists. I’ve posted some of the highlights in this public Facebook photo album. (May 2015)

  10. Since last fall, I’ve been working with a great team of interns, reporters, and editors at the San Francisco Public Press on a reporting project looking at the intersection of waterfront development and sea-level rise in the Bay Area. As my first real foray into data journalism and mapping, it’s been a fantastic learning experience (aka learning curve) for me. And we’re finally gearing up for publication! To celebrate, the San Francisco Public Press has put together an evening of discussion with some of the area’s top sea-level rise experts, to take place on May 5th at the Impact Hub in SF. Here’s the scoop: “By the end of this century, scientists project the San Francisco Bay will rise by at least three feet – and possibly as much as eight in a bad storm. Rising bay water will threaten businesses along the Embarcadero, UCSF Hospital, AT&T ballpark and the thousands of homes currently being built in Mission Bay, Treasure Island and Hunters Point. City planners are currently discussing what can be done and at what cost, likely in the billions of dollars. Learn from an expert panel the anticipated effects on our natural ecosystem, existing and new development, and public utilities such as transportation and sewage. This solutions-focused discussion will help us all responsibly plan for the future of the Bay Area.” Highly recommended! (April 2015)  

  11. New on the articles page: An evangelist for eating insects, an imperiled icon of Japanese modernism, new strains of rice that only need to be replanted every five to ten years, a couple of book reviews on the state of the environment in Japan, and more. Check it out! (April 2015)

  12. Geoffrey Giller recently wrote up some tips for science writers reporting in the field in an article posted at The Open Notebook, a great online resource for journalists. Among the gems he gleaned from a phone call to me: “The last thing you want is to find yourself scrambling with your notebook on some mountainside, asking ‘Wait, what is that number you just said?’” Speaking from experience! I’m proud to say Geoff and I share not just a passion for taking notes on mountainsides, but also an alma matter -- Amherst. (Jan. 2015)

  13. This fall, I had the opportunity to be part of an exciting initiative to bring better climate change reporting to local publications. The crowd-funded online publication Climate Confidential is partnering with regional newspapers in a project called Local Edition that funds journalists writing in-depth articles on climate-related topics. In my case - the very first Local Edition project! - I reported for the Japan Times on the complex relationship between demographic change and carbon-dioxide emissions. The article, “Shrinking Well: Is depopulation affecting Japan’s climate, energy goals?” is available here. Thanks to the terrific photographer Skye Hohmann for trekking out to the mountains to take pictures of one aging hamlet to illustrate the article. (Nov. 2014)

  14. Traditional newspapers in the US may be facing tough times, but innovative new approaches to journalism seem to be popping up everywhere. One is the San Francisco Public Press, a non-profit quarterly paper bringing investigative journalism to the Bay Area. The five-year-old outfit aims to “do for print and Web journalism what public radio has done for radio and television.” And the papers are delivered by bicycle! The publication’s investigation into inequality in school fundraising recently won an Excellence in Journalism Award from the Society of Professional Journalists’ Northern California chapter. I’m working with SF Public Press on a project about sea level rise. Stay tuned for more details! (Nov. 2014)

  15. New on the Articles page: lots of architecture and design stories (including an interview with this year’s Pritzker Prize winner Shigeru Ban, a profile of Tokyo’s color queen Emmanuelle Moureaux, and tips for buying a shipping container), an update on the “Last Ocean,” and some thoughts on fruitful collaboration. (Nov. 2014)

  16. I am honored to share the Society of Environmental Journalists 2014 Outstanding Feature award with Jane Braxton Little for our story on forest management in Fukushima and Chernobyl. With over 150,000 people still displaced by Japan’s nuclear disaster, the problem of widespread radioactive contamination remains as urgent and difficult today as it was three years ago. My hope is that this award will bring additional attention to the question of how governments should handle the aftermath of nuclear fallout. (August 2014)

  17. After nearly a decade in Japan, I’ll be moving to the United States in mid-May. After getting settled in, I plan to continue writing about Japan while also covering the environment in my old/new home country. Please check back in for more updates in the coming months. For now, I’m waist-deep in a project looking at the experiences and perspectives of the 150,000-some people displaced by the Fukushima nuclear disaster (in a nice bit of symbolism, my very last interview in Japan was at the monolithic headquarters of TEPCO in central Tokyo - something I would never have predicted when I moved here, back in the pre-3/11 era!). (May 10, 2014)

  18. Last summer, Larissa Macfarquhar wrote a fascinating profile of Buddhist monk Ittetsu Nemoto for the New Yorker. From his small temple in a picturesque rural village, Nemoto is responding to what Macfarquhar dubs “Japan’s suicide culture” with a depth of passion and try-whatever-works innovative spirit that’s unusual anywhere, let alone the tradition-bound world of Buddhist priesthood. I had the chance to spend a day with Nemoto last fall. The interview is in the just-released Spring issue of Tricycle, the Buddhist Review. (February 4, 2014)

  19. Aso Volcano’s huge, spectacular caldera in central Kyushu was formed by an eruption 90,000 years ago. The 22,000-hectare grasslands there have been maintained by burning and grazing for at least a millennium, as this local farmer told me on a trip to nearby Kuju several years ago (the article is on p. 21 of the pdf, or see this longer article from the same trip). Today the grasslands are a rare ecosystem that is vital for hundreds of unique plants and animals. I recently had the chance to learn more through some work for Aso Geopark. Check out the park’s English website for details and photos of the amazing landforms and ecosystems created by the volcano. (Nov. 30, 2013)

  20. Have you stopped by the Society of Environmental Journalists website lately? The organization is a wealth of resources and wisdom that I’ve relied on many times since I started writing about the environment here in Japan. Much is available to the public online, including videos and audio files from this month’s annual conference in Chattanooga. Want insider takes on the future of journalism (environmental and otherwise), tips on improving your skills as a storyteller, or the lowdown on the energy sources of the future? Check it out here.

  21. Over at, the parent site of, we’ve been publishing an interview with a different Japanese architect each month, focusing on a single outstanding project. The interviews are done by photographer, architect and editor Yuna Yagi, and translated by yours truly.  Recent projects include a dog salon by Naoko Horibe, a vacation home by MDS, and Kengo Kuma’s experimental house in Hokkaido, inspired by traditional Ainu architecture and cutting-edge environmental technology. (Oct. 8, 2013)

  22. Last month I took the slow train all the way down to Shibushi, Kagoshima Prefecture, at the very bottom of the southern island of Kyushu. Kagoshima produces more eel than any other prefecture, but these days the eel industry is in trouble as catches throughout Asia hit record lows. I visited an aquaculture research lab there to see if new technology might save the day. The article is coming soon, along with others from the same trip - on ancient rice paddies, philosopher farmers, a museum memorializing kamikazi pilots, and more. Stay tuned for links! (Oct. 8, 2013)

  23. Starting October 16, the Japan Times will be published in partnership with the International New York Times. One impact of the change: no more Week Three section in the Sunday paper, put possibly more science coverage. I’ll still be writing a monthly nature feature for the paper. (Oct. 8, 2013)

  24. New on the articles page: Ecologists and environmentalists are not happy about how coastal defenses are being rebuilt following the Tohoku tsunami. The story is up on the Yale Environment 360 website this month.  (May 19, 2013)

  25. This year, I’ve been writing monthly environment stories for Week Three of the Japan Times Time Out section, which the paper bills as “A prime selection from the reporter’s notebook.” It’s a chance to get beyond standard newspaper style and have a bit more fun describing scenes and people, while still covering serious topics (well, mostly serious). So far I’ve written about the art of arboriculture, radioactive mushrooms, Tohoku’s coastal recovery, protecting big, beautiful trees from lightening, and most recently, concrete. All the links are on the Articles page. (May 19, 2013)

  26. Big news in the Japanese English-language news world: The Japan Times and the New York Times are joining forces. Starting in October the daily edition of The Japan Times will arrive with an inner section featuring articles from New York Times bureaus around the world. For many years the International New York Times (under the name of the International Herald Tribune) had a similar arrangement going with the English edition of the Asahi Shimbun, but that ended in 2010. The Japan Times says it will retain editorial independence, but it will be interesting to see how this all plays out. The papers often take different approaches to covering Japan, so readers could get quite an interesting package! On an unrelated note, I’ve been writing a monthly environment/nature feature for the Japan Times since January. Check it out on the third Sunday of every month. (April 6, 2013)

  27. Check the articles page to see how northeastern Japan’s recovery is progressing. Articles on radical new farm policies, how “big box” shopping centers are benefiting from the disaster, and the problems Fukushima orphans have faced in getting adequate government support after the nuclear disaster.

  28. Nearly two years have passed since a huge earthquake and tsunami hit northeastern Japan. Recently I spent some time in Fukushima and Miyagi prefectures talking to scientists, shopkeepers, evacuees, educators, and other people whose lives were changed by that unimaginable wall of water. The trip was a powerful reminder that while life is back to normal here in Nagano, the same is far from true on the Tohoku coast. I’ll be posting a series of articles from the trip later this month. (March 2, 2013)

  29. New on the Articles page: Everything you always wanted to know about forests and nuclear fallout! Colleague Jane Braxton Little and I have been working on a series of articles looking at human and ecosystem health in forests near the Fukushima and Chernobyl nuclear power plants. Our cover story in the March issue of Environmental Health Perspectives looks at how governments are managing these forests, while our feature in Earth Island Journal focuses on how wild plants and animals might be affected. (The Earth Island article is part of a special issue on the Anthropocene, with writing by Ginger Strand, Gus Speth, Elizabeth Grossman, Derrick Jensen, and a whole bunch of other fantastic environmental journalists. Most of it is available free online so I highly recommend you check it out!) Another recent article, in the Japan Times, tells the story of one Japanese mushroom farmer whose life, and forest management practices, have changed since the accident. The travel for these articles was funded by a grant from the Fund for Environmental Journalism. (March 2, 2013)

  30. When reactors at the Fukushima Daichi nuclear power plant melted down in 2011, almost 70,000 Americans were inadvertently exposed to radiation. Many of them were service members engaged in disaster relief for tsunami victims, so the US Department of Defense started a huge and detailed registry to track their health. But now, reports independent journalist Roger Witherspoon, the DoD is abandoning the project. For follow-up reports on this bizarre turn of events, keep an eye on Roger’s website - he’s been covering the US nuclear industry for decades, and his articles on Fukushima offer a rare depth of knowledge and detail. (2/4/13)

  31. A Japanese version of my recent Japan Times article “Zen and the cross-cultural art of tree climbing” is now available. Thank you to the great folks at Outdoor Shop K for providing the translation! Also now available as a downloadable Word document: Grow Your Own Energy Japanese Version.doc, as translated by Naomi Kanaya. (2/4/13)

  32. Happy Year of the Snake! I’m looking forward to another year of writing and farming here in Nagano Prefecture. A couple of the stories I’ll be keeping an eye on this year:

  33. Fukushima fallout - Can it really be cleaned up? How is it    affecting human and environmental health? This was at the top of my list of topics to watch last year, and I’m pretty sure it’ll be there again next year. Japan’s nuclear disaster may be fading from the international news, but it’s impacts on the ground most definitely are not.

  34. Shinzo Abe and the LDP are back in power. Already, they’ve announced an economic recovery plan heavy on public works projects. What will more concrete mean for plants, animals, and people in already built-up Japan?

  35. Before exiting office, the DPJ launched a generous feed-in tariff and began work on other policies to promote renewable energy. They’ve already started to have an effect. But with a new regime in power - and Japan newly free of its Kyoto Protocol obligations to reduce CO2 emissions - what will the fate of these policies be?  (1/12/13)

  36. Lots of news related to the Fukushima clean-up lately, unfortunately none of it good. Hiroko Tabuchi’s scathing report on the “primitive” and “slapdash” methods being used, published in the New York Times, has gotten a lot of circulation. Here in Japan the Asahi Shimbun’s expose of shoddy practices by the huge construction companies in charge of the work has prompted a government investigation. Glad this is getting some attention! At the same time, many people I met in Fukushima last year questioned the underlying validity of the whole enterprise. Even if the cleanup were being done right, would it really fix Fukushima’s problems? (1/12/13)

  37. How do you “clean up” thousands of acres of densely forested mountains contaminated with an invisible and long-lasting substance? That’s one of the most difficult questions Japan has had to face since the Fukushima nuclear meltdowns a year and nine months ago. It’s also a question I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. This summer, California-based veteran environmental journalist Jane Braxton Little and I won a grant from the Fund for Environmental Journalism to travel to Ukraine (Jane) and Fukushima (me) to report on the relationship between nuclear disaster, forests, and human and ecosystem health. In August and October I spent about two weeks talking with farmers, scientists, evacuees, government officials, and foresters trying to figure out how, and if, they can live with contaminated forests. Our main articles will be published in the spring; for now, here’s a link to my recent report in the Christian Science Monitor’s weekly magazine about waste from the cleanup accumulating in parks and backyards with no place to go. And here’s a taste of Jane’s reporting on Chernobyl. (11/5/12)

  38. now has a Facebook page, with English! “Like” it and get notifications about slideshows, blogs, architecture-related events and more. (11/5/12)

  39. Fresh Currents, a new collection of articles on how Japan can transition from nuclear power to renewable energy sources, is now available to download free (hard copies coming in September). Edited by Eric Johnston of the Japan Times with help from the Kyoto Journal community. Highlights:   

  40. Interviews with activist Aileen Mioko Smith and Right Livelihood Award-winner Mycle Schneider, and excerpts from speeches by LDP politician Taro Kono and freelance journalist Tomohiko Suzuki, author of  Yakuza and Nuclear Power Plants.

  41. Translated excerpts from the Renewables Japan Status Report 2012

  42. Reporting by David McNeill (The Independent etc), Eric                             Johnston and Erica Arita (The Japan Times), Jonathan Watts (The Guardian),  Jane Singer (Kyoto University) and yours truly. (7/31/12)

  43. Nuclear power plant restarts, a new feed-in-tariff to encourage renewable energy, fossil fuel usage skyrocketing . . . can’t make sense of Japan’s energy policy? Eric Johnston, Kansai editor for the Japan Times and a good friend, is here to save the day! He’s getting ready to publish a primer on “Japan’s path from Fukushima to a renewable energy future” called Fresh Currents.  The all-volunteer project combines reported articles (I contributed two), essays, and interviews with leaders in the renewable energy and anti-nuclear movement like Tetsunari Iida and Aileen Mioko Smith.  There’s a fundraising campaign underway at with just one week left to meet it’s goal, and a great Facebook page with tons of useful energy-related updates every day. I’ll post a link as soon as the magazine is available for purchase. (7/2/12) UPDATE: Fresh Currents has reached its fundraising goal. (7/22/12)

  44. “Japan debates giving up on growing it’s own food - - not enough farmers.” That’s how food journalist superstar Michael Pollan summed up Sam Eaton’s PBS’s NewsHour story on aging farmers in a recent Tweet. I helped Sam put together the piece when the one-man-production-dynamo visited Japan back in February - and I’m proud to say it features some of my neighbors and friends in beautiful Matsumoto! Check it out: “As Farmers Age, Japan Rethinks Relationship With Food, Fields.” Sam does a great job laying out the questionable future farmers in this country face. For more on what that means for the environment, see this Japan Times article or this special section of Kyoto Journal that Brian Williams, Jane Singer, and I produced a couple of years ago (scroll down to The Worlds of Satoyama). (7/2/12)

  45. A Japanese blogger living in Canada translated into Japanese my recent article about how radioactive contamination is impacting Japan’s forests and the people who use them. Please feel free to share with Japanese-reading friends. The blog also includes a few comments from the blogger. (4/26/12)

  46. New on the Articles page: Ukrainian forest expert Sergiy Zibtsev visits Tohoku, Crafts Month comes to Matsumoto, and a house near Hiroshima imitates a woodland nest. (4/25/12)

  47. In memory of the tsunami, earthquake, and nuclear disaster last year, I’ve posted a collection of photos and text made up of interviews with evacuees from the nuclear no-go zone. My question for them was simple: Tell me about the place you left behind. Please take a look if you have a minute. My hope is that this project can help those of us outside of Fukushima begin to understand what the evacuation zone means in human terms. To view, just click on the Fukushima Faces & Places link in the navigation bar above. Many thanks to Yaron Silberberg, who donated his time to take photos at one of the interview sessions. (3/22/12) (No longer available)

  48. This week I was a guest on the PRI radio show “Living on Earth,” talking about decontamination work underway in Fukushima. (3/11/12)

  49. Sam Eaton’s radio stories from Tohoku are being broadcast this week on The World. You can listen online here. Highly recommended! (3/11/12)

  50. I’ve just gotten back from a week in Miyagi and Iwate prefectures, where I was helping a radio and television reporter put together some segments on the recovery and cleanup for PRI’s The World and PBS’s NewsHour (my job was driver/interpreter/setter-up-of-interviews). Interesting stuff! The reporter, Sam Eaton, is a freelance environmental journalist based in Los Angeles. The pieces from his Japan trip aren’t up yet, but you can check out a great story on food and population issues in the Philippines that he did for NewsHour this January at the following link. (2/18/12)

  51. Now up on the articles page: a shape-shifting live/work space in Tokyo and two pieces about how the anti-nuclear movements in Japan and other East Asian countries have changed since Fukushima. (2/18/12)

  52. My recent piece for Yale Environment 360 on the potential environmental impacts of decontaminating Fukushima Prefecture was reposted by the Guardian, where it’s gathering some interesting comments . . . (1/18/12)

  53. A quick rundown of the Global Conference for a Nuclear Free World last weekend is up now at the Earth Island Journal website. Other related articles coming soon. (1/18/12)

  54. On January 14 and 15, over 50 speakers from 20 countries - plus tons of guests from Fukushima and other parts of Japan - will gather for a Global Conference for a Nuclear Free World in Yokohama. It’ll be a great chance to talk to activists about how the Fukushima accident has impacted the anti-nuclear and pro-renewable-energy movements both in and out of Japan. Speakers include renewable-energy-policy guru Tetsunari Iida, former Fukushima governor Eisaku Sato, popular-actor-turned-activist Taro Yamamoto, and lots more people I can’t wait to meet. I’ll be there reporting for Kyoto Journal and possibly a few other outlets. (1/4/12)

  55. Happy New Year! In 2012, I’m looking forward to following up on the aftermath of the tsunami and nuclear accident as well as getting back to some story ideas that were swept aside by the non-stop craziness of 2011. So what will Japan’s top environmental news be this year? I’m betting on:

    #1    Decontaminating Fukushima. Will it work? How will the   

            environment fare? Will any interesting new technologies


    #2    Renewable energy. Will Japan finally get serious about

            shifting to solar, wind, geothermal, and biomass power?

    #3    Agriculture and free trade. Now that Japan has decided to

            join negotiations for new Pacific-rim free trade area that

            would eliminate tariffs on farm products, what will become of

            its already-ailing farm sector? What about its rural ecosystems?

    #4    Rebuilding Tohoku. The tsunami wiped out 300 miles of

            Honshu’s northeastern coast. As I wrote in October, the

            reconstruction is a chance to incorporate sustainable design

            from the ground up. Will Tohoku’s communities make the

            most of it?

  1. In the next few months, I’ll be posting links to articles I worked on over the fall, including an interview with the fabulous environmental historian Brett Walker (author of Toxic Archipelago: A History of Industrial Disease in Japan); a look at how Japan - one of the world’s most energy-efficient countries - can boost its efficiency even more; a profile of an unusual home office in Tokyo; an on-the-ground investigation of decontamination projects in Fukushima; and more. (1/4/12)

  2. Canadian friends! On March 17, I’ll be joining Peter Friederici, an environmental journalist, and Gordon Feller, Director of Urban Innovations at networking technology and services company Cisco, in Toronto for a panel on Japanese and American Responses to Environmental Crisis at the annual Association for Asian Studies conference. More details to follow. (1/4/12)

  3. Tokyo Designer’s Week took place from November 1-6, and environmental design was a central theme. Didn’t make it to Tokyo? Take a virtual tour with me at - links are up on the Articles page.

  4. Scientists in Fukushima Prefecture are just beginning a huge project tracking the health impacts of the nuclear disaster on every resident of the prefecture. As I write in October’s Environmental Health Perspectives, those impacts could take decades to become clear. What we can do now is review relevant experiences from the past and make educated guesses about the future - which is what what speakers at a discussion hosted by Harvard University and the University of Tokyo will be doing on November 2. The event, which is free and open to the public, is part of a 3-day symposium on how metal mining, smelting, and disposal impact human and environmental health.

  5. Links to several of the stories I wrote for the Christian Science Monitor and other publications during my September trip to the Tohoku disaster zone are now up on the Articles page. Topics include corporate involvement in the fishing industry, a project by architects to make the reconstruction more sustainable, the impact of the disaster on the elderly, and more. 

  6. Read Chinese or know someone who does? Elizabeth Grossman’s and my article on chemical contamination following the Tohoku tsunami has been translated into Chinese and is available online.

  7. Thanks to everyone who attended the query workshop that veteran writer and editor Jane Singer and I led at the Japan Writer’s Conference on October 15. We hope you all went home and dashed off a query or two to the magazine of your dreams! Special thanks to our star student, who livened up the workshop with a real live story idea.

  8. The Diet is now (mid-August) debating new policy tools for increasing the share of electricity generated from renewable sources in Japan (it stands at about 9%; Prime Minister Kan wants to double that in the next ten years or so). Brush up on the current status, potential, and obstacles to generating electricity from renewable sources by reading my recent “Renewables 101” package for the Japan Times, now on the Articles page.

  9. Now online: article by Elizabeth Grossman and me about what happened to all the toxic chemicals being used by factories along the Tohoku coast after the earthquake. Read it here, in Environmental Health Perspectives. We talk about it here, as well, on the EHP podcast, and also on This Week in Earth, a great weekly roundup of “what’s trending - or missing - in the news.”

  10. Recently, Dave Carlson, who produces a podcast featuring ex-patriots living in Nagano Prefecture,  had me on to discuss my work as a journalist in Japan. In this 11-minute clip (Japanofiles 50_Excerpt.mp3), I describe two recent projects: an article on chemical contamination following the Tohoku tsunami (see post below for more info), and a story about three rice farmers facing an incredibly shaky future.

  11. Everyone knows the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant was devastated by Japan’s March 11 earthquake and tsunami. But did you know that at least 130 factories that handle significant amounts of toxic chemicals - from bisphenol A to mercury and lead - were also within the tsunami inundation zone? In the cover story for the July issue of Environmental Health Perspectives I write about how Japan is struggling to assess and handle the widespread threat of chemical contamination in the disaster area. The article is a joint project with independent environmental journalist Elizabeth Grossman, who has written extensively about environmental health issues in the United States. Her books include High Tech Trash: Digital Devices, Hidden Toxics, and Human Health and Watershed: The Undamming of America. Check out this article by Elizabeth in Earth Island Journal about how the BP oil spill impacted Vietnamese fishing families.

  12. 100,000 people are still homeless nearly three months after the March tsunami and quake in northern Japan. Many are waiting for their name to be picked in the temporary-housing lottery, but architect Makiko Tsukada has come up with a concept for simple, affordable homes made of wood that disaster victims can build independently. Her proposal is available through the website.

  13. Japanese cheese! Earlier this spring I got to visit and write about five of Nagano’s artisanal cheese makers for Culture magazine, a new all-cheese publication in the US. On newsstands now but unfortunately not yet available to read online.

  14. The Japan Times has published a collection of stories on the tsunami, earthquake, and nuclear disaster called The Japan Times Special Report 3.11: A chronicle of events following the Great East Japan Earthquake (available for purchase here). Nothing by me in there, but lots of good stuff including an interesting piece on energy policy by Eric Johnston, a Japan Times reporter whom I got to know at last October’s UN biodiversity conference in Nagoya. Eric is one of the few reporters in the English-language press who deeply investigated Japan’s nuclear reactors before the disaster hit.

  15. From June 20-July 2 I’ll be studying nuclear power and public policy as a media fellow at Vermont Law School, home of America’s top environmental law center.

  16. Follow my coverage of the earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear disaster at the Christian Science Monitor. Links to those and other recent stories are on the articles page.  Longer-term magazine coverage is also on the way, based on last week’s reporting trip to the disaster area (April 8-15).

  17. Watching in horror as the earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear crisis unfolds in northern Japan. Thankfully I and all family members have been spared, but so many others have not. The death toll is already estimated at over 1,300 people, and strong aftershocks continue a day and a half after the main earthquake hit on March 11. We continue to wait to see whether emergency responders will be able to keep the nuclear disaster in Fukushima under control and prevent a meltdown. 

  18. In the midst of yet another snow storm, I’m headed to Tokyo to taste the creamy wonders produced by 60 of Japan’s artisinal cheesemakers, then on to a small island in the Sea of Japan where I’m hoping to spy on some hibernating (and highly endangered) salamanders. Stay tuned for related articles.

  19. While writing about biomimicry two and a half years ago for the Japan Times, I had the chance to interview Emile Ishida about some termite-nest-inspired tiles he was developing. Recently, I turned on the TV to find Professor Ishida talking about a new micro wind turbine that gets its design inspiration from dragonfly wings. I ended up covering the technology for New Scientist. You can read the short article online here, or check it out in living color on page 19 of the Jan. 29 issue.

  20. New on the Articles page: an innovative live-work space in Nagoya, and the final story in my series on Hokkaido, which describes my meeting with some of the last remaining speakers of the indigenous Ainu language.

  21. This month, I moved from a coastal town in Mie Prefecture to the mountains of Nagano (site of the 1998 Winter Olympics). You can follow my adventures in the Japanese countryside via the new “Happy Homesteader” blog at Mother Earth News, which I’ll be contributing to about twice a month.

  22. I’ve posted links to my coverage of the Nagoya biodiversity conference on the “Articles” page. And for those of you who would like to catch up on more news from the conference, here are links to articles by some of the fabulous journalists who were camped out in a back corner of the Media Center with me: Coverage by Eric Johnston and Setsuko Kamiya in the Japan Times, a great collection of articles by the Guardian’s Jonathan Watts, a wrap-up by Science’s Dennis Normile and yet more in-depth coverage by Stephen Leahy, a freelancer with IPS and Tierramerica (you’ll need to scroll down to find the articles from Nagoya).

  23. Coming soon: Japan Times Sunday special on COP 10, featuring an interview with a marine biodiversity specialist from IUCN, opinion pieces by Bill McKibben and Mark Brazil, and reporting from the conference.

  24. I’m in Nagoya at COP 10, the UN conference on biodiversity that will run from October 18-29. Follow it via my posts at Earth Island Journal’s EnvironmentaList blog.

  25. Kyoto Journal’s special biodiversity issue is now available. Check out a video preview here. You can also see the table of contents, select articles, and special online-only reports here. There is a wealth of great material available here by some of the world’s leading environmental activists, scientists, and writers - Barry Lopez, Vandana Shiva, Bill McKibben, Caroline Fraser, and many more. I was one of three editors for the 20-page satoyama section, and also contributed a number of articles, like this short essay on stone walls and this interview with Jack Greer on sustainable use of coastal areas.

  26. PDFs are now available for the following articles, which are not viewable online: Saving the Sarufutsu.pdf, Charcoal and Butterflies.pdf, Return to Sato-umi.pdf, Life in the Grasslands.pdf, and The Rice Field is a Stage.pdf. They’re part of a series of biodiversity-related articles I wrote for the Japan Journal. Except for Saving the Sarufutsu, which is about some really cool red fish up in Hokkaido, they all focus on biodiversity in farming communities.

  27., the online directory of modern architects I edit and translate for, just underwent a major renovation, and it’s looking great. Stop by and check out the latest in minimalism and mini-houses. (Warning: Not all pages have been cleared of Janglish yet.)

  28. I’ve just looked through the proofs of a special biodiversity edition of the Kyoto Journal that I’ve been co-editing over the past six months. Wow! Heaps of gorgeous paintings and photos combined with essays, interviews, and articles by a number of writers (including yours truly), all focussed on the relationships between culture, agriculture, and wilderness. We put together the issue to coincide with the United Nations conference on biodiversity coming up this October in Nagoya (COP10). It will be distributed at the conference, as well as to regular subscribers and bookstores in and out of Japan. Keep an eye on for more information - or join Kyoto Journal on Facebook:

  29. My article on Asahiyama zoo, one of Japan’s more progressive (and popular) facilities, is online. Sadly, I wasn’t able to include my bizarre encounter with a frozen capybara in the zoo’s kitchen, but I did manage to squeeze in polar bear romance, wolf and deer cohabitation, and pudgy seal torpedos. 

  30. A reader responds to my May 30 article, “How Can It Get Too Late to Learn?”, offering insight from his own experience teaching adult students in Japan.

  31. Several recent additions to the articles page: From the Japan Times, a feature on why there are so few students over age 25 in this country’s universities, and another on efforts to restore Japan’s first “pearl bay.”  From the June issue of Dwell, an article on Korean architect Byoung Cho’s house in Seoul.

  32. Ode magazine recently won a Maggie Award for its May 2009 issue (thats like a movie winning an Oscar). I made a very small contribution to that issue with my article on a Japanese company that makes office chairs from recycled car seats (not the kind for babies, the kind you sit in when you drive). You can view the issue online here.

  33. I’m in Hokkaido (through May 10). To follow along on my two-week journey from the far northern tip of Japan down to the coastal town of Nibutani, check out the “Hokkaido” link on the navigation bar above.

  34. Speaking of modern architecture (see below) . . . if you’re interested in Japanese architects, have a look at . I’ve been helping edit and translate for the site - but be forewarned, it is a work in progress English-wise. A few of my favorite architects listed at the site are here (check out this neat modern nursery school over at the architect’s own website) and here (landscape architecture with an earthy bent).

  35. Back in January, I spent a few days in Seoul, Korea checking out some great modern houses designed by architect Byoung-soo Cho. A slideshow of an underground house he built outside the city is now up at

  36. (“Meditations, reconnaissance, and strategies by and for the COP10 NGO community”)is now up and running! It’s a great new hub for action and alternative news relating to the international conference on biodiversity that will be held this October in Nagoya.

  37. The bears are back! A longer, updated version of my Yale Environment 360 article on changing forest habitats and endangered bears in Japan is now up over at the Asia-Pacific Journal: Japan Focus.

  38. Traditional Japanese joinery may be cool, but Akihisa Kitamori, an assistant professor at Kyoto University, thinks he can make it even cooler (or at least more earthquake-proof). Read all about it here.

  39. Satoyama Returns! Following the great response to my Japan Times article on biodiversity in rural environments, I travelled to Kyoto and Kyushu to research a four-part series on related topics that will be published starting this month in the Japan Journal. This month’s article covers a government project to promote rural villages as biodiversity “hotspots”; the three others look more closely at semi-natural grasslands, rice paddies, and coppice woodland environments.

  40. Recent blog entries on Japan’s annual Eco Products Fair, rice fields with names, termites, and more on the notebook page.

  41. On 11/13/09 a 170-meter ferry capsized off the shore of my town, spilling part of its fuel into the ocean. This article for the Japan Times  takes a lighter look at local fascination with the accident as well as its impact on local fishermen and wildlife.

  42. Tohru Hayami, current head of the Forest Management Association of Japan and owner of Japan’s first FSC-certified forest, thinks biodiversity and plantation forestry can work together. Read this article and judge for yourself. (By the way, the photo to the right is of me mid-conversation with Mr. Hayami.)

  43. Japan is two thirds forest, yet its bears are in serious trouble (close to 5,000 were killed in 2006). Find out why in my recent article for Yale Environment 360. For more on Japan’s bears, see this Japan Times article.

  44. Believe it or not, a Japanese inventor has designed a refrigerator that does not require electricity to run. Read my profile of Yasuyuki Fujimura here, and find a longer excerpt from my interview with him here.

  45. So you thought asphalt was a boring black substance only good for doing donuts on and maybe frying an egg on a very hot day? Think again! Japan is developing lots of interesting sustainable asphalt technologies, which I describe in the October issue of the Japan Journal

  46. My article investigating the impact of rural depopulation and farm modernization on Japan’s biodiversity was published 8/23 and has generated some interesting responses from readers here (8.25), here (8.24), and here.

  47. September’s issue will be the last for beloved Kobe-based magazine Kansai Time Out. Goodbye to 32 years of great writing by and for the foreign community in central Japan.  The final issue features my article on the Biodiversity Observation by One Million People project.  Those of you who live in Japan can find out how to join in the beetle-counting and leaf-watching by visiting

A 3,000-year-old sugi tree (Cryptomeria japonica) at Tamaki Shrine, high on a mountaintop on the Kii Peninsula of central Honshu, Japan. The straw rope encircling the tree marks it as sacred and protects it from cutting. Sugi, the national tree of Japan, is a common choice for timber plantations. This one has become host to several parasitic broadleaf trees whose yellow-green leaves can be seen at the top of the photograph.


Fellow observer of the world, Nagano Pref.