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Awakening a Zest for Life in Japanese Children

Takeshi Okada is a former coach of the Japanese national football team. He led Japan to the Round of 16 at the 2010 FIFA World Cup. He has been interested in environmental issues since he was a student, and in recent years has had an ambition to help children learn to be adaptable to global environmental change through hands-on field classes. We asked him for his impressions of Japanese space missions and his thoughts about the environment.Takeshi Okada Former Coach of the Japanese National Football Team

Takeshi Okada,
Former head coach of the Japanese national football team
Mr. Okada started playing football at the age of thirteen, and was selected for Japan’s national youth team while in his final year at Osaka Prefectural Tennoji High School. Subsequently he studied at School of Political Science and Economics at Waseda University, where he also played football. After graduation, he joined the Furukawa Electric Football Club, and was selected for the Japanese national team. In 1997, he was appointed coach of the Japanese national team, and led it to the FIFA World Cup for the first time. After coaching the Consadole Sapporo to the J2 Championship and the Yokohama F-Marinos to the J-League Championship, he was again named coach of the Japanese national team in 2007, and led the team to the Round of 16 at the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa. Currently, he is director of the environmental action office at the Japan Football Association.

HAYABUSA’s Impressive Return

Q. Is there a Japanese space mission that has made a particularly strong impression on you?

Asteroid explorer HAYABUSA (courtesy: Akihiro Ikeshita)
Asteroid explorer HAYABUSA (courtesy: Akihiro Ikeshita)

It is definitely the return of HAYABUSA. I am an instructor at the Creative Conservation Club’s Furano Field, which provides environmental education. There is a program there called the "Stone Earth." The purpose of the workshop is to explain how the Earth functions using a model one meter in diameter. Using that scale model, the distance between the Earth and the asteroid Itokawa was calculated, showing that HAYABUSA had landed on a spot smaller than 0.01 millimeters in diameter, 24 kilometers away. It is a really remarkable achievement. And despite the fact that HAYABUSA was out of communication for several months, it safely returned to Earth after its seven year journey, thanks to the project team’s efforts. It was very moving.
HAYABUSA came back to Earth in June 2010, just before our Round of 16 match against Paraguay at the FIFA World Cup in South Africa. I had believed in victory for the Japanese national team, but most people around us hadn’t expected us even to advance to the Round of 16. HAYABUSA’s return was also unexpected, so in that sense we had something in common.

Q. If you ever had a chance to go to space, what would you like to do? What kind of impression do you have of space?

I’d love to see the Earth from space. The universe for me is something that gives me a sense of connection and value of life. The Earth is very small in comparison to the immense universe, and it makes me humble to think that we live each moment of our life here. Looking at the Earth from space, both an ant hill and a human structure are part of the same natural world. I expect that looking at it from that perspective, it will be more obvious that human beings are part of the biology of Earth.

Developing a Zest for Life in Children

Q. What is your attitude towards environmental issues?

(courtesy: NASA)
(courtesy: NASA)

Although it is often pointed out that the Earth’s environment is in trouble, I don’t see it that way. The Earth’s environment has been changing continuously through its 4.6-billion-year history, and living organisms have coped with those changes to survive. However, in the last two hundred years, since the Industrial Revolution, climate change on Earth has accelerated, making it more difficult for human society to adapt. Generally, the efforts to slow down the changes in the Earth’s environment are called the "environmental movement," but I think that adapting to those changes is an environmental movement, too. I would like to help people become adaptable to the changes in the environment.
In 1900, the world’s population was 1.5 billion. By 1950, it had doubled to 3 billion, and in 2000 it hit 6 billion. Now it’s reportedly over 6.8 billion. No matter how dramatically the world’s population increases, the size of the Earth will not change, so it’s obvious that the Earth will not be able to keep going this way. I am worried that the Japanese may be the first to die out, being the last to adapt to changes in the environment.
The Japanese have become so accustomed to a life of abundance that their love of life has severely weakened. Japan has long been in an alarming state where 30,000 people commit suicide and 90,000 people go missing every year. In comparison, it is reported that no one in Africa commits suicide, although many people are dying of hunger or disease. In our wealthy country, why are so many people killing themselves? Why are there a million people who’ve become hermits? I recognize the need to develop a zest for life in the Japanese, in order to help them become more adaptable to the changing environment. I am now preparing to launch an organization to realize this goal. Q. What is your target age range? How are you going to teach them to have a zest for life? Eventually we would like to include all the generations who are called "the youth" of Japan, but for now we will target elementary-school students only. In the old days, they used to always play outside. On my way home from elementary school, I would leave my schoolbag aside and play with my friends. We sometimes dared to play dangerously, like crossing the railroad bridge with the thrill that if we fell off we could die. Thinking back on those days, those kinds of thrills may have stimulated and increased our zest for life.
In contrast, today’s children in Japan are told only what not to do, and are a bit like livestock who are automatically fed and washed and live under a stable roof. In such conditions, where they can live without doing anything for themselves, it is natural for children to lose their zest for life. This is not their fault, but a consequence of a convenient, comfortable, safe and prosperous society. I think that this is a dreadful situation. But of course I cannot encourage children to cross dangerous railroad bridges. So instead I’d like to create different opportunities to stimulate their brains.
You can do this in many ways - through sport, for example. You are stimulated when you have achieved a challenging goal, or when you get upset because you didn’t perform well but are motivated to work harder. These stimulations are key to cultivating a zest for life. But if sport is the only means, the opportunity will be limited only to children who play sports, so we are also planning other outdoor activities, such as camping. We will build programs that allow children to overcome hardships together and learn to cope with new situations as much as possible on their own.
I have been an observer at an interactive school where children spent a week taking care of horses. In this program, they spread straw to sleep on the second floor of a stable, tended to the horses, and finally learned horseback riding and crossed a mountain to go camping. I was told that the eyes of the participants completely change by the end of the course. When I heard about this, I was convinced that human beings grow through experience. I wouldn’t say that participation in one outdoor activity will instantly give you zest for life or drastically change something in you. But I do hope that it will give children a chance to awaken their zest for life, even a little.

Passing on the Light of Hope to the Next Generation

Q. How did you get interested in environmental issues?

Environmental education at the Creative Conservation Club’s Furano Field (courtesy: C.C.C Furano Field)
Environmental education at the Creative Conservation Club’s Furano Field (courtesy: C.C.C Furano Field)

It was a book called The Limits to Growth by the Club of Rome, which I read thirty years ago, when I was in school. This report outlines that, if the world population and environmental pollution keep increasing as they have been, the growth of humankind will reach its limit due to the depletion of resources and the degradation of the environment. It made me wonder if the book’s arguments were true, and I started paying attention to environmental issues. Later, I read a report released by the United States government in 1980, "The Global 2000 Report to the President," and books by Rachel Carson, the biologist who was one of the founders of the modern environmental movement. Q. Could you tell us about the environmental activities you are involved in? What made you decide to take action? I participated in the Earth Summit 2002, hosted by South Africa, as a member of an NGO. In 2007, I became a principal founder of a private organization, the Global Environment Initiative, which aims to promote renewable energy such as solar power, and I have since been involved in many of its activities. I am also an instructor at the Furano Field project founded by the writer Soh Kuramoto. This nature school runs a campaign to return defunct golf courses to their original forested state, and provides environmental education on these sites.
I started this work because I felt the urge to do something to help children. While environmental problems continue to get more serious, I asked myself, "Don’t we need to do something about these problems?" and "Is it acceptable that we take advantage of what we have now just because our time is still O.K., and we leave the debt to the next generation to pay?" So I decided to take action to pass on the light of hope to children. Some people don’t see the importance of the environmental movement and are negative about it, but I do hope that everyone will take a first step no matter how small it may seem.

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