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Thursday, June 12, 2003

OUR PLANET EARTH

Lights out for enlightenment

Candle Night planners wax lyrical over June 22 event


If you happen to be gazing out of a window on the evening of June 22, or walking your dog, or perhaps seeking the shadows with someone special, you may be in for a surprise. On that night, the summer solstice, people across Japan will be taking part in a "Million People's Midsummer's Candle Night." From Hokkaido to Okinawa, homes and offices will be turning off their lights and lighting candles.

News photo
University professor Keibo Oiwa (who goes under the pen name Shin'ichi Tsuji), is one of the organizers of Candle Night on June 22, and a founder of the Sloth Club, which promotes the conservations of environment and cultural diversity. Here he slowly gets to know one of the tropical mammals after which the club is named.
News photo
One of a million on June 22?

Candle Night, which will last from 8 to 10 p.m., is a nationwide movement to get people thinking about energy conservation, peace -- and more.

According to Keibo Oiwa, one of the event's organizers, Candle Night is also about rediscovering the life and mystery that beckon from beyond our computers and concrete walls.

"For Japanese, light has always been a very strong part of our culture, particularly the shade and lighting in decor and architecture. But now, everywhere around us we see ugly fluorescent lighting, and our cities have become more like factories than anything else," Oiwa said in a recent interview.

"This kind of voluntary blackout should not be just an energy-saving initiative, it should also be a starting point for cultural resurgence, for regaining a sense of beauty, fun and peace of mind."

Equally important, he notes, is that the Candle Night initiative is unique because it began as a grassroots movement, but has been embraced by governments and corporations across Japan.

Oiwa is a professor at Meiji Gakuin University and the author of the Japanese best seller "Suro izu biutifuru (Slow Is Beautiful)" (written under the pen name of Shin'ichi Tsuji, and published by Heibonsha). He is also one of the founders of the Sloth Club, a Japanese nongovernmental organization that advocates the conservation of environmental and cultural diversity.

The Sloth Club takes its name from the slow-moving mammal that lives in the tropics. Though "sloth" is commonly used to connote laziness, for members of the club this animal instead symbolizes a slow, leisurely lifestyle. The idea for the name came to Oiwa and his colleagues after working with local people in Latin America. "We were there to help them, but we realized that we tended to force our pace on them. At times, this became a real problem. We realized that before trying to help them, maybe we should first help ourselves by slowing down our own lifestyles," said Oiwa.

I first met Oiwa last fall, and though we spoke only briefly, he was immediately likeable. He is a cheerful environmentalist, more interested in socializing and laughing than dourly decrying the state of the world. When we spoke last week, he explained why.

"I believe there is a common myth that the environmental movement is oppressive, suppressing joy, luxury and beauty," he explained. "Many people believe that environmentalism demands we be Spartan and anti-pleasure about our lifestyles. But the Sloth Club insists that exactly the opposite is true. The environmental movement is for pleasure, for regaining a real sense of pleasure for ourselves."

With individual peace and pleasure in mind, Sloth Club members chose their own theme for this year's Candle Night: "pislosoku." This coined word is a pun on three words: peace, slow and rosoku (candle). Oiwa's most recent book, published by Yukkuri-do, is also titled "Pislosoku" and comprises a series of dialogues with artists and writers who talk about slow lifestyles, environmental issues and -- in the wake of Sept. 11 -- peace.

Whether for environmental conservation, peace or hedonism, reasons for joining in the Candle Night celebrations are as varied as the participants. So far, five prefectures (Iwate, Kumamoto, Chiba, Wakayama and Miyagi), the Environment Ministry, several corporations and numerous artists and musicians are planning to take part.

Oiwa is particularly impressed with the efforts of Iwate's governor, Hiroya Masuda, who has enthusiastically endorsed Candle Night. Oiwa notes that Masuda is also well-known for his "Ganbaranai Manifesto," which encourages Iwate citizens to "stop trying their best" to compete with Tokyo or New York. Instead, he urges them to develop their own value systems and lifestyles based on local production and consumption -- essentially like the Slow Food movement that has gained attention worldwide. Gov. Masuda was recently re-elected, uncontested, to a third term.

At the national level, the Environment Ministry is using Candle Night as an opportunity to promote its anti-global-warming campaign, and has asked historical and symbolic sites across Japan to turn off their lights. Numerous sites will participate, including Kumamoto and Himeji castles.

The most outstanding landmark in the Kanto area to have a lights out will be Tokyo Tower, and for those who want to get up close and personal, there will be a free rock concert at nearby Zojoji Temple. The music will begin several hours before 8 p.m. and there will be a countdown before the tower is plunged into darkness.

Of course, Oiwa noted, the Environment Ministry would likely face criticism if it unreservedly endorsed Candle Night, since candles are a safety hazard. "Governments always think this way," he said with a laugh, "so they established their own version of Candle Night, called hyakuman nin no wa (a million people's ring), and they have their own Web site and campaign."

In the private sector, the largest participating corporation is NEC. According to Oiwa, the whole company is getting involved, as company executives have apparently determined that NEC, together with all its related companies, subsidiaries and products, consumes 1 percent of all Japan's electricity. So the company's goal is to have 10,000 employees participating in Candle Night -- because 10,000 is 1 percent of a million.

Oiwa hopes that Candle Night will inspire a bit of self-reflection, as well as fun. "Instead of just criticizing others, companies and governments, we can look at our own lifestyles, and see what we have been losing in exchange for economic gain, for 'busy-ness.' "

Bathe by candlelight, catch fireflies -- or see if you can catch a glimpse of the stars. Oiwa hopes that if people really enjoy the candlelight, they will do it again every month, or every week -- or even every day.

"Of course I am against nuclear power and war, and I have lots of messages to convey with candlelight, but I don't want to force my opinions and messages on others," he said. "On June 22, I hope people will simply turn off their lights. After that, everyone can do as they choose!"

For more information, visit the official site for Candle Night, www.candle-night.org or The Sloth Club Web site (with English page), at www.sloth.gr.jp Anyone with further questions may e-mail (in English) to candlenight2003@hotmail.com or (in Japanese) to webmaster@candle-night.org or call (03) 3402-8841 or fax (03) 3402-5590. Stephen Hesse welcomes comments at: stevehesse@hotmail.com


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