More than 6,400 miles away from home, Earlham College helped Isao Sakai discover a new focus in his fight against climate change.
“I came to Earlham thinking I would major in environmental science, but I discovered here that I wanted to focus more on the causes of climate change,” said Sakai, a native of Tokyo, Japan, who co-founded the national youth climate movement Fridays for Future Japan at the age of 19.
“I feel a sense of obligation as a person from a privileged country like Japan,” he said. “I believe climate change is inherently a problem of oppressive dominance, colonialism, exploitation and patriarchy, and I believe we cannot structurally solve this issue without addressing these underlying problems.”
Before arriving at Earlham, Sakai had already been a spokesperson for countless climate strikes, as part of Fridays for Future’s Tokyo chapter which have drawn thousands of youth and environmental activists to the streets of Japan’s largest city. He also did public relations with nongovernmental organizations, hosted training events for activists and planned strategies to challenge the government’s energy policy. His activism has been featured by Bloomberg and also earned him a spot on Forbes Japan’s popular 30-under-30 list for 2021.
“I don’t look at this as an individual award but as recognition for the work Fridays for Future Tokyo has done as a whole,” Sakai said. “We are instigating public attention toward the issue of climate change in Japan and organizing campaigns against Japanese corporations and the government that continue to build power plants and export coal instead of prioritizing renewable energy.”
Fighting for environmental justice sometimes requires bold action, Sakai has learned. During last fall’s COP26 United Nation’s climate change conference in Glasgow, Scotland, he protested on the streets while waiting for an envoy led by Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida to arrive.
“He didn’t even glance at us at first, so I thought, if I screamed the media might cover it,” Sakai said. “It worked. We were able to hand one of his bureaucrats a letter. We demanded more renewable energy and a more just policy-making process that includes the voices of the younger generation, citizens, and most importantly people and countries that are most impacted by climate change.
“It was quite stressful but it was a good experience,” he said. “He eventually read the letter to the Japanese congress.”
Now a peace and global studies major at Earlham, Sakai encourages others interested in joining environmental justice movements to consider creative approaches.
“One thing I tell people is to do something related to your passion,” Sakai said. “We need more creativity and synergies in order to diversify the ways we address climate change and reduce carbon emissions.
“Climate change poses a threat to the entirety of our society in terms of economy, culture, politics, industry and art, so making an impact in any field becomes a leverage point.”