In wake of Fukushima, Japan’s divestment campaign pits Buddhist priest against banks

Most of the country’s nuclear plants remain offline amid safety checks and legal challenges.

Driven by concern about nuclear power, Narita recently shifted some of his temple’s funds to a financial firm that is rated as one of Japan’s 45 “earth-friendly” banks. This means the bank is not known to provide finance for the fossil fuel and nuclear sectors.

Narita told NBC News he planned to explain the decision to his counterparts in other temples, believing that “we need to be more mindful of what we’re blessed with.”

In wake of Fukushima, Japan’s divestment campaign pits Buddhist priest against banks
In wake of Fukushima, Japan’s divestment campaign pits Buddhist priest against banks

“That small action when combined [with the actions of others] leads to a bigger effect, so I hope for divestment to have that kind of spread in Japan,” he said during an interview at Totsuka Zenryo Temple.

In the next room, about 100 people gathered to hear from the veteran American climate campaigner Bill McKibben, who co-founded the global divestment movement known as and has organized climate rallies around the world.

Image: Totsuka Zenryo Temple
Climate campaigner Bill McKibben, co-founder of the fossil fuel divestment movement, addresses an audience at the Totsuka Zenryo Temple.Daniel Hurst / for NBC News

McKibben described being jolted into action by a visit to Bangladesh more than a decade ago when he saw people die from dengue — a mosquito-borne viral illness that is projected to worsen in that country as the globe warms. McKibben said he viewed it as “very unfair” that Bangladesh would bear major impacts from climate change when it had not been the source of most of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions.

“They’re suffering from a problem that they didn’t cause, a problem that we caused,” McKibben said. “And so, when I went back to the United States, I decided that the time had come to fight — in a good, nonviolent, Buddhist peaceful way,” he quipped to the temple crowd.

Now, McKibben said, it was important for the divestment movement to spread to Japan “because Japanese banks are now the biggest lenders of money for coal projects around the world.”

Japan’s Mizuho provided an estimated $11.5 billion in loans to the world’s top coal-plant developers from January 2014 to September 2017, according to analysis published by BankTrack, a pro-renewable energy network. That led to Mizuho being assessed as the most prolific lender in that category, followed by another Japanese financial group, MUFG, in second place, while Sumitomo Mitsui Banking Corporation came in at fifth.

These banks have signaled that they are weighing their future lending criteria.

Mizuho said on its website that it was currently discussing the “best due diligence methods” for reducing environmental and social risks, while MUFG told investors it would strengthen its focus on financing renewable energy.

A spokesperson for Sumitomo Mitsui told NBC News: “Coal-fired thermal power generation is considered as a relatively low-cost power generation method; however, since we consider that the impact on climate change is significant, we are considering [reviewing] our current credit policy.”

Still, the number of ordinary people in Japan actively divesting from fossil fuels remains small: Just 146 individuals have so far reported divestments worth 568.2 million yen ($5.1 million) since the campaign launched late last year, according to Japan.

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