RUSUTSU, JAPAN — Even as most of the world struggles with soaring fuel and food prices, two major issues facing President Bush and seven other leaders meeting here this week, many in Japan see an opportunity to shine during these tough economic times because of this nation's long-running conservation programs.
Since the oil embargo crisis in 1973, Japan has done more than most nations to reduce its heavy reliance on crude oil and develop green technologies, whether battery-powered cars or solar panels. That means the world's second-largest economy is better able than many to withstand the latest oil shock.
Japan's efforts to go green also give its leaders, hosts of the Group of 8 major industrial nations summit beginning today, greater standing to push their agenda on global warming.
As chairman of this year's G-8 summit, Japanese Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda has urged the group to agree to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by half by 2050. But at a news conference Sunday after bilateral meetings between leaders, Fukuda appeared to lower expectations that an agreement would be won, while Bush again said that China and India, two major polluters, needed to be involved in any such accord.
China and India are not members of the G-8, although they are invited as guests at the summit. The G-8 group comprises the U.S., Japan, Germany, Britain, France, Italy, Canada and Russia.
The summit is being held in a remote mountaintop hotel on the island of Hokkaido, away from thousands of protesters gathered in Hokkaido prefecture's capital, Sapporo.
At the news conference, Bush defended his decision to attend the opening ceremony of the Olympics next month in Beijing, saying that it would be an "affront to the Chinese people" if he didn't. Some in Congress have called on Bush to boycott the Games because of China's human rights record.
The Japanese prime minister said for the first time that he would go to the opening event as well, noting that "there certainly may be problems with China, but even so, they are striving to improve things."
Although Japan, like other nations, is facing inflation from higher fuel prices and is struggling with weak consumer spending and slowing exports, its corporations have long benefited from their heavy investment in energy-saving technologies. By some measures, Japanese companies use half as much energy per dollar of economic activity compared with the United States.
During the three-day summit, Japan's energy-efficient products will be on full display. The large international media center was built for the summit with 95% recyclable or reusable materials and is being cooled not by air conditioners but by 7,000 tons of snow under the floor, hauled from the mountains nearby. On the schedule for spouses of G-8 leaders are visits to a zero-emission house and test-driving of eco-cars from Toyota, Honda and others.
"We know how to conserve food and energy," said Tokyo economist Atsuo Mihara. Noting that this experience could help Japan emerge from its long economic doldrums, he added, "Our time is finally coming."
It also presents an opportunity for the country to take a global leadership role on a pressing world issue. On this, however, many Japanese are decidedly less confident, citing a variety of factors, including the country's don't-stand-out group culture and a kind of timidity stemming from historical circumstances and communication style.
"We are speechless people," said Takashi Kiuchi, a longtime bank director who teaches at Musashi University in Tokyo.
Prime Minister Fukuda may need to speak up at the G-8 summit. His popularity rating at home is extremely low, reflecting his old-fashioned communication style, said Japanese political scientist Jun Takase, who added that the leader needs a successful summit.
The G-8's meeting has been overshadowed by the world's sagging economy, in large part due to sharp increases in fuel and grain prices. Protesters have called on the G-8 to take greater leadership and more action to solve those pressing issues, but few analysts expect specific measures to come out of the summit.
G-8 leaders will meet today with leaders of seven African nations about aid and are expected to take up the issues of oil, food and global warming on Tuesday. On the final day, G-8 members will hold sessions with leaders of China, India, Brazil and several other emerging nations.