By Jonathan Watts
updated May 28, 2015
He has established a micro-credit “Future Bank”, is developing buildings and houses to last 100 years, and is now working for a nuclear free Japan to “recover hope within 300 years”. Rev. Hidehito Okochi is a forward-looking Japanese Buddhist priest who has been ahead of the times for years. However, with the tsunami disaster of March 11 and the ongoing Fukushima nuclear reactor crisis, his time has arrived. Rev. Okochi has been a “socially engaged Buddhist” from his teens as a student activist and his 20s helping establish a Japanese Buddhist NGO for overseas aid work. What has differentiated him from most other engaged Buddhists in Japan up to this time has been his commitment to go beyond social welfare to social transformation. Working to transform his own community as much as engaging in overseas work, his agenda has often been too radical for most other Japanese Buddhist priests to understand or to join in. However, the political struggle over the collusion between the government and the national electric companies and the debate over the future of the country’s energy policy flows right into Rev. Okochi’s long held analysis of Japanese society and his vision for reforming society based on Buddhist values.
The Radical of the Second Noble Truth: Structural Suffering
Rev. Okochi, like most Japanese priests, was born in a temple and raised to succeed his father as abbot. However, instead of entering the Buddhist Studies Department of the university affiliated with his Jodo Pure Land denomination, he entered the Law and Political Science Department of the prestigious Keio University. Growing up in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Rev. Okochi was strongly influenced by the Japanese student political movement of the era; a movement that is for the most part dead today. Still, his ties to his family temple and his subsequent ordination as a priest, led him to search for the common points in his socio-political interests and his Buddhist path. He says, “Eventually I made the connection between the student movement ideals for political peace with Buddhist values for peace and social justice like no poverty and no discrimination. I also eventually saw how environment was connected to peace, and how I could work for society as a priest.”
In his 20s, he and a group of other like-minded Buddhist priests took several trips abroad to various regions of conflict, especially war torn Indo-China. These intimate encounters with the suffering of humanity led them to create AYUS, a Japanese Buddhist NGO focused on supporting small NGOs doing aid work in these areas. At this time, other Japanese Buddhist priests were developing similar concerns and a group of successful, overseas aid Buddhist NGOs sprouted up and continue their work today.
However, these initiatives were not enough to satisfy Rev. Okochi’s political sensibilities for social justice. Reflecting on the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths, Rev. Okochi went deeper into the nature of the suffering that he had encountered overseas.
When Shakyamuni Buddha gained enlightenment, his first teaching was the Four Noble Truths, that is: first, get a solid grasp of the suffering (the problem); second, ascertain its causes and structure; third, form an image of the world to be aimed for; and fourth, act according to correct practices. From this, one gains a sense of the meaning of life in modern society as a citizen with responsibilities in the irreversible course of time. The suffering of the southern peoples and nature, from which we derive support for our lives even as we exploit it, has caused the Edogawa Citizens Network for Thinking about Global Warming (ECNG) to think, and therefore we have achieved concrete results. The problem is structural in nature, so by changing the system and creating measures for improvement, we achieve results. The first thing is to fulfill our responsibilities to the people around us and to future generations.
Rev. Okochi discovered that the Japanese economic prosperity of the 1980s was built on the back of the economic and environmental exploitation of South and Southeast Asia while piggy backing on the political exploitation of the United States in the Middle East. While other Buddhist priests may have also seen this second noble truth, almost all have been content in working on the first noble truth of immediate suffering through social welfare and aid work overseas. Rev. Okochi has been a pioneer in the Buddhist world of Japan for not only engaging in activist and advocacy campaigns on these issues within Japan, such as his leadership of the Palestinian Children’s Campaign. More importantly, he has engaged in his own community to end the complicity with this overseas exploitation rooted in Japanese consumeristic lifestyles.
The critical consciousness developed in understanding the global system of economic, environmental, and political exploitation from engaging in the second noble truth led Rev. Okochi to the third noble truth. His endeavor to create a future vision of Japan comes from his own Buddhist ideals and values. He has drawn heavily on the founder of his Jodo Pure Land denomination, Honen (1133-1212). Honen brought Japanese Buddhism down to the masses by developing a faith based in the vow of Amida Buddha to abandon no sentient being no matter how deep their transgressions and defilements. For Rev. Okochi, this means creating a world without discrimination and exploitation, especially one without a military and nuclear presence. In this way, Rev. Okochi has been part of a group of farsighted Japanese religious leaders who formed the Inter Faith Forum for the Review of National Nuclear Policy in 1993.
Acting Locally and Nurturing Community through Concern for Global Warming
The second aspect of his vision derived from Honen is nurturing community based on trusting relationships and self-reliance. This was an endeavor he set about working on in his urban temple community in Tokyo through supporting and hosting a wide variety of NGOs in a building owned by his Juko-in temple. In one large office space are found:
- a children’s theatre group
- an indigenous Japanese peoples’ (Ainu) advocacy group
- an environmental group for keeping the nearby Arakawa River and its environs clean
- a small political party with numerous women candidates
- an alternative energy and culture NGO supporting the peoples of northern India called Julay Ladakh
- a micro-credit bank called Mirai (Future) Bank
- the aforementioned Edogawa Citizen’s Network for Thinking about Global Warming (ECNG).
These are further integrated with a host of other citizens groups located in the area in what is called the Edogawa Lifestyle Network. In this way, Rev. Okochi has sought to connect the people in his neighborhood together on important local issues and then connect them to peoples with similar concerns in other parts of the world towards building “global community”.
ECNG is an important lynchpin for the wide swath of Rev. Okochi’s efforts. It was established in the summer of 1996 in the run-up to the Third Session of the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP3) held in Kyoto in December 1997, resulting in the Kyoto Protocol. ECNG members started learning about global warming by first engaging in the recovery of CFCs in their local ward, which is responsible for a high level of such emissions in the central Tokyo 23 ward area due to the concentration of car demolition businesses there. This project led into a deeper investigation of Japan’s industrial grid and the generation of electricity. Rev. Okochi explains that:
In Japan, [electrical] power is held by businesses wanting to proceed with multi-billion-dollar projects at any cost, local regions looking for economic subsidies, and politicians using large amounts of political funding enticed by incentives of several percent … [Therefore], ECNG has made it a goal not only to reduce peak [electricity] demand and change policy in order to promote the spread of alternative forms of energy, but also to familiarize people with the concept of energy and get communities involved in initiatives … The first test of this was the establishment of the citizens’ power plant using solar electrical generation.
The site for this “plant” was none other than Rev. Okochi’s Juko-in temple, and this required a complete rebuilding of the 400-year old temple using eco-friendly concrete and wood building materials. Two sets of fifteen large solar panels with an output of 5.4kw were installed on the roof of the newly constructed temple in 1999. It is estimated that 3kw is enough to meet the needs for the activities of a family of four, so the plant produces a little less than twice that. This initiative was an experiment not in creating an alternative form of large-scale electrical generation but in how an individual home could develop sustainable electrical independence.
Rev. Okochi points out that the big obstacle was the six million yen cost of installing the panels. Grants from government foundations and NGOs paid for around 2.7 million yen; Juko-in Temple funded another 1.5 million yen by prepaying 10 years worth of its electric bills; and the rest was paid with a loan from the local micro-credit Mirai (Future) Bank. The electricity generated is used only by Juko-in temple, due to laws that prevent the sale of surplus electricity directly to citizens—another example of the collusion between the government and large electric companies to control the industry. Thus, Rev. Okochi has to sell it back to the Tokyo Electric Power Company, the same company that manages the Fukushima reactors. Rev. Okochi notes:
If only the portion used by Juko-in temple and that sold to Tokyo Electric Power Co. are considered as returns, it would take fifteen years or more to pay off the initial investment, so we decided to issue Green Power Certificates. In Europe and other places, there are regions that stipulate the obligation to buy natural energy—which does not put a cost burden on the future by harming the environment or creating radioactive waste—at a higher price than that of energy generated by normal means. There are also green power systems, which designate power produced by consumers using clean generation methods and purchase it at higher prices.
As Rev. Okochi further explains, ECNG decided to sell these Green Power Certificates to pay for the annual generation of 6000 kWh by the First Edogawa Citizens’ Power Plant located at Juko-in temple at the price of 33 yen/kWh, a figure between the 22 yen/kWh price paid by Tokyo Electric Power Co. and the 55 yen/kWh price paid for natural energy in Germany. By selling 200 certificates at 1,000 yen each, they reduced the time for return on investment to within nine years. The Green Power Certificates were a way for people in the community to support this project, so ECNG then created a local currency called Edogawatt and provided three 10 unit Edogawatt bills for each certificate to use in exchange for baby-sitting, carrying loads, translating, and other small jobs within the community. Rev. Okochi points out that these “have provided an incentive for the creation of a mutual aid society within the community, and we would like to make them a tool for deepening interpersonal relationships and trust.” In the end, the loans have been paid back, and ECNG is making good profits on the electricity it is still selling back to the main grid from the Juko-in Temple roof.
The fulcrum for this whole initiative was the Mirai “Future” Bank that ECNG established based on the micro credit banking systems first developed in Sri Lanka by the well known Buddhist based Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement under A.T. Ariyaratne and made famous by the Grameen Bank and Nobel Peace Prize Winner Muhammad Yunus in Bangladesh. The bank provided an important amount of capital for installing the solar panels on the roof of Juko-in and for the subsequent power station of 3kw built in 2007 on the roof of an elderly home run by a local NGO on land owned by the temple. The bank also engaged in a consumer campaign to decrease the amount of electricity used through the purchase of more energy efficient, electrical appliances. In the end, they discovered that with almost a tenth of the six million yen investment for solar panels on the roof on Juko-in used towards such appliances and products, they could save 2,000 kwH more than these panels could generate in a year. In this way, through both generating their own electricity and saving on the electricity they do use, Juko-in temple has become a successful model for realizing the final vision of every home becoming totally energy self-sufficient—thereby empowering it to unplug from centralized electrical grids.
Rebuilding Local Resources, Local Ecology, and Local Community
This initiative feeds into a larger vision Rev. Okochi has for developing a pure land here on earth through ecological housing and living. Rev. Okochi has joined together with a host a different small Japanese NGOs to build chemical free, long lasting homes for urban dwellers. In his first experiences in Southeast Asia and through a study tour of Sarawak, Malaysia with ECNG, he came to learn of large Japanese companies, like Mitsubishi, which engage in destructive logging practices, while local timber companies within Japan have gone out of business. Not only has this been destroying the forests of Southeast Asia, but the abandoned mono-culture forests planted in previous years by local companies within Japan are now causing soil erosion, landslides, and a host of local environmental problems.
The vision Rev. Okochi and his partners developed is part of the increasingly well-known Japanese sato-yama (village-mountain) policy for developing sustainable human communities living in co-existence with forests as well as marine environments (sato-umi). The plan has been to replant Japan’s forests in consultation with marginalized, traditional Japanese architects and carpenters with a variety of hardwoods that will enrich biological diversity, avoid soil erosion, and provide a sustainable supply of timber for construction use. Most houses that are built today by major contractors in Japan use heavy amounts of chemicals leading to the phenomenon known as “sick houses” for the respiratory, skin, and other problems they cause new inhabitants. Further, they are made of cheap monoculture timbers that last only one generation. This eco-village initiative is to build houses that last three generations with natural materials that increase the well-being of their inhabitants.
Another crucial aspect of these initiatives is support for the development of local electrical generation through the use of solar, wind, and micro-hydroelectric. As Rev. Okochi points out, the myth that Japan has no natural resources is part of the larger myth of the need for massive centralized electrical systems—including nuclear power—to fuel an exploitative, consumer driven economy. Again, Rev. Okochi has lived this vision by completely rebuilding a second temple for which he serves as abbot. Kenju-in temple is located in downtown Tokyo with four floors of chemical free, low cost apartments for urban dwellers with environmental values. (see details in this article)
All these initiatives are what Rev. Okochi believes can lead Japan away from a top down, oil dependent society, which in turn must support American militarism to support oil security. While the Japanese government, like many other governments, has used the promise of nuclear power to distance itself from oil dependency and fulfill targets to reducing green house gas emissions, nuclear power has been a means to reinforce a top down social order that ensures the profits of electric companies and their “associates”, exploits laborers in the plants, and robs communities in remote regions of their independence while endangering their future. Rev. Okochi’s notes that his vision of and practices towards a natural energy society would “reverse the social hierarchy” by decentralizing the production and consumption of energy and empowering localities and individuals to better determine their own futures.
Since the triple disaster of March 11, Rev. Okochi’s Inter Faith Forum for the Review of National Nuclear Policy has been busy offering their churches, temples, and other facilities as shelters for families who want to evacuate the areas around the Fukushima nuclear power plant. They have also continued their advocacy work writing a series of ongoing editorials in the Japanese Buddhist newspapers and giving public talks all over the country. They hope to expand their advocacy work internationally by participating in the first inter-Buddhist dialogue on climate change to be held in September 2012 in Sri Lanka by the International Network of Engaged Buddhists (INEB), a group Rev. Okochi has been active in for the last three years.
Before March 11, Rev. Okochi was already supporting the dissemination of Helena Norberg-Hodge’s film The Economics of Happiness, which points directly at the problems now facing Japanese society from years of following an exploitative, consumerist economy. At a showing of this movie in June at his alma mater Keio University, Rev. Okochi was struck by the political apathy to these issues, especially the nuclear one, by today’s university students—although many of the “drop out” youth in Japan have been heavily involved in the nuclear protests. He feels that more than being apathetic, today’s young “educated” Japanese seem ignorant of important social issues. They are so consumed by their own career paths and by the internet and other forms of social entertainment that they do not seem to have time for being concerned about social issues. It is to this ignorance, the root cause of all suffering as the Buddha taught, that Rev. Okochi has been spending his life addressing. Unwilling to stay ignorant to the second noble truth, he has been building a future in Japan that may hopefully be arriving sooner than expected.
Rev. Okochi presented his work at the 2009 INEB Conference in Chiang Mai, Thailand and has since become active in the local JNEB group in Japan and the INEB Working Group on Environment and Climate Change.
 Watts, Jonathan S. A Brief Overview of Buddhist NGOs in Japan. Japanese Journal of Religious Studies 31 (2): 417–28, 2004.
 Okochi, Hidehito. “The Citizen ‘s Strategy for Creating a New World: The Future Starts with Us”. New Internationalist Japan. No. 30, Jan-Feb. 2002. http://www.ni-japan.com/webold/jbody342.htm. Also on the Juko-in homepage: http://www.juko-in.or.jp/Eactivity.htm#sokuon
 Okochi. “The Citizen ‘s Strategy for Creating a New World”.
 Okochi. “The Citizen ‘s Strategy for Creating a New World”.
 Okochi. “The Citizen ‘s Strategy for Creating a New World”.