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“Learning to Build a Better Earth Than Today’s”: Japan’s Approach to Sustainability in Education

Education plays an important role in ensuring that people around the world have the knowledge, skills and attitudes to tackle sustainable development challenges facing modern society. According to UNESCO, Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) empowers learners of all ages to “make informed decisions for environmental integrity, economic viability and a just society for present and future generations, while respecting cultural diversity” (UNESCO, 2014, p. 20). Yet, while ESD has gained increasing recognition and commitment from world leaders over the years, there is still much work to be done. For example, a recent UNESCO report found that 45% of national education documents make little-to-no reference to environmental themes such as sustainability, climate change and biodiversity (UNESCO, 2021). Furthermore, ESD in many countries focuses mostly on the cognitive dimension of learning rather than on socio-emotional and behavioral learning outcomes, which can fall short of bringing about transformative action by learners (UNESCO, 2020, p. 9).

At the UNESCO World Conference on Education for Sustainable Development, held in May 2021, member states acknowledged the importance of education in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) set for 2030 and declared their commitment towards ESD. Thus, as countries around the world look for ways to enhance ESD integration, they can draw lessons and gain inspiration from the example set by Japan, ranked as the most sustainable country in the Asia-Pacific region (Wendling et al., 2020) and one of only a handful of countries that has mainstreamed ESD in its education policies.

As such, it is worth examining how Japan has been able to achieve the widespread implementation and development of ESD. We can grasp an overview of key contributing factors by studying Japan’s ESD approach through the lens of three ‘P’s: policies, people and partnerships. In the following sections, we will look at how ESD has been implemented in Japan through government education policies, local community initiatives and collaborative efforts between different stakeholders.

Policies: Integrating ESD into the formal education system

Following the UN’s designation of the Decade of Education for Sustainable Development (DESD) (2005-2014), the Japanese government incorporated ESD into formal school education through two cornerstone policies.

The first was the creation of a Basic Promotional Plan for Education and the revision of national curriculum guidelines, which positioned sustainable development as an important principle at different levels of education. Through the revised curriculum, students have learnt about the concept of sustainable societies from a young age – starting from pre-school – by engaging in participatory and experiential learning activities. Many such ESD activities are carried out during the “Period for Integrated Studies”, where students can learn about topics such as community development, international understanding and environmental education through an interdisciplinary and practical program. The enhanced ESD curriculum allowed for greater student autonomy and flexibility in exploring sustainability topics rooted in their communities, culminating in unique school initiatives throughout the country where young students take local actions related to environmental conservation, hometown revitalization and world heritage preservation (Interministerial Meeting on the UNDESD, 2014).

Another noteworthy strategy implemented by Japan’s Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT) has been to promote ESD through the establishment and support of UNESCO Associated Schools that are committed to using innovative teaching and learning methods to promote education in sustainable development, global citizenship and intercultural understanding. As a result, the number of UNESCO Associated schools in Japan grew from 15 in 2005 to over 1,000 in 2021, a greater increase than in any other country in the world (UNESCO Associated Schools Network, 2021). The mission to expand and strengthen the network of UNESCO Associated schools has been credited for ESD activities gaining rapid popularity throughout the country and for facilitating “global competence” in students through increased international exchange and collaboration with other member schools around the world (Kodama, 2019, p. 7).

People: Community-based learning to tackle local challenges

Outside of the formal school setting, community learning centers (kominkans) in Japan provide non-formal learning spaces where citizens of all ages can engage in dialogue and activities related to ESD. This community-based approach provides diverse perspectives and collaborative opportunities to tackle specific local challenges, making the ESD experience more meaningful and relevant.

For example, Okayama city in western Japan has gained international recognition as a leader in ESD due to its “whole city” approach that involves multiple stakeholders ranging from the government, schools, corporations, NGOs and citizens (UNESCO, 2017). The city has thirty-seven kominkans which have been involved in promoting awareness and action for environmental conservation, intercultural understanding, sustainable production and consumption. These initiatives have brought about not only increased awareness but also tangible positive results for the local community, one of which was the city’s construction of a 400-meter-long walkway through greenery and water to mitigate the heat island effect, based on the suggestion of a junior high school student.

Another example in which ESD efforts have contributed towards community resilience can be found in the coastal city of Kesennuma. In 2011, the city suffered great damage as a result of the Great East Japan earthquake and tsunami. However, thanks to the city’s promotion of education for disaster preparation and risk reduction, the child survival rate was 99.8% and schools in the city were able to reopen earlier than others in the aftermath of the disaster (ESD: The Japan Model, 2014).

Partnerships: Greater impact through collaborative efforts

Finally, by facilitating knowledge-sharing and cooperation between the public and private sectors, the establishment of multi-stakeholder networks and organizations has played a central role in expanding the outreach and improving the quality of ESD in Japan.

For example, the aforementioned expansion of UNESCO Associated Schools was facilitated by the Interuniversity Network Supporting the UNESCO Associated Schools Network (ASPUnivNet), a network of higher education institutions established for the purpose of improving the quality of ESD via UNESCO Associated Schools. One of the network’s main activities is to support schools in applying for membership in the UNESCO Associated School Network (ASPNet) by providing guidance and evaluation on how to develop an ESD curriculum and adopt a whole-institution approach. In addition to membership application support, the 23 member universities of ASPUnivNet also organize workshops, teacher trainings and regional exchanges to promote ESD in Japan and abroad (ASPUnivNet, 2019).

The Japan Council on the United Nations Decade of Education for Sustainable Development (ESD-J) has also played an important role in promoting community-led ESD initiatives. Established in 2003, the ESD-J is a networking organization with members including NGO’s/ NPO’s, educational institutions, corporations and local authorities. The NGO members of ESD-J have been involved in various community-based ESD projects ranging from promoting sustainable practices of indigenous communities to biodiversity conservation (Noguchi, 2010, pp. 139-140). The ESD-J has documented and shared insights from such projects both nationally and internationally, thereby providing useful resources in promoting community-based ESD efforts. Additionally, the Council has made significant contributions towards ESD promotion through activities such as training sessions, policy advocacy, information dissemination and facilitating partnerships (Interministerial Meeting on the UNDESD, 2015).


To sum up, Japan’s success at mainstreaming ESD nationwide can be attributed to three “P”s – innovative education policies and people-centered approach, supported by partnerships between different stakeholders. A case study of Japan thus suggests that the synergy between top-down policies by the government and bottom-up efforts by local communities is necessary to promote ESD as a life-long learning process for learners of all ages. For countries hoping to step up their ESD integration, the underlying principles of curriculum enhancement, community empowerment and collaboration found in Japan’s approach may serve as a guide on how to provide ESD with a lasting impact.



ASPUnivNet: Interuniversity Network Supporting The UNESCO Associated Schools Network. (2019).

Interministerial Meeting on the UNDESD (2015). Japan Report: United Nations Decade of Education for Sustainable Development (2005-2014).

Kodama, Y. (2019). Environmental Education for Sustainable Development of UNESCO Associated Schools Project Network in Japan. Journal of Sustainable Development Education and Research, 3(1), 1-14.

Noguchi, F. (2010). Identifying Key Elements of Community-based ESD: ESD-J’s Projects to Collect ESD in Practice in Japan and Asia. Global Environmental Research, 14(2), 137-146.

UNESCO. (2014). Shaping the Future We Want: UN Decade of Education for Sustainable Development (2005–2014) - Final Report. Paris, UNESCO.

UNESCO. (2017, January 31). Okayama City: A Social Revolution in Sustainable Development.

UNESCO. (2020). Education for Sustainable Development: A Roadmap. Paris, UNESCO.

UNESCO. (2021). Learn for Our Planet: A Global Review of How Environmental Issues Are Integrated in Education. Paris, UNESCO.

Wendling, Z.A., Emerson, J.W., de Sherbinin, A., Esty, D.C., et al. (2020). 2020 Environmental Performance Index. New Haven, CT: Yale Center for Environmental Law & Policy. Retrieved on June 18, 2021 from

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