09/06/2013 12:01 pm ET Updated Nov 06, 2013

On Japan, MC Hammer, and Sustainability

I spent my first two weeks in Japan recently, before the latest Fukushima leaks became public, before friends started posting stories on why they'll never again eat Pacific Ocean salmon.

I'd been curious about Japan for ages. My interest was first piqued by my father, who years ago interviewed Robert Lewis, the co-pilot of the Enola Gay, the B-29 bomber that dropped the first atomic bomb. My dad had gone to the Henry Heide Candy Company for the interview, where Lewis worked after the war, and told me how odd it was to hear this horrific tale in the midst of the manufacturing of Jujubes. Lewis' story, through my dad's retelling, stuck: the magnitude, the finality, the humanity. Imagine what he knew and when, and what he must have felt, forever.

I was further intrigued by a travel story I'd read in my twenties, about a U.S. writer isolated on sabbatical in the northern reaches of the mainland. Limited by winter weather and the language, he spent hours visiting the local "onzen" (baths), and its line of sunken hot tubs, each with descriptive icons. The baths -- male only, quiet, orderly -- were well visited, yet one mysterious tub marked by a lightning bolt remained forever empty. One day two elderly Japanese men were actually IN the bath, and he began slowly working his way down the line of tubs, one to the next, getting closer and closer. At last he reached the edge of that final tub- nervous, curious -- and cautiously stepped in. The lightning bolt, it turned out, stood for electricity, and as he slowly sank in past his waist, the men turned to him and broke form, smiling slightly, knowingly.

A couple of years after I read that story, the Kyoto Protocol were signed, and in my head Japan transformed from a bombed wasteland of alternative genital stimulation and surprising economic power to a green oasis of flowing trees and environmental preservation. And still it waited, unexplored, as India, Africa, Europe, South America all felt my footsteps.

Finally, then, Japan, and the dizzying rows of neon, the seas of politely dressed salary men, the modern trains that reinforce the age and antiquity of our own infrastructure. The culture, as much as anywhere I've been, overtly celebrates tradition -- demands it, really -- in its reverence for its elders, its respect for formality.

At least it seems that way.

Japan remains hidden from me, behind closed doors, curtained windows, polite refusal. It's a vastly different experience than the street cultures of east Africa or southern India, where life takes place in full sight, where the streets bare all. Not that the streets in Japan are empty -- far from it. They are teeming to the point of making Manhattan feel empty, yet they are still inaccessible, impersonal, and strikingly clean.

It got me thinking about sustainability, although, full disclosure, most things get me thinking about sustainability -- hard not to when you do the math (or science). I think about it when baristas' double cup coffee, when to-go meals have 12 napkins, when train travel from NY to DC is 10x the cost of the bus, when...

Anyway, so there I am in Kyoto -- KYOTO! -- at a bakery, and I'm traveling, so everything is a thrill, even wandering around this selection of baked goods with my own little tray and my own little tongs. The man in front of me approaches the counter, with five items. The young woman -- immaculately groomed, teetering around on ill-fitting shoes, a sweet, lovely example of Japan's celebrated adoration of sexualized adolescent imagery -- puts each tiny, small, three-bite sized bun into an individual bag. Which is then put in another bag. Which the customer then takes to a table, and, after eating it all quickly, throws everything away. It's emblematic of Japan's food packaging -- beautiful, elaborate, wasteful.

My favorite definition of sustainability is the one that calls for leaving the planet as good or better for the next generation. How will a small country, so densely packed, so short of resources, so dedicated to respecting its history, manage? And if a country as notoriously competent at enforcing both culture and habit can't create attitude change, how will we? The temperature soared past 90 for a fourth straight day, and I wondered what it might take for people to finally notice our surroundings.

I thought about it some more the next day, when Halliburton admitted to lies and deceit in covering up its greed and incompetence in the wake of the Gulf oil spill. They did the math, saw the bottom line, knew the penalties wouldn't outweigh the profits. It hardly made news in Japan, with Fukushima's re-emergence as a pending global disaster. The next morning the UN released a study that showed China used 22.6 billion tons of minerals and fossil fuels in one year, a full third of the world's total. And that was in 2008.

It was still on my mind two days later when I read a Herald Tribune cover story on the 'Polar Thaw', and how an historic lack of sea ice created heretofore never-seen ocean passageways. A Russian energy company is installing a $20 billion liquefied natural gas plant on the central Arctic coast. "If we don't do it, someone else will" the Russian executive said, and I remembered the lose-lose approach in the prisoner's dilemma.

I read this sitting at a small café in Osaka where, unable to read the menu, I'd just pointed at the plate of one of the three other guests at the tiny 10-seat counter-only lunch kitchen. It was one of the small restaurants so common in Osaka, cloaked from the outside by thick strips of hanging canvas, seemingly nameless amid rows of similar stalls. I sat toward the back, angled sideways so my legs fit, reading an English-language paper and wondering about the planet. Just then, on the radio, MC Hammer's "You Can't Touch This" came on, and I tucked in to the food that arrived, knowing that at the very least some things would be forever preserved.