Cultivating the thinking skills required to adapt to the changing natural and social environments and the ability to contribute to building a sustainable society as a global citizen

Sadao Kurokawa Professor, Center for Liberal ArtsIn 2000, he left university after completing the coursework for a doctoral program in the Life Sciences sub-department of the Department of Multi-Disciplinary Sciences at the University of Tokyo’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. In 2001, he was awarded a Ph.D. by the University of Tokyo. Professor Kurokawa took up his current position in 2009. His fields of specialism are sustainability studies, environmental studies, biomechanics, and exercise physiology. While studying health in an aging society from the perspective of the sustainability of the social environment, he also conducts research involving motion analysis focused specifically on the sport of volleyball. In his capacity as manager of the men’s volleyball club and a coach certified by the International Volleyball Federation, he devotes considerable energies to coaching the students, aiming to see the club promoted to the second division of the Kanto University Volleyball Federation.

What is sustainability studies?

The human living environment, social environment, and the global environment in which they have their foundations have been changing markedly in recent years. To ensure that humans can continue surviving on this planet in the future, we must build a sustainable society in which human activities exist in harmony with the natural environment. The academic discipline focused on this topic is my specialism: sustainability studies.

Still a new discipline, sustainability studies encompasses research into the sustainability of not only the natural environment, but also living environments and social environments. The common topic of sustainability can be approached from a variety of angles, including climate change, biodiversity, economics, and health, and it is a highly interdisciplinary field, attracting researchers from a diverse array of realms, including natural sciences, economics, and sociology. In fact, I am also a researcher who specializes in biomechanics and exercise physiology, studying the bodily structures and movements of living organisms from the perspective of dynamics.

My involvement in teaching sustainability studies began in 2005 with classes in environmental studies. Initially, I focused on the effects of the environment on the human body from the perspective of physiology, which had been the focus of my research for many years. At the first class of the course, I would ask students to write down topics related to the environment that interested them and, over the years, the proportion expressing an interest in global warming and marine pollution by plastics increased. I changed the content of the course to address these needs and now I provide students with material enabling them to think about sustainability for themselves, covering a diverse range of topics, including global warming, the impact of endocrine disruptors and agrochemicals on the human body, climate change and health, welfare, and the aging population and declining birthrate.

The aging of the population and healthy life expectancy as environmental issues

One social environmental issue of very great importance faced by Japan today is that of the aging of the population coupled with a declining birthrate. The health problems of seniors are forecast to have a major impact on the sustainability of society, due to a shrinking workforce and growing medical expenses. In other words, health and the aging of the population is an environmental issue that is very close to home. Accordingly, I have recently begun to research issues relating to elderly people and health, particularly the relationship between cognitive function and physical exercise.

The top three causes of a shorter healthy life expectancy among seniors are locomotive syndrome, metabolic syndrome, and dementia. Research has shown that physical exercise is effective in preventing these conditions and I am interested in what kind of physical exercise helps to improve cognitive function, with a particular focus on dementia.

Cognitive function is controlled by the hippocampus, a part of the brain involved in memory. We know that the hippocampus gradually shrinks with age and atrophies considerably in those with dementia. While a number of studies to date have reported that physical exercise is effective in increasing the size of the hippocampus, adequate consideration has not been given to the kinds of physical exercise that are more effective. Accordingly, I am in the process of verifying my belief that competitive sports with a game element and dance involving complex movements are more effective than simple forms of exercise such as walking.

There is a simulation showing that 1.5 people of working age will have to support a single elderly person in Japan by 2040. If seniors can remain physically and mentally healthy, without any impairment to their cognitive function, they will become a force supporting society by participating in productive activities both paid and unpaid. I believe that shedding light on the exercises that are effective in preventing cognitive decline and the need for nursing care will contribute to the sustainability of society as a whole and lead to a better quality of life (QOL) for all of us, given that we will all be seniors ourselves one day.

Liberal arts education contributes to a sustainable society

In the 2018 academic year, the Meiji Gakuin University Center for Liberal Arts launched the LLTS Project. LLTS is short for “learning to live together sustainably.” This program aims to provide students with the liberal arts education required to build a sustainable society as global citizens. I have been involved with this program since it was set up, engaging in such tasks as planning courses in my capacity as the faculty member responsible for sustainability studies.

Structured around two subject groups, Global Citizenship and Sustainability, the program features classes by guest lecturers selected from among practitioners engaged in activities aimed at solving environmental problems and international issues. We are also considering the introduction of study tours enabling students to conduct research in the field, so that they can connect the knowledge learned in the classroom with real-life practice.

The faculty members involved in the program are themselves actively engaged in research on sustainability-related themes. I plan to conduct surveys overseas focused on the phenomenon of coral bleaching and also on the impact on wildlife of microplastics discharged into the oceans. I want to see the situation for myself, conduct fieldwork with my own hands, and use the data from that to develop more persuasive classes.

Sustainability studies will change the future

While learning knowledge is, of course, an important part of sustainability studies, taking action is even more crucial in this field. I have heard that one student who took my class became interested in marine environmental conservation and, while still a student here, launched a campaign to protect sea turtles. I want students to develop the mindset of “think globally, act locally”—gaining the insight required to realize that the drink in a plastic bottle they bought today leads to pollution of the Hawaii coast with microplastics, and then taking action to solve that problem.

Sustainability studies certainly is not a discipline open only to researchers from the field of natural science. Humanities students, too, can use their background in sustainability studies to play a part in broadening understanding, as a journalist revealing the truth about the global environment or social environment, for example. As the coordinator of these classes, I would be delighted if students interested in sustainability studied it and then went on to consider their work or life from the perspective of contributing to a sustainable society.

It is anticipated that the world is about to face dramatic changes of the kind never experienced by any previous generation. We are likely to confront a succession of unfamiliar problems with which existing data is powerless to help us. However, if everyone on Earth takes action based on accurate knowledge about sustainability, we can change the future 100 years hence. For example, if many Meiji Gakuin University students took the initiative to reduce plastic bottle use by bringing their own reusable bottles, the movement could spread to the local community and make a substantial contribution to remedying the problem of microplastics. Sustainability studies is a discipline with the power to appeal to society through actions such as these. Precisely because we live in an age in which the future is uncertain, I want to provide students with a wide-ranging knowledge of the environment and cultivate in them the judgment and ability to take action that will enable them to adapt to change.