VIDEO DIARY: In Japan, Sustainable Development Goals are lost in translation

by Timothy Large | @timothylarge | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Tuesday, 8 September 2015 21:35 GMT

* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Japanese journalists struggle to make headlines out of new global targets aimed at solving the world’s economic, social and political ills

On a recent afternoon in Tokyo’s Akasaka commercial district, journalists from a variety of newspapers were harassing office workers on their lunch break, asking if they’d heard the expression jizokukanouna kaihatsu mokuhyou.

For most, the phrase was perplexing. Several of those interviewed asked if it had something to do with self improvement or business development. One thought he could deduce the meaning from the eight composite Japanese characters, which sounded like they’d been abducted from an arcane textbook and jammed together against their will. His guesswork soon petered out.

This “vox pop” exercise wasn't a promising sign for policymakers, activists and academics who will meet in New York later this month for a U.N. summit that could - quite literally - save the planet.

The phrase in question was the Japanese translation of “Sustainable Development Goals” (SDGs), 17 globally agreed targets that will supersede the so-called Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) aimed at slashing poverty and hunger and improving health and education. If well implemented, the targets could provide a 15-year blueprint for prosperity, social justice and protection of natural resources.

Countries will adopt the SDGs on Sept 25. The New York summit is an important precursor to make-or-break global climate talks in Paris in December.

The journalists milling about Akasaka were participants on the first day of a one-week Thomson Reuters Foundation workshop, one of 34 similar events held in 33 countries worldwide with the support of the U.N. Foundation.

The aim of the workshops was to help reporters and editors find ways to make sustainable development issues resonate with their audiences - and help spokespeople from U.N. agencies, non-governmental organisations and academia interact more fruitfully with members of the media.

Nowhere was that need more pressing than in affluent and sometimes insular Japan, where the challenges of sustainable development go far beyond semantics.

Watch my video blog for a taste of the experience, played out against the vast expanse of the world’s largest urban agglomeration.

Here, in the boiler room of the third-biggest economy, journalists struggled to make sense of jargon and U.N.-speak that can be at best alienating, at worst stupefying.

After a crash course in development economics, they were encouraged to think creatively of ways to bring to life the stories that will define our century - everything from food security and public health threats to water shortages, gender equality and resilient cities.

They even nabbed an interview with environmental economist Jeffrey Sachs, director of The Earth Institute at Columbia University, who acknowledged the public relations problem facing the SDGs, saying: “At a technical level or at a diplomatic level, people are talking about sustainable development, but for the broad public, people don’t know.”

You’ll also see NGO spokespeople squirm as we put them on the spot to pitch stories to our panel of grizzled journalists, who give them - in some cases, for the first time - honest feedback about what makes a story newsworthy.

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.