Pushing An Elephant Up The Stairs

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Pushing An Elephant Up The Stairs
Despite the efforts of eco-friendly activists, Japan is poisoning itself

Garbage is piling up everywhere. I sigh whenever I take out our household trash, which gets hauled off to the dump several times each week. But how many of us realize that our lifestyle, which produces so much waste, is a very recent invention? In Japan, we take care to sort our garbage, separating organic wastes from newspapers and magazines, from cans and plastic bottles. Yet in processing some of these wastes, the treatment facilities produce black clouds of dioxin, which in turn pollutes the soil. Children are increasingly afflicted with skin diseases, and we are all amassing poisons in our bodies. A process that will end in the elimination of our people has already been set in motion, as hormone-disrupting chemicals are reducing the sperm count of Japanese males. Other nations are poisoning themselves in similar ways, but considering that we produce far more garbage per capita than Europeans, we Japanese are clearly the leading consumers of the earth's resources.

My mother's ancestors worked in the copper mine of Ashio, in Tochigi prefecture north of Tokyo. Veins of ore were discovered there in 1610, and for nearly 300 years the mine went through cycles of prosperity and decline. Production vastly expanded in the 1890s and the first decade of the 1900s. During the Russo-Japanese War, the Japanese navy used Ashio copper in nearly all the shells it fired. Ashio, therefore, could be regarded as the most important mine in Japan's modernization.

But a heavy price was paid. Trees from the surrounding mountains were harvested recklessly to fuel the smelters or to serve as the walls and pillars of the mine shafts. The refinery emitted great clouds of sulfuric acid gas, which withered the trees and grasses of the woodlands. Eventually, the woods were finished off when fires set by villagers to clear their fields spread out of control. With the trees gone, the mountain topsoil was washed away by rain. The topsoil contained copious amounts of pollutants from the mine, which caused extensive damage when carried downstream by the Watarase river. Living creatures dependent on the river perished, and agriculture became impossible. The locals absorbed heavy metal particles into their bodies, suffering agonies similar to those endured by the people of Minamata, who were victims of mercury poisoning in the postwar decades. The Ashio copper poisoning was Japan's first large-scale environmental disaster .

This spring marks the fifth anniversary of the Committee to Make Ashio Green, a volunteer organization I helped found that plants trees and carries out related activities. A visit to Ashio now reveals both the prosperity Japan has enjoyed during the past century as well as the tremendous destruction that has been prosperity's flipside. We are not concerned about apportioning blame for the copper poisoning. To regain what we have lost, we must return to the starting point and begin the process of regenerating the land. I am collecting evidence of the destruction and hope one day to open a museum devoted to the environment. Meanwhile, I plant trees.

The committee's organizers have provided the topsoil required to get reforestation under way, but more must be done. I hope others will join us, bringing soil, saplings, shovels. Indeed, people are responding to the call. Last year, in spite of heavy rains that shut down rail service, 350 volunteers made their way to Ashio. They planted trees, getting thoroughly soaked in the process. Our efforts are humble, but it is the unstinting effort of volunteers such as these that makes me believe there is still hope for this country.

So far, only a small section of the mountain has been replanted. I recall a Buddhist parable: a rich man contributes 10,000 oil lamps to a temple, while an old woman, whose reverence for the Buddha is matched only by her poverty, offers a single lamp, all her means will allow. One night, a fierce wind blows through the temple, extinguishing all of the lanterns the rich man provided. Only one light continues to illuminate the Buddha, that from the lamp offered by the old woman, who had contributed from the depths of her heart.

This parable speaks to our situation today. I continue planting trees with my companions in my hometown. To do everything is beyond my capacities, but I will strive to accomplish all that is in my power as an individual. The copper poisoning incident will truly be resolved only when Ashio's valleys are green once more.

Wahei Tatematsu is a Japanese writer and a founding member of the Creative Conservation Club, an environmental group reforesting watersheds throughout Japan