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Japanese Winning Cleanup Battles
July 2, 2003
By HOWARD W. FRENCH
TESHIMA, Japan - The heavily laden ships came for 12 years,
wending their way past the lush, low-slung islands that
fill this sea, to dump their cargoes of shredded
automobiles and other toxic waste on this sparsely
inhabited speck of land.
That the islands of the Inland Sea were Japan's first
designated national park did nothing to obstruct the
illegal traffic. The interests of powerful industries were
at stake. So, too, it was rumored, were those of the
yakuza, or the Japanese mob.
A few weeks ago, however, after a battle lasting a quarter
of a century, including lawsuits, petitions and protests by
the 1,400 residents of this relatively poor and obscure
island, the ships finally began reversing the process. They
are carting the refuse away to a locality that has accepted
it, beginning a cleanup process that some estimate will
cost $500 million.
Although remarkable enough in isolation, Teshima's victory
is more than the triumph of a small community against
powerful outside forces. It is a spectacular example of a
recent wave of local activism in Japan.
The movement has reclaimed authority from a government that
has been all-powerful until now, enforced tighter
environmental standards on dangerous industries and opposed
runaway development schemes, from unwanted highways and
bridges to dams.
Nowadays, Teshima residents often drive atop a hill to
watch the twice-weekly ships that carry away what is left
of some 500,000 tons of industrial waste that was dumped
here and burned in open fires from 1978 to 1990. For many,
there is a pinch-me quality to their victory.
"When we started out, 25 years ago, one of the lawyers
asked us, 'Do you really think you can win a case like
this,' " said Shozo Aki, a thickset man whose huge forearms
attest to a former life as a fisherman. "I told them that I
know that this is a battle of the ant against the elephant,
but we have to fire at least one arrow, or there is no way
we can face our descendants."
As it turned out, of the 549 people who signed a petition
opposing the dumping in 1993, more than 100 have died
already, as have two of the island's 13 lawyers. For his
part, Mr. Aki, who islanders say stood his ground against
threats by gangsters hired to intimidate local residents,
had to abandon fishing when the seas around the island went
dead with industrial poisons.
"Every time it rained, 150 tons of toxic wastes ran off
into the sea right here," said Harutoshi Kojima, a
65-year-old farmer and island activist, who took a visitor
on a tour of the dump site, where a retaining wall has been
built and a tarplike covering placed over the waste. "The
experts say we had as much dioxin here as the United States
used in Vietnam. Nothing would grow in these waters - no
fish, no shellfish, not even seaweed."
As Mr. Kojima spoke, a hawk flew overhead peering into the
thick bed of seaweed, in which cavorting schools of fish
could be spotted. "We are all amazed by nature's recovery
powers," he said.
Dumping is on the political defensive all over Japan these
days as local communities perfect grass-roots mobilization.
Reform-minded local politicians have begun to be elected,
having finally figured out - as happened in the United
States long ago - that running against a distant,
insensitive capital can be a powerful draw for voters.
This month, for example, the assembly of Sendai, a city in
Kagoshima prefecture, introduced a bill to tax the fuel
used in nuclear power plants there. If the bill passes,
Sendai will become the second city in recent weeks to
impose local taxes on an industry that has been prone to
accidents and safety scandals.
While the electric industry has been warning of blackouts
in Tokyo this summer, residents of places like Fukushima
and Niigata prefectures have insisted on rigorous safety
guarantees before temporarily closed nuclear power stations
can be restarted after reports of cracks in reactor shrouds
and falsified inspections.
In Kumamoto prefecture this month, 2,000 local farmers won
a seven-year fight against Construction Ministry plans to
build a huge dam there. Japan's central government, perhaps
seeing the writing on the wall, declined to appeal a high
court decision in the farmers' favor.
Mr. Aki, the former fisherman turned industrial engineer,
said one key to Teshima's victory was Japan's news media,
which often takes its cues unquestioningly from the
government. As he casually peppered his conversation with
the names of journalists at the country's major newspapers
whom he has gotten to know over the years, Mr. Aki said
dogged efforts to get the message out about what he called
a travesty of justice had finally paid off.
"We have an expression in Japan, that sweet cakes drop from
the shelf, which means someone will eventually come along
and solve things for you," Mr. Aki said, recounting his
struggle over a multicourse meal of local seafood and beer.
"But I am quite sure that that is not how things work," he
added. "We had to stand up for ourselves, and reach out to
the outside world."
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