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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC



Mon.-Fri.  20:00 - 20:40 (JST)

Countdown to G7 Summit in Mie

Apr. 28, 2016

In less than a month, Japan will welcome the leaders of the G7 countries. The 2-day summit will be held in a region of Mie prefecture called Ise-Shima.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced the venue last year.

"I hope the Ise-Shima summit will give world leaders the chance to experience Japan's beautiful nature and rich cultural heritage," Abe said.

The leaders will gather on the island of Kashikojima in the Bay of Ago. It will be Japan's first time to host a summit since 2008, when G8 leaders met at Lake Toya in Hokkaido.

The leaders are expected to cover topics ranging from world economy to climate change. And they will work on a counter-terrorism action plan.

It is widely believed that China's increasing maritime activity will also be discussed. The Japanese government is likely to address "moves to unilaterally change the status quo by force."

There has been much speculation over whether US president Barack Obama will visit Hiroshima during his time in Japan.

People in Mie prefecture have high expectations for the positive effect on the local community.

"I want to learn more about Mie Prefecture, and I hope to be able to inform people from overseas about Ise-Shima and Mie's other attractions," says one local volunteer.

Mie's Industrial Legacy
Miki Yamamoto

Facing the Pacific Ocean, Mie is known for its rich seafood, such as lobsters and abalones. Pearls from the region are also world famous.

One of the country's most revered Shinto shrines, the Ise Jingu, is located in the region. It consists of 125 shrines in an area roughly as big as central Paris, and attracts 10 million visitors a year.

Together with its natural, cultural and historical attributes, the prefecture is also known for its industrial output.

The factories and plants no doubt contributed to the economic development of Japan in the aftermath of World War Two. But behind the success story is a painful legacy.

A museum dedicated to past pollution problems opened last year. It has more than 20,000 items related to the pollution in Yokkaichi. Documents, photos, objects: they tell the story of the damaged it caused and how it made people suffer from asthma.

The doors to the museum opened because of a long battle that started half a century ago.

World War Two reduced Japan to rubble. But in the 10 short years after the war, the country recovered and was headed toward booming economic growth. Powering the boom was oil, petrochemicals, and heavy industrialization. In 1959, one of Japan’s first full-scale petrochemical complexes opened in Yokkaichi.

The trade for prosperity was a toxic environment. Gray smoke from factories covered the sky. Sulfur Dioxide spewed into the air, causing a surge in cases of serious asthma and other respiratory illnesses.

One room is a replica of a local elementary school classroom from around 1965. At a sink in the room, teachers had to make children gargle 6 times a day because they were at risk of inhaling smoke. The complex was very close, and polluted air could just come right inside.

Children and the elderly were the most vulnerable. More than 2,200 people were diagnosed as officially having illnesses caused by the pollution. Many died, including some who even committed suicide to end the agony they felt day in, day out.

People fought back. In 1967, 9 people sued for compensation from 6 corporations, in what was Japan’s very first air pollution lawsuit.

It took 5 years but the residents of Yokkaichi won the case. The court ruled that the companies were responsible. And it also pointed a finger at the government's side for failing to take action to stop the pollution.

"This ruling has not brought back Yokkaichi’s blue skies. Until they return, I will withhold my thanks,” said Yukikazu Noda, a plaintiff in the case.

There's more than a museum teaching lessons around Yokkaichi. At Mie University, students are able to take a course called "Yokkaichi studies."

It has been taught since 2004 by Professor Park Hye-Sook. She moved here from South Korea to study Yokkaichi's pollution.

"Countries in the Asia-Pacific region are growing fast, but if we focus solely on the economy, we risk damaging the environment. We shouldn't repeat the mistake that we've made in the past. Let’s build an international network to apply the Yokkaichi model," Park says.

The course includes fieldwork at industrial complexes. It's more than just Japanese students who are interested. Many come from other Asia-Pacific countries.

Part of the fieldwork is hearing first-hand testimony from the only surviving plaintiff from the groundbreaking court case. All these years later, it's the man who vowed to withhold thanks until the blue skies returned.

Today, the former fisherman looks back on those dark days.

"Sulfur dioxide is a scary thing, and we needed a public warning," Noda says. "For me, these past 50 years, fishing used to be my greatest pleasure, and I thought I’d enjoy it my entire life, but what I got was a life of constant trips to the hospital."

For many of the foreign students, Noda's message hits close to home. Rapid economic growth in their countries brings with it pollution-induced health problems.

"We have problem in air pollution close to Jakarta because many factories," says one student from Jakarta. "Today, it’s very extraordinary experience, directly listen from the long time history, it’s not only about the victim, but how to overcome."

For Rei Iwase, this course is personal. His mother developed asthma while living in Yokkaichi as a young girl. At that time, many families had to leave the town in order to protect their children.

"I saw a video in class where a young girl died from asthma. I got chills thinking it could have been my mother," Iwase says. "My grandmother told me how much she hated seeing smoke coming out of the chimney as my mother was suffering. I can imagine how bitter she must have felt.”

After graduating, Iwase wants to return to his hometown in Kyushu and work in city planning.

"I want to be involved in creating a place that balances economic development with environmental considerations, where everyone is smiling and says they're happy living there," Iwase says.

Yokkaichi's pollution and subsequent lawsuit became a turning point for Japan's environmental regulations, including legal limits to the amount of pollutants allowed in the air.

Noda hopes everyone can learn from Yokkaichi so the same mistakes are never made again.

"The children of today are all really smart, and will do a lot of good," Noda says. "We’ve known about issues like global warming for a long time. Right now it's us who are worrying about it, but it’s the kids who will do something about it. This planet is for everyone."

Noda said he can finally and sincerely say "Thank you," when he saw the museum open its door last year.

Now some other people are trying to tell the city's history by embracing tourism. These days, night views of factories are not only popular to look at from observatories, but also from cruise ships.

On each tour, the guide always talks about the historic pollution problems as part of the spiel. Some of the guides used to work in the industrial complexes. So it's about passing on the lessons so that the tragedy is not repeated again. But what Yokkaichi experienced is an ongoing issue for some parts of the globe today. Japan has developed some of the most advanced green technologies through this experience.

People in the city hope that, with thousands of members of the media due to arrive for the G7 summit, they will have a chance to convey the importance of balancing economic development with a healthy environment.