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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC



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Island reaches cleanup milestone

May 16, 2017

The Seto Inland Sea in western Japan is known for its beautiful scenery. Many islands dot its waters. But the environment on one island was seriously damaged after the dumping of huge amounts of waste.

Residents spent more than 40 years fighting to save the beauty of their home. Their battle reached a major milestone in March.

Teshima Island is located in Kagawa Prefecture. It's only 20 kilometers around and home to about 800 people. But not all is as it seems.

It was once used for illegal dumping.

Industrial waste brought to the island was buried in pits over an area of 7 hectares. Most of it was shredded cars. The island became an unwilling victim of Japan's rapid economic growth.

The illegal practice went on for more than a decade since the mid-1970s. People began calling Teshima "an island of waste."

Shozo Aki lives on Teshima. He used to be proud of the beautiful landscape before the illegal dumping began.

"We'd enjoy looking at azaleas in the spring and swimming in the sea in summer," says Aki.

"In fall, we came to the shore to do spear fishing. The dumping destroyed that way of life."

Aki followed in his father's footsteps by farming yellowtail. But when the illegal dumping came to light his customers turned away.

"I felt really sorry that I had to give up the family business that had been passed down for generations, but I had no choice," he says.

The islanders faced more complications.

Kagawa prefectural officials turned their backs when asked for help to remove the waste. The officials said they weren't obliged to help.

The battle to restore the island intensified. Islanders spent 5 straight months protesting in front of the prefectural office.

They also traveled to Tokyo and other big cities. They tried to get people to understand their situation.

The battle continued for 25 years until the Kagawa Governor finally apologized, in 2000.

The announcement followed mounting public criticism of the prefecture. Officials apologized for the way they handled the matter, and vowed to remove the waste.

Aki kept a vigilant eye on the removal process while he worked at a construction site.

Craters mark where the waste was dug up. The scars remain even today.

"I think it's the responsibility of my generation to restore the place to what it used to be," says Aki.

"You know, 42 years is a long time. I've spent half my life doing this."

Some people have begun sharing the island's struggle with the next generation. One of them is Ritsuko Yamugi.

She gathered some of the islanders together to remember the issue of industrial waste.

They visited a local museum with a display chronicling the history of the protest.

A list records the 549 people who once rose up to get the waste removed.

When one of them dies, a mourning band is added.

Many of the younger generation don't know the history.

One visitor explained the importance of passing on what happened.

"I hope children will learn what their grandfathers and grandmothers have gone through," she says.

"I hope the children in the future will appreciate the environment and try to stop this sort of thing happening again."

"This kind of thing should never have happened," she continues.

"That's what we have to keep telling the kids. We have to tell them that they should never forget what happened."

And in March 2017, the last load of waste left the port.

More than 100 people have come to see the ship off. Many, including Aki, have mixed emotions.

"Of the 549 islanders who filed the petition, 320 are already dead," he says.

"It's overwhelming that this day has finally come. It's been such a long struggle."

"We've suffered for so many years. I feel some relief now," says another islander.

One local woman's thoughts turn to those who didn't live to see the victory.

"I wish my husband was still here," she says.

"He died without seeing this day come. It's the young people's job now. They'll have to take over."

NHK Takamatsu's correspondent Genta Nakamura joined Aki Shibuya in the studio.

Shibuya: So now that the last load of waste has been removed, how long will recovery take?

Nakamura: Well, the island's problem has been only half-solved.

I visited many times, but it's still full of holes where the waste has been dug up. Some of them are filled with discolored water.

They're still trying to pump out the contaminated underground water. Officials think it'll take another five years to complete the job.

I think it's safe to say that it'll be a while before the island can restore itself to what it once was.

Shibuya: Would you say the perception of Teshima as an "island of waste" is changing?

Nakamura: Yes. The islanders have been working hard to move beyond that image and are working to turn their island into a tourist destination.

Last year, Teshima was one of the venues of the modern art festival Setouchi Triennale.

More than 150 thousand people visited the festival from Japan and overseas.

At the same time, I was a bit worried that many visitors have no idea what happened there.

As we saw in the report, they've been trying to spread the history of the island. But I believe we really need to stop and think so we don't face this sort of problem again.