At 7 a.m. on a cloudy and wet Sunday morning, the sleepy beachside town of Ishikari, 45 minutes drive north of Sapporo, sprang to life as thousands of volunteers make there way to the 30th annual beach cleanup. People aged 3 to 73 arrive in a steady stream to help clean up discarded trash, not only washed ashore by tidal currents but items left behind by holidaymakers at the end of the summer vacation season.
This year, Hokkaido, with its vast tracks of land and abundance of nature, has seen a dramatic influx in holidaymakers, not only because it is considered one of the most beautiful locations in Japan for camping, but also because rising fuel prices have put usual holiday destinations out of the price range of the average Japanese family.
Increased tourism has also brought with it a dramatic rise in the amount of discarded trash, leaving the normally clean beaches awash in waste of all types, from discarded glass and plastic bottles to CD players, chairs, tents and barbecues. This along with tidal trash from passing marine traffic plus bottles and cans washed ashore from China, Korea and Russia, has not only left the beach looking like a rubbish dump but also made it dangerous for families and fisherman who use it on a regular basis.
"Cleaning up the beach was a lot of fun, but I felt really sad when we first arrived and I saw just how much trash there was," said one student from a local school. With a contemplative look on her face, she said, "People should know better. We have to separate all our trash at home into recycling, combustible and incombustible bins. Why do people think it's OK just to leave it here when they go?"
Ishikari is the largest seaport area in Hokkaido and as a physical distribution point, accounts for more than 90% of freight shipments with Honshu. A local fisherman said: "I know sometimes accidents happen and you lose a net or a float overboard. That's why I'm here. We lost a net earlier this year during bad weather and I just want to do my part."
Japan has a very strict recycling system which is maintained not only at a government level but also by local communities. There is a huge social stigma and shame handed out by residents to those who don't do the right thing and dispose of their trash in the correct manner. Still, not everyone complies with these rules; they use the local convenience stores for small items and areas that are relatively deserted like country lanes or the beach for larger things.
A 73-year-old retired local resident, who has been coming to the event since it started, said, "Over the years we've found everything from household trash to broken TV sets, fridges and other appliances. Sometimes we even find hazardous materials like leaky old car batteries and medical waste."
It took over two hours to clean just a few kilometers of the beach and the trash collected filled two large trucks. After collection, volunteers correctly sorted it into recycling, combustible and incombustible piles before it was taken away for proper disposal.
One of the event organizers, Yuji Niwa, chairman of the Hokkaido Board of Education, and president of the NPO Citizens Environmental Forum, has been an environmentalist for as long as he can remember. "When we started this event, we only had a handful of volunteers. Most of the people here today only get one day off a week. It's great to see so many giving up their free time."
With flowing shoulder length hair and dressed in denim overalls, he was ready for action. "We started this cleanup long before most of the children here where born. It's good to see them taking an interest in environmental issues, but at the same time, I wish that people would be more thoughtful and dispose of their own trash."
Through events like this, Niwa hopes to reinforce awareness about global issues. "I've seen the amount of trash left here growing over the past 30 years. We only have one Earth. If we don't act now, there will be no future for our children. It's up to us as adults to lead the way."
After the clean-up, volunteers were treated to a live concert and a fashion parade, featuring designs made from recycled materials such as bamboo, Japanese washi paper and banana stalks.© Japan Today