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AMAGASAKI, Hyogo Pref. — It’s hard to believe that the smoggy, traffic-laden industrial zone stretching from the Hanshin Line’s Amagasaki Station to the shores of the Inland Sea was once a thriving sweet-potato belt.

A five-minute walk south of the station now ends at the thundering eight-lane National Route 43, with the Hanshin expressway running overhead.

The heavy truck traffic leaves a diesel cloud that reaches across the industrial zone to the sea.

But back at the dawn of the 20th century, before the factories went up, the 210-hectare site was a vast field of “amaimo” sweet potatoes unique to the area. The peak year of 1905 saw local farmers producing 2,360 tons, according to an encyclopedia of Amagasaki’s history.

Farmers stopped growing potatoes when a powerful typhoon washed the fields away in 1934. Now, few people who recall that era remain.

But with the smokestack industries, including steel and cement, now in decline, some local residents are hoping to turn the area back into a sweet-potato region. In March 2001, they formed Amaken, or Amagasaki Nanbu Saisei Kenkyushitsu (Study group to regenerate southern Amagasaki).

The group was formed in the wake of a settlement in December 2000 of an air pollution suit brought by Amagasaki residents against the government and the entity that operates the expressway.

The group hopes that resurrecting potato farming will not only help the pollution-clogged area on an ecological level, but also proved an economic shot in the arm as the smokestack industries decline.

“Revitalizing the area through the initiatives of local residents is easy to say but difficult to do,” said Yasakazu Asano, head of the citizen’s group. “Sweet potatoes can be a good tool to connect people and help generate new activities that lead to revitalization.”

Members of the group have read old materials and interviewed long-term residents to learn how the local sweet potato was grown and which variety was dominant.

They have discovered that the crops were grown in sand in the Hatsushima and Higashi Mukojima districts in the southeast of the city, and that high-quality potatoes were taken by train and canal boat to market in Kyoto and Osaka.

The group also test-farmed several potato strains from seedlings obtained from a public research institute and had local residents taste them in a bid to pinpoint the exact variety native to the area.

Members hope more people will get involved.

“We want to expand the potato-growing area, because that will widen the network of people,” said Asano, an Amagasaki-based city planning consultant.

The project gained further momentum in January when a group was formed to try cooking different sweet potato dishes. The members meet regularly and hold cooking parties.

Amaken is also looking to organize cruises on the local canals, to search out interesting locations with stories to tell and to seek ways to deal with problems caused by National Route 43.

But these projects have seen little progress, especially the one involving Route 43, which is not only a major source of air pollution but also severs the community: getting from one side to the other requires either taking a 6-meter-high pedestrian overpass or crossing the 50-meter thoroughfare at street level.

“We have to consider ways to make it easier for people to come and go between the communities on both sides of Route 43,” Asano said, pointing out that the first order of business is to alleviate the air pollution.

Although the government promised in the 2000 air-pollution settlement to improve air quality by reducing the volume of large vehicles, discussions between local residents and the government have been deadlocked and the traffic rolls on.

The residents filed a complaint Oct. 15 with a home affairs ministry panel on pollution issues concerning the government’s failure to abide by the settlement.

Asano also emphasized the importance of getting businesses involved in revitalizing the industrial zone.

“Companies can play an important role in revitalizing the area,” he said. “It may take many years, but we will press on with resolve.”

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