After three years of annual cleanup expeditions on Mount Everest, alpinist Ken Noguchi is focusing this summer on Japan’s highest peak.
The 29-year-old mountaineer, who at age 25 became the youngest person to scale the highest peaks of the world’s seven continents, said he aims to get Mount Fuji added to the UNESCO World Heritage List.
A government panel considering sites to recommend to UNESCO did not nominate the country’s symbolic peak this year. One reason given was the problems of garbage and excrement on the 3,776-meter mountain.
“I think the environment surrounding Mount Fuji represents Japan’s whole attitude toward the environment,” Noguchi said.
The mountain has such a bad reputation with the world’s alpinists that Noguchi heard many fretting over whether the Japanese were going to ruin the Himalayas like they did Mount Fuji.
A team led by Noguchi began cleanup activities on Everest in 2000. His group has collected 7.7 tons of waste, including empty oxygen canisters, in four cleanup expeditions, the last one ending in May.
Noguchi said he and a team once climbed Mount Fuji to collect garbage and removed a half a ton in about two hours.
In the forest at the base of the mountain can be found abandoned cars, refrigerators and other illegally dumped trash, he said.
According to the Shizuoka and Yamanashi prefectural governments, Mount Fuji drew more than 900,000 climbers last summer during the July-August period.
The swarm of hikers in such a short period makes it difficult to keep the mountain clean, Noguchi said.
Compounding the pollution is the poor management of the many toilet facilities, which leave the discharge on the mountain, he said.
Because of Fuji’s high elevation and volcanic soil, there is not enough bacteria to decompose the excrement, leaving it a pollution problem, he said.
“I believe climbers should be charged an admission fee, so that money can be raised to install bio-toilets, which cost millions of yen each,” Noguchi said. Bio-toilets use bacteria to decompose human waste.
He acknowledges, however, that many local people are against charging fees as it might turn visitors away.
The Environment Ministry said it also is not ready to introduce admission fees.
For one thing, the land is not totally owned by the government.
Trash is not the only problem, Noguchi said.
“You can find a lot of vending machines and stalls on Mount Fuji, something you would never see on mountains overseas,” he said.
Noguchi believes this symbolizes the attitude the Japanese have toward the natural environment. They are not good at living close to nature and cannot leave it intact, he said.
Numerous roads have been built on the mountain leading up to the half-way level, and several golf courses can be found at the base.
Such development is believed to have hindered the mountain from being selected as a natural heritage site.
Noguchi said there are a lot of things that need to be done to restore the mountain’s environment, and it will certainly take time.
To start the effort, Noguchi plans to move either to Yamanashi Prefecture or Shizuoka Prefecture, because he believes his first task is to understand the local situation and how the local people think.
He said he will work with the nonprofit organization Fujisan Club to organize mountain cleanup expeditions on a regular basis and attempt to raise awareness of the problem among climbers.
Noguchi will also organize a five-day field trip for children on Mount Fuji starting on July 27, with the aim of educating them on environmental issues.
The trip will include field research to create a map spotting the locations where illegally dumped trash, including abandoned vehicles, are found.
“Children can quickly put what they have learned into practice,” he said.
After the trip, he wants them to discuss in school and at home their feelings about the environment.
Noguchi also plans to urge the national and local governments to take more action to protect the mountain.
“If the environment surrounding Mount Fuji changes, Japanese people’s attitude toward nature will change.”