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Human Waste Causes Problems on Mount Fuji

September 17, 1999

One of the toilets on Mount Fuji now posing a smelly environmental problem. (Shin'nosuke Tabata)

At 3,776 meters (12,388 feet), Mount Fuji is Japan's tallest and most sacred peak. Every year about 300,000 alpinists and tourists make the ascent to its summit. The mountain is situated in a national park, and the area above the fifth station--which marks the 2,300-meter (7,550-feet) line--is designated as a special protection zone, where the natural landscape is strictly preserved for posterity. In recent years, however, the disposal of human waste in this area has become a serious issue. Various efforts are underway to find a way out of this bind.

Charged or Free Services?
In 1997 a survey of swamp water in the Southern Alps conducted by Yamanashi Prefecture revealed the presence of colon bacilli in samples taken from all 12 survey points. The year before, the Environment Agency had already installed toilets at two places on nearby Mount Fuji that utilize state-of-the-art technology to prevent human waste from permeating through the soil. The construction expenses for these toilets reached 400 million yen (3.6 million U.S. dollars at 110 yen to the dollar), and maintenance costs in the summer hiking season came to nearly 20 million yen (180,000 dollars).

Since July 1999, therefore, the agency has been asking users to contribute about 100 yen (0.91 dollars) each time they use one of these toilets. The revenue will be allocated to management costs, but more important than this, the agency says, "We're hoping that this will encourage climbers to care about the mountain's environment." Many climbers express doubts about this scheme, however, arguing that regulating entry to the mountain is more important for environmental conservation, and that if the purpose is to raise people's awareness of environmental issues there must be better ways of doing so.

Prior to this, the Environment Agency had already placed donation boxes in restrooms in the tourist areas of Kamikochi in Nagano Prefecture and the Oze marshlands in central Honshu. In Kamikochi, where there are also attendants on duty, the revenue totals 35 million yen (320,000 dollars) a year--although it should be noted that the number of visitors to Kamikochi comes to about two million a year, almost seven times that for Mount Fuji.

The Japanese people have traditionally taken for granted that toilets can be used free of charge. Perhaps a change of attitude needs to take place before the custom of voluntary payment for toilets can take root in Japan.

Various Efforts
As well as the Environment Agency, local governments and mountain shelter owners are experimenting with various ways to lighten the burden on Mount Fuji's environment. One effort involves a plan to install a special tank onto a tractor: The vehicle would collect the human waste in shelters near the summit using a vacuum pump, carry it halfway down the mountain, and transfer it to a human waste transportation truck, which would then take it to a processing facility at the foot of the mountain. Tests are underway to determine whether a vacuum pump can operate properly in the low atmospheric pressure of the summit area.

In another plan, "biotoilets" are being developed that would use microorganisms to decompose human waste on the spot. Experiments are now being conducted to see how well the microbes survive through a winter on the mountain and to test the power of certain microorganisms to reduce foul smells.

Campaigns are also being carried out to promote awareness of the impact of human activity on the environment, one example being the distribution of water-soluble pocket tissues to visitors. Because regular tissues are insoluble, if tossed away they will accumulate and spoil the landscape; some processing facilities, moreover, will not accept waste matter containing them.

In the final analysis, whatever solutions are thought up can succeed only with the cooperation of the climbers.

Trends in JapanEdited by Japan Echo Inc. based on domestic Japanese news sources. Articles presented here are offered for reference purposes and do not necessarily represent the policy or views of the Japanese Government.