CHATAN, Okinawa — Cleaning up Okinawa’s beaches is a popular volunteer activity for Americans living here with the U.S. military.

It’s a way to show they’re good neighbors and environmentally conscientious.

Their Okinawan hosts, however, would like them to know that not all the flotsam and jetsam, all the bottles and old tires and shredded netting and glass globes have local origins.

Seaborne garbage is eating away Japan’s beaches at an alarming rate, said Hareyuki Yamaguchi, professor of environmental engineering at National Defense Academy of Japan and chairman of an Environmental Ministry study of the seashore trash problem. He’s been examining the garbage that has washed up on Japan’s shores for years and traced most of it to China, Korea and Taiwan.

And the amount has increased tenfold in the past 10 years.

In a recent telephone interview from his Yokosuka office, Yamaguchi remembered an unbelievable sight he found on Iriomote, a small island in southern Okinawa, near Taiwan.

"The seashore was white-rimmed, as if it had snowed," he said, sadly realizing that the white spectacle was actually miles of Styrofoam.

Prompted by a large amount of trash he saw at an Ishigaki beach, in 1997 Yamaguchi began researching the origins of the garbage that was washing up on Japan’s shores.

"I wondered why there was more garbage on the less populated island than any beaches near Tokyo, where I live," he said.

Yamaguchi said he was stunned when he picked up the trash.

"Every piece of trash I picked bore a label with an unfamiliar language," he said.

Closer examination showed the trash was carried to Okinawa by what is called the "Black Current."

In the ensuing years, he surveyed 517 beaches on Okinawa and the prefecture’s southern Miyako and Ishigaki islands and counted 1,706,617 separate items of waste. He identified 22.8 percent, or 388,106 items, as being of foreign origin. Only 3.8 percent (65,557 items) proved to be locally produced.

The rest, some 1,252,954 items, or 73.4 percent, had faded or washed-out labels and could not be traced. Most was probably waste from somewhere else, he said. Drifting trash is not limited to Okinawan islands, Yamaguchi said. Tsushima and Iki islands in Nagasaki and the seashore along the Sea of Japan face the same problems. According to Yoko Fujita, assistant professor of environmental economics at the University of the Ryukus, the issue at hand reaches above cosmetics.

Yamaguchi said Japan is beginning to wake up to the problem. In 2007, the government designated 11 beaches throughout the country, including two sites on Iriomote and Ishigaki, for studying the waste problem.

The Ministry of Environment recently requested 300 million yen (about $3 million) to help remove seaborne garbage from the country’s shores, said a spokesman for the ministry’s Global Environment Bureau.

The money will be used to clean shorelines, focusing on the sites that are badly ruined by drifting waste, said Nobuyuki Konuma of the bureau’s Global Environmental Issues Division.

While the sites are yet to be selected, the Okinawa islands and Tsushima in Nagasaki are the major candidates for the funds, he said.

But while Japan is studying ways to keep its beaches clean, the problem will persist as long as the sources of the trash — humans — remain unaware.

"The problem is not something that you can solve in a year or two," Yamaguchi said. "As long as people’s awareness and lifestyle do not change, including of those in the countries where the trash originates, the situation will never change."

Professor says amount of trash rising sharply

Of the 453,663 items of identifiable trash he’s found washed ashore on Japanese beaches over the past 10 years, environmental engineer Hareyuki Yamaguchi said only 3.8 percent of the items came from Japan.

Of the foreign waste he could identify, 54 percent was from China, 20.3 percent from Taiwan, 19.8 percent from South Korea, and 5.9 percent originated from other countries.

Yamaguchi, professor of environmental engineering at National Defense Academy of Japan and chairman of an Environmental Ministry study of the seashore trash problem, said the number of items found per kilometer of beach has steadily been increasing.

"In 1998, it was 1,437 items per kilometer," he said. "But in 2001, it was 5,803 items per kilometer, four times more. In 2005, it was 15,395 items, a sharp rise."

About 79.4 percent was plastic, mostly bottles. Another 14.1 percent was fishing gear, such as Styrofoam buoys and nets.

The problem is more visible on the islands’ remote beaches, Yamaguchi said. When a popular beach is spoiled by trash, volunteers help remove it. But more remote beaches are easily neglected and become trash heaps.

— David Allen and Chiyomi Sumida

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