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Friday, Nov. 21, 2008

Salaryman-turned-activist keeps island nation Tuvalu in the picture


Staff writer

Tanned and relaxed, 42-year-old Shuichi Endo has set himself a monumental task: Photograph 10,000 residents of the tiny Pacific nation of Tuvalu, nearly the entire population.

News photo
Island girl: Fatogea Matagale eats fresh fish just caught in the sea of Funafuti Island in April 2007. She told photographer Shuichi Endo, "I am happy whenever I play a kick-the-can game with my friends. I wish to make more friends." COURTESY OF SHUUICHI ENDOU

He started the project last year to draw attention to the impact global warming is having on the islanders. So far, he has taken pictures of 1,001 people on Nukulaelae and Niutao islands.

"Tuvaluans are happy every day. I don't know if we are happy every day. It would be horrible if Tuvalu sinks into the sea because of carbon dioxide emitted from our unhappy economic life," said Endo, who runs the nonprofit organization Tuvalu Overview, which offers lectures and exhibitions on Tuvalu and organizes eco-tours there.

His photographs capture people in their ordinary activities, surrounded by nature. He believes Japanese people could change their lifestyle if only they could take a lesson from the simple, happy life led by the islanders.

His photographs are being displayed until Dec. 11 at Shinozaki Bunka Plaza in Edogawa Ward, Tokyo, near the west exit of Shinozaki Station on the Toei Shinjuku Line.

Tuvalu, consisting of four low-lying reef islands and five atolls that lie about halfway between Hawaii and Australia, could disappear if the ocean continues to rise due to global warming.

According to a 2007 report by the Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change, the average sea level could go up as much as 59 cm in 2100 compared with 2000.

Endo said people in Tuvalu began to feel the environmental impact of rising sea levels about 10 years ago. There is more flooding at high tide, for example, which leaves groundwater and crops damaged by salt, he said.

Environment groups such as Greenpeace and the World Wide Fund for Nature warn global warming could have serious consequences, including frequent floods and storm surges, for low-lying Pacific islands, and the extreme weather could devastate the fishing and agriculture that dominates their economies.

Before starting the NPO, Endo was a typical salaryman, working long hours in a competitive environment.

After graduating from the architecture department of Osaka University of Arts, he landed a job at Taisei Corp., one of Japan's most prominent general contractors.

He said he wanted to make environment-friendly buildings, as he had also studied environmental issues in school, but his colleagues told him there was no money in this.

He learned about Tuvalu a few years after joining Taisei.

In 1992, he read a newspaper article about the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro, which described global warming and its influence on Tuvalu.

"I always loved nature, so I was sad to know such a beautiful country may disappear because of global warming," he said.

Since then, he became deeply concerned about Tuvalu. In 1997, he quit his job because it conflicted with what he really wanted to do, which was to address environmental problems.

Hoping to help Tuvalu, which does not have a strong industry, raise revenues to protect its environment, Endo made a business proposal to the Tuvalu government in 1996, and he made his first trip there in 1998 to enter his bid.

Under the proposal, the Tuvalu government would charge companies, such as television stations, to use the country's Internet domain name ".tv."

During that first trip, he visited an uninhabited island with a Tuvaluan friend. While he had brought along two water bottles and a sandwich, his friend had only a hatchet.

"After my friend landed, he climbed up a palm tree and got us a coconut. Then he caught a fish from the sea, steamed it with palm leaves, washed the burned part off in the sea, and gave it to me. It was all simple and delicious."

News photo
The quiet life: Shuichi Endo (left), photographer and representative of NPO Tuvalu Overview, hangs out with a local resident on Niutao Island in September. COURTESY OF SHUUICHI ENDOU

It was at that moment Endo realized he did not need a lot to enjoy life.

"I was working in a high-rise building in Shinjuku, wearing expensive suits. It was like a TV drama featuring trendy young people, and after the visit to Tuvalu I wondered what meaning there was to such a life."

Though the Tuvalu government did not adopt his business proposal, Endo continued to care about the island nation.

He has traveled between Tuvalu and Japan numerous times, organizing events and activities to tell people in Japan about global warming and its impact on Tuvalu.

Although the situation for Tuvalu is grave, the people in Endo's photographs are happy, with big smiles and shining eyes.

"They know how to enjoy life without depending on money," he said.

Even time does not seem to matter for them.

From August to last month, Endo visited Niutao Island, 20 hours by boat from the main Funafuti Island. He said there is no set timetable for the vessels operating between the two islands, so he just had to wait until one showed up.

"I was lucky I could come back as scheduled," he laughed. "When Tuvaluans on Niutao Island visit Funafuti, what matters to them is to arrive there, but not what time they arrive."

It will take him a long time to photograph 10,000 islanders because he spends time with each one to get to know them first.

However, he said he will continue taking their pictures so he can show the Japanese people their simple and happy life coexisting with nature.

"I want more Japanese to realize that just living a life is already a beautiful thing," he said.



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