Garbage in Japan, if you will forgive the expression, is a mess.

It is the nation which has come the closest to achieving a zero-waste society.  In fact, some smaller villages in the countryside have already chosen the year 2009 as the date by when every single scrap of refuse will be mulched, reused, or recycled.  Everything.

This is an amazing achievement, and the rest of the world would do well to follow Japan’s example, but it comes at a small cost: sheer annoyance.

Those hard-working villagers are required to clean and sort their garbage into 39 different piles, each pile with a different pick-up schedule.  Different types of garbage must be handled differently, as well – meat and vegetable matter must be seperated and stored seperately, for example.

When I first came here, I thought that I was in a sort of environmentalist’s heaven.  I certainly seemed that way, but there is another side to Japan’s good intentions – they are invariably paved with beaurocracy.

In Tokyo, we have not moved to the 39 different categories of garbage.  We have even less than Nagoya’s  six (at last count).  Here, we have only Recyclable, Combustible, and Non-Combustible.  Simple, right?  Not so.  The handy fold-out chart that the local ward office provides to every incoming gaijin (foreigner) looks straightforward enough, and you will fool yourself into thinking that you have got it right.  Then, one day, you hear a rapping at your door.  Evidently, everyone in the neighborhood has been furious at you for the last nine months because you have been disposing of a newspaper journal with staples in the binding with the recylcable newsprint.  They just stopped by to return your offending materials.

How did they know it was you?  They looked through your trash until they found your address.  Or they stake out the disposal area.

Where is it written that newsprint with staples can not be disposed of with other newsprint?  OK, on this one, I admit, it is written on the poster, albeit in a very hard-to-find and illogical location.  But there are other rules that are not to be found anywhere on the poster.  "How are we supposed to know these?" I ask.  "You just know."

Why didn’t they tell you nine months ago?  Why wait until now?  Well, I believe that this is related to the fact that we are foreigners.  My reasoning is as follows:

If you inspect the garbage of the good and pure Japanese people, you will discover that there are just as many lazy, careless Japanese as there are lazy, careless gaijin, if not more!  No one seems to be picking apart Nihonjin garbage and returning it to them!

The reason for this discrepency that gaijin are scrutinized carefully in matters of the neighborhood.  The slightest infractions have heavy repurcussions.  Some gaijin truly couldn’t give a shit about how their refuse is disposed, and it shows in their home countries.  But most of us do try hard to cope with the constantly changing regulations and pickup schedules because of this scrutiny.  From my point of view, saving up evidence of a problem for nine months only serves to make it a bigger problem than it is – it turns me into a habitual offender, when really I think I am one of the most adept garbage-sorting gaijin around (though I am shocked to find that only in Japan can this be a source of pride). 

I wonder how my neighbors would react one day if I were to show up at their door to show them how poorly sorted their garbage is.

I close on this stupid tidbit: I think that despite all the environmental hoopla, the Japanese flush their condoms.  Why?  To avoid the embarassement of having one of the neigborhood garbage monitors coming across it on a spot-check.  I think it is a little silly to think of saving the environment as a matter of manners, but I must always remeber… I am the foreigner here.  For example, in Japan, the dangers of smoking are widely known. 

Emphysema?  Lung cancer?  Respiratory illness? 

No way – what are you talking about?  I mean the real dangers of smoking.  I quote from an actual anti-smoking campaign on the subways: "A lit cigarette is carried at the same level as a child’s face."  The dangers of juvenile second degree burns caused by smoking.  Think about it won’t you?  Rude, indeed.

2 thoughts on “Garbage!

  1. remember once i told u about the strange adds on yamanote-sen? i meant these exact same anti-smoking ones, and i’m glad you have even cited one of them 🙂


  2. Strange, isn’t it? For the Japanese, great ills can be reduced to a question of ettiquette. Does it speak to the trivial nature of our own bugbears or to the importance of Japanese ettiquette? What would the Japanese do if the world were to suggest that hunting whales was terribly rude? Or that it is a little unseemly to avoid formal apologies for specific actions taken against korea in the last century?


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