This is my fourth year living in Japan. Granted one of those four has fully been eaten up by a pandemic and (basically) house arrest because of it, but I like to think that I’ve come to understand Japan just a little bit.
It’s a very easy place to live, first off–made even easier if you know even a bit of the language. Food isn’t too expensive (if you don’t live in Tokyo and if you don’t count fruits) and transportation is *chef’s kiss*.
Yet, there have always been some things that are frustratingly different from the other countries I’ve lived in. The more “Western” countries. Now, I know most people would say that of course it’s different – it’s Japan, but hear me out here. Somehow, unsurprisingly, a lot of these differences connect back to sustainability. Which is odd, right? Because Japanese people are incredibly conscientious.
In Japan, recycling is a big thing, and that manifests itself in the trash sorting. It’s something that takes a lot of time and double-checking to finally get right, and then maybe you end up moving to a different area of the city and have to relearn it all again. Depending on the prefecture you’re in, you could be required to rinse and dry your trash before putting it all in the can. My friends have to do this up in Kyoto, but it’s never required of me down here in Osaka. (Or maybe it is and I’ve been missing out on it all this time.)
It’s part of the reason you’ll so rarely find trash cans when you’re out and about. Japanese people will hold onto their trash to throw it away at home. Some even go so far as to bring along small plastic bags. Because when they get home, they may have to wash out the trash, sort the plastic (PET) bottles from the cans and the glass bottles and the burnable trash and the nonburnable trash, dry everything, and make sure it’s all where it needs to go, when it needs to go. Trash is often picked up on different days and, if you live in a house, you’ll need to know when to put your bottles out vs. when to put your cardboard out unless you want your neighbors to look at you funny.
Now, reliably, there’s always at least one trash can on the platforms of many train stations and even those require sorting. And apartment buildings have a bit more leeway too. My building has a small room accessible from outside by key (because we can’t have random people accessing it to throw things away) where you separate out the trash and it can be accessed at any time of the day or not. Super convenient.
So one would think, based off of this, that sustainability is rather huge in Japan. Conversely, that’s almost where it ends.
I spoke with a good friend about this quite recently, when I found myself really at a loss about some small things. I’d been wanting to donate some clothes; in the US you can generally find a Goodwill or The Salvation Army.
Spoiler alert: donation is not a thing in Japan.
“They talk a good game with recycling… they just have strict sorting policies and now paying for plastic bags, but I don’t know anything else,” she said in a thoughtful way.
I brought up the “recycle shops” you’ll find around sometimes – basically thrift shops. But really they’re few and far between, and mainly for profit.
She’d ironically been discussing something similar with one of her friends, who’d said that “Japan is often lulled into a false sense of security, because we know they are so strict with recycling everyone feels like they are doing more than they are. Especially because apparently a lot of recyclables end up being burnt anyway.”
Now I generally know that recycling isn’t full-proof and there’s always going to be a little bit of waste, but you’re telling me that all the time I spend thinking about which trash to put this or that in mostly goes to waste?
I decided to do some research. Surely it couldn’t be that bad. I found an article on Tokyo Review called “The Burning Problem of Japan’s Waste Disposal.” The title clearly drew me because I’m an absolute lover of puns, but the article itself was incredibly informative:
“With approximately 73% of the Japanese archipelago occupied by mountains, and much of the rest crowded with people, there is little room for landfill, so what cannot be recycled is mostly burned. And recycling is surprisingly rare: Japan has one of the lowest recycling rates among OECD countries, at only 20% in 2017. Some 78% of the remaining waste is sent to incinerators—by far the highest among the OECD bloc”
If you don’t know what the OECD is, it’s the Organization of Economic Co-operation and Development – it’s basically a cooperative of 38 countries to stimulate economic growth. In those 38 countries, Japan was at the lowest, which was really surprising to me because – yeah, recycling policies and all.
The article made it seem like there weren’t really many national policies for sustainability, and it got me thinking that perhaps it existed on the local level. I asked one of my Japanese coworkers about it.
“There’s nothing really big, but there are some things going on on the local level,” she started off. “My cousin’s friend makes natural scrubs from coffee beans and sells them – that sort of thing. Japan didn’t really have sustainability before, but it’s started to come out recently. I think we’ll see lots of changes in the future, but for now it’s the small things.”
She seemed really passionate about this topic, which was interesting, since I’d never quite seen her as into anything else.
In recent years, Japan has seemed to “get better” with recycling and minimizing waste. Nowadays if you want a plastic bag, you have to pay for it, even at convenience stores.
As an avid orderer of food via phone apps (of which there are very many in Japan), I can tell you I don’t pay for the plastic bags I get from them, but there is an occasional paper bag which makes me feel a tad better.
And as a person who’s been to quite a few department stores here in Japan, I can also tell you it’s crazy how much packaging there is. My food is put into a plastic container, which is then covered by paper with a rubber band. That’s placed in a small plastic bag (not paid for) sometimes with a little freezer pack to keep it cool (also not paid). Then they ask you if you want a bag. <- this one’s paid. Excuse me, sir/madam, all I wanted was a small salad.
But you never know what you might be missing, right? I was still pretty curious, so I asked another coworker, the one with the best English at our office:
“Sustainability? What’s that?”
We were off to a great start. I gave her the most basic definition I could, but I could see the cogs turning in her head; she probably couldn’t fully grasp it.
“Mmm… nai, ne. [There isn’t any, right?] Well, I mean we have some secondhand marketplaces. I can sell or give away something I don’t need.”
Like Merucari? I asked.
“But for Merucari you have to… you can’t give it for free. There’s a 300 yen minimum price. I use jmty. If I don’t want something anymore, someone else can use it – isn’t that better than throwing it away?”
I had to agree, but as someone who had once attempted to use jmty to sell a wardrobe she still had, I wasn’t too keen on it.
“And you have to pay a lot of money for someone to take big furniture from you in Japan, right? Selling it [on secondhand marketplaces] is a lot easier and cheaper.”
It is true that in order to get rid of big furniture, you can’t just leave it on the curb like they do in lots of Western countries. You have to call up a certain company, tag the furniture you’re going to be giving them, and then pay them to take it away. It might be why marketplaces like these, as well as the “sayonara sales” that are so popular among foreigners heading back to their home countries are so popular.
To even out the playing field, I had one last conversation with another foreign friend. Interestingly enough, he had the opposite perspective: “I think I see it more in the engineering, rather than on the local level – engineering might not be the right word. I don’t feel like Japanese people are too concerned with sustainability,” he said thoughtfully. “Sure, they do recycling, but isn’t that basically it?
“I’m honestly surprised by how far behind Japan is. This was like… something we [in the US] had like 15 years ago. But they’re developing things super quickly here.”
Well, I mean it’s all been done before, right? Japan can use all that info instead of having to make it all up on their own.
“That’s true. Still, I think from here it’ll be pretty fast.”
I had a slight flashback to one of my old students from when I was in my teaching heyday. He’d been trying to push sustainability forward through alternative energy sources. It’s a bit of hope that it’s starting if not at the local level than the semi-local level. Maybe one day that’ll translate into the national level.
But in the end, what I’ve learned living in Japan for four years is that a lot of things are about appearance: we appear to have a good recycling system so that’s all that’s important, department stores and other places talk a really great game, but actions really do speak louder than words.
This really only started with me wanting to donate clothes (I’ve since donated them to H&M, since it’s the only place I can find that will take them – UNIQLO mainly takes clothes made by UNIQLO and if you want to throw clothes away there’s a specific trash day for that that I’ve never been able to really tackle. Also I heard that in some places you have to pay to throw clothes away? Anyway, I digress…) and it really got me thinking about the future.
And, one thing I can really hope for the future, is a bit more investment into the sustainable side of things, because we only have our one planet.