Cleanliness is a way of life for the Japanese.
WHERE do I throw my used tissues?” I asked my Japanese host as I looked around for a dustbin during my first visit to Yokohama in 1989.
He wasn’t joking when he answered: “Take them home to dispose.”
For more than two decades, I have been bringing my trash home to throw.
Just imagine the bags of empty drink containers, disposable lunch boxes and wrappers I carried home after an outing! And I have to remember to check all pockets for trash before dropping my clothes into the washing machine.
Other prefectures may still have public trash cans, but try looking for one in Tokyo and Yokohama. You will most likely not find it.
The bins beside drinks vending machines are for recycling the containers and not for putting in litter. So, if you don’t finish your drink on the spot, you have to carry the empty container with you and dispose it at another recycling bin or at home.
On your first visit to Japan, you would have noticed how incredibly clean it is. You can attribute this to Japan’s green campaign and the cultural mindset. Besides, it helps in budget reduction as it would cost the government to collect rubbish that is off the designated collection routes, let alone dispose of more refuse.
As there are fewer or no trash cans in public places, you have to be responsible for your own garbage. And when people refrain from eating while using public transport or walking on the streets, why provide trash bins?
Individual responsibility is imbued in Japan. You are your own road sweeper, except for apartments that hire cleaners to handle that job. Every morning before business opens or office hours, office workers (in suits or office attire) and shop owners clean the area around their premises, sweeping and even removing litter from small gutters.
When a Canadian friend visited Yokohama Chinatown in 2005, he was so impressed with the clean sidewalks that he videotaped them!
I came to understand why my late father-in-law used to sweep our neighbours’ surroundings as well.
You see, there is a Japanese saying, “Muko sangen ryodonari,” which means “you should maintain good rapport with the neighbours in three houses opposite your house and the two houses adjacent to yours”.
The Japanese are fastidious and rule-orientated. Once a month, some jichikai (neighbourhood association) would organise a communal clean-up of their surroundings. They even have community members to monitor and tidy up their rubbish dumps. Hence dustpans and brooms are placed there to keep it neat and tidy.
Nowadays, collapsible garbage boxes are being used at residential rubbish dumps. These boxes reduce obstruction, keep away crows and cats, and deter people from disposing trash after collection by the trash collectors.
Then there are civic-conscious senior citizens who go around their neighbourhood, picking up garbage with a pair of tongs and putting them in garbage disposal bags. Likewise, you’ll find a train station guard doing so at the station and platform. It’s part of his duties, too.
And oh, if you walk your dog, do bring along a disposal bag and a trowel to scoop up your pet’s excrement. Notices are put up at parks and on fences of roads or houses to remind you to bring home your dog’s poo.
Sad to say, there are some irresponsible people who do not dispose of their trash properly. Drink containers are carelessly discarded and streets are littered with rubbish and cigarette butts.
An extreme case of littering was reported in the Daily Mainichi last December. Kinsankai Children’s Park at Chiyoda Ward in Tokyo was closed because the jichikai which owned the 1,24sqm land got tired of clearing the burgeoning trash left behind by inconsiderate users.
In 2002, when Chiyoda Ward passed the nation’s first local ordinance which bans smoking outside designated areas, more and more people smoked and ate at the park as it was equipped with tables and benches.
The problem persisted despite the jichikai cleaning and patrolling the park, and posting repeated warnings. The jichikai had no choice but to cordon off the park with fences.
Notwithstanding that report, Japan is widely recognised as one of the cleanest countries. I really appreciate and enjoy the cleanliness in this country.
Sarah Mori, a Malaysian married to a Japanese, resides in Japan.