Isn’t It About Time We Pick Up After Ourselves? We Could Follow Japan’s Lead

By PIA PETERSON

YAMAGATASHI, Japan — Before I moved here last year, I talked with friends in Rhode Island one evening about what we thought I could expect. Our only ideas seemed like wild stereotypes — strange and costly delicacies, impeccably clean streets, a bit of a seedy underbelly — and the only thing we agreed on in the end was that we knew nearly nothing about the place.

Since then, I’ve tried to learn as much as I can about this seemingly unknown land where I now live, which has, in fact, proved most of our stereotypes from that evening wrong and explained the origin behind others with a rich cultural context I never could have known of before.

Despite all the differences between the two places, I can draw a few parallels between my once and present homes of New England and northern Japan. The proud history tied to the ocean, the changing of the seasons keeping us all on our toes and the appreciation for the natural beauty surrounding us come to mind.

Seeing posts and pictures back home of the influx of tourists and summer trash, beaches littered with plastic and commencement messes, I find myself asking this question an awful lot: With so much natural beauty in our respective lives, why do the Japanese on an individual basis seem to take so much better care of their surroundings?

If you’ve never heard of the famous tidiness of the Japanese people, I recommend looking up the habit, which stunned the media, of Japanese soccer fans cleaning up whole stadiums after matches at the men’s World Cup last year in Brazil. Despite the Japanese team losing, and the fact that many Japanese fans had found themselves scammed out of their tickets before the game, many Japanese tourists and soccer fans stayed long after the game to pick up the trash that was left in the stadium.

Why do some people and cultures feel the need to take care of trash/messes left by others, and by extension, take care of the environment, while so many Americans struggle with it?

Growing up in Rhode Island and working in the tourism industry during college summers, I have seen trash pile up and people acting wastefully firsthand, and far too often. What I haven’t done is do much about it, chalking it up as too much for one person to handle. What’s stopping us from working together, from cleaning our beaches and streets as regularly as Japanese soccer fans and my own neighbors do here? I have some speculation, up on offer, after doing a lot of thinking about this during the past year.

When you move to a new house in the United States, there are various ways of finding the trash collection information. You can check with neighbors, call the city office, check the town’s website or just wait and see on which day everyone else lugs their trash to the curb.

In Japan, you’re issued literature on the recycling rules for your specific area — and they are famously in depth — with some people receiving a guide of more than 50 pages on how to properly dispose of such things as soccer balls, used clothes, bottle caps, batteries and light bulbs. I grilled a few co-workers recently about their opinion of their trash and its disposal. The general consensus was, “It’s become a habit, over the last twenty years. When something is a habit you don’t think about (the inconvenience of) it. You just do it.”

One pointed out something surprising — that despite the requirements on the population to be meticulous with  its trash, it’s well known that Japanese garbage facilities sometimes burn non-burnable waste, undoing the work of all those individuals who followed the rules. She said that even with every Japanese person separating trash into separate bags in their own homes, they know that it’s highly likely that some of their separated, plastic garbage will end up in an incinerator.

So why do it? In Japan, the social consciousness of the population on this issue seems to be moving ahead faster than that of the government. I asked, does this make them lose faith in the recycling system? Does it make them ask why bother? The answer was, somewhat surprisingly, no. In their eyes, the government behaving badly wasn’t an excuse for them to trash the planet in frustration. Not only was it a habit, I was told, but in a quiet way they said that they knew they were also putting pressure on the government to fix the system.

These ways of thinking align somewhat with the Japanese Buddhist principles of completing one thing at a time, slowly and thoroughly, doing it well before moving on to the next. I think about this in my own home, when I eye a sink full of dirty dishes as I’m trying to enjoy my dinner. That instant gratification — hot food right out of the oven — is so easy, tempting and harmless. But I tend to ignore the warnings and soon the whole house out of order. To make quicker work of cleaning the mess, so as to move on to something more enjoyable, I don’t take my time cleaning and often miss things that I could have recycled, composted or donated.

My students and co-workers never seem to struggle with this, because this is the way they were taught — mottainai, a sense of regret in regards to uselessness and waste. Students in Japan throughout high school have a cleaning period where they sweep, take out the trash, restock bathrooms and rake leaves outside. Winter, summer and fall. It takes about 20 minutes, and the kids joke with each other as they dust. Their school gives them so much, after all, an education — why not clean up after themselves?

From elementary school, the kids are getting the same message that this is an important and necessary part of life.

In the United States, we have whole courses devoted to teaching preservation ethics. It’s actually possible to become certified in being invisible on the landscape, because it’s something that we need to be told to do for the benefit of our natural surroundings. However, we tend not to carry this way of thinking over into every part of our lives — leave no trace is for the woods, for camping and hiking, not for busy town streets, backyards or beaches. The reasoning behind this doesn’t make sense.

How can we make this switch to treating the whole world as if it’s our world? If the Japanese don’t litter in their neighborhoods or in public areas, it’s not because they’ve been brainwashed. They are taught, by peers and elders, to take care of their space, and that ethic becomes pervasive.

It took me months to get into the Japanese style of bentou lunches. Even though I usually make my lunch at home, I would wrap lunch in saran wrap or throw it in whatever plastic container mercifully met its lid that morning, buying new ones when the old ones wore out. I eventually caved to perceived (not actual) office pressure and bought a bentou lunchbox.

However, new purchases that come with the promise of a changed lifestyle are not the same as actually changing your lifestyle. For me, that extra step meant getting rid of all the plastic wrap and containers, not buying more, and leaving myself with no other option. We all have small victories about things like this, a move we made that is better for the environment while benefiting, or at least being convenient for, us as well. One small change, though, isn’t enough.

But adopting the principle of treating everything in our life like it matters can lead, over time, to a society that values treating their surroundings as well as they treat, say, their favorite mug.

Oftentimes when we see another country, or other individuals, doing something we admire, we attribute it to intangible things, such as cultural standards or that person’s intelligence. Hearing that someone mastered a difficult task, our reaction tends to be “You’re so smart!” Giving that person recognition for an intangible quality such as intelligence, instead of thinking about the real time and effort that went into their achievement, gives us a way to separate ourselves from it. We may be able to tell ourselves that the task is impossible for us to do because we aren’t that smart.

But anyone can accomplish a difficult task with time and effort — two things that we are often not willing to put into recycling, reducing consumption or addressing environmental problems.

I’ve cleaned parts of a beach and felt defeated because the task just seemed endless. If I were stronger, if my eyesight were better, then it would be easier. But wishful thinking doesn’t take trash off our beaches and keep it off. Hard work and morals passed down through generations does. Is that something we are willing to work for over time?

All of this is not to say that Japan doesn’t have its problems with waste management (there is still a lot of questionable information circling about Fukushima, for instance, and yes, I worry about that). To suggest that one country has everything all figured out on any issue is crazy. Piles of trash such as we see in the United States is not unheard of in Japan, either — not everyone conforms to societal norms in the same way or gives in to societal pressure, to do good or bad. People are all different, no matter what country you’re in.

Before I left for Japan, a friend told me I would probably never see graffiti or a piece of trash on the street. That’s not true. But what I do see more often here is people picking up that trash.

I’m not suggesting that we adopt the Japanese way. My point is that we have a lot to learn from each other, and in opening ourselves up mentally to people half a world away, we may be able to better learn how to change our way of thinking about what to expect from ourselves, and each other, when dealing with trash, litter and its impacts.

Pia Peterson, a 2005 University of Rhode Island graduate, teaches, writes and rides bicycles in northern Japan.