One thing that soon becomes apparent to many foreigners after being in Japan for any length of time is the lack of public trash cans. It can be quite annoying at times, but people get used to carrying around used wrappers, receipts, and other pieces of trash until they can dispose of them properly. So why the lack of trashcans? Is it to save money? Are Japanese people so conscientious of their trash that there’s no need? Are trash cans just too unsightly? Little did I realize that the primary answer would be something else entirely – a reaction to a terrorist attack by a doomsday cult.
In a coordinated terrorist attack March 20th, 1995, five members of the cult Aum Shinrikyo released a deadly gas into subway trains in Tokyo, using plastic bags wrapped in newspapers as a dispersal mechanism. Thirteen people were killed and well over 5,000 injured. Japan was left reeling in the aftermath and the fear of other possible terrorist attacks.
The perpetrators were eventually caught, but in the meantime, there were a lot of scared people demanding action. One of the security measures taken was to remove trash cans, as they could be potential hiding places for other terrorist weapons. Similar measures had been taken in other cities internationally in the aftermath of other terrorist attacks, such as in London after bombings by the Irish Republican Army. Since then, the trashcans have not returned to Tokyo, and it appears that other places in Japan followed the same path.
While the terrorist attack of 1995 is often stated as the primary reason for the lack of public trash cans, there are perhaps other reasons as well. When talking with a Japanese friend of mine about this matter, she said that there used to be public trashcans in cities, but, at the time, there was more litter on the streets as well. After they disappeared, apparently litter did as well. How could this be?
This may seem counter-intuitive, but the logic lies within the broken windows theory (something some of you may be familiar with through a social sciences course). According to the theory, people will be more likely to break the window of a house that already has a broken window. Likewise, people are more likely to throw trash in a place that already has trash there. If trash stays contained in a trashcan, then it’s out of sight. However, if city workers can’t keep up with the trash (or if there is not enough money to pay them to do so), trashcans can overflow. This overflow doesn’t really stop people from continuing to pile trash on, and if it happens to be a windy day, well, you’ve got a big mess on your hands. Trash gets spread around, and perhaps because of this, others may be more apt to throw more trash on the ground a la broken windows theory.
Of course there will be people who will litter no matter how clean a place is, and no matter what kind of facilities are nearby, and then there are people who are so conscientious that they will hang onto their trash no matter how dirty a place may be or how long it will take them to find a waste receptacle. There are so many factors to take into account, and correlation does not equal causation. However, from personal experience, I can say that, while it is hard to find a public trash can in Japan, it’s also relatively hard to find trash in the streets.
Ideally, for the sake of our environment, you won’t have a lot of trash to deal with. However, in the reality of living within the system, even the most earth-friendly of us is bound to be caught outside with trash to dispose of at some point. Despite complaints you may hear, it really isn`t that bad not having many public trash cans in Japan. For one thing, the few places you will find disposal bins are likely the places you picked up the item or items to be disposed of in the first place such as vending machines, convenience stores, and train stations.
Most vending machines have recycling bins for plastic bottles and cans next to them. Chances are you’ll be far away from the machine you originally bought your Calpis drink or canned corn soup from (yes, you can get corn soup from a vending machine in Japan!), but, since vending machines are all over the place, this likely won’t be much of a problem. Just don’t be a jerk and put other trash into these receptacles.
Convenience stores (“conbinis” in Japanglish) are actually quite convenient in Japan and are also quite easy to find. I haven’t found one in Japan yet that didn’t have bins for recycling and burnable garbage either inside or outside of their stores. People go to them for all kinds of plastic-wrapped treats, such as sandwiches and onigiri (rice balls), so it`s natural for them to extend this service. I also don’t think it’s frowned on to empty trash from your pockets at a convenience store without buying anything. Conbinis are so darned convenient they know they have your money one way or another.
The last public place of note for getting rid of trash is train platforms. Granted, you have to already be past the ticket gate, but at least you don’t have to carry garbage with you on the train or around with you after you`ve reached your destination. Eating in public is generally frowned upon in Japan, but I must admit that more than once I’ve consumed a plastic-wrapped onigiri from my local conbini for breakfast while traveling on the run. A train ride can also be a good opportunity to save time and clean out your bag or wallet.
Chances are, you can hold onto any trash you may have accumulated for the short amount of time it would take you to find a place to properly dispose of it without much inconvenience. Also, who knows? Perhaps by holding onto our trash a little longer, we may end up taking a little more responsibility for our actions and try to think of ways we can get rid of trash in our lives altogether. (Or we could just be that angry person carrying around used disposable chopsticks.)