Why Does Japan Have So Few Trash Cans in Public Areas?

  • In many countries, public places such as city streets and local parks have a large number of easy to spot trash cans where you can easily dispose of your drink container, gum wrapper, or sandwich wrapping. However, one thing that soon becomes apparent to many travelers after being in Japan for any length of time is the lack of public trash bins. It can be quite annoying at times, but it is a fact that people get used to carrying around used wrappers, receipts, and other pieces of trash until they can dispose of them properly… Unless you are one of those people who leave their pet bottles, cans, and Starbucks cups in the street or inside public restrooms:

    Please don’t be one of those people!

    People who do this are a minority. Sadly, despite many Japanese people being the culprits, this kind of behavior also went up when Japan started seeing an increase of foreign tourists (now on hold because of the COVID-19 pandemic), making some associate littering with foreigners.

    Despite this annoying minority that tarnishes some streets and restrooms in Tokyo’s busiest neighborhoods, most people simply take their trash home or wait until they can find a trash bin.

    Japan has a very strict garbage disposal law in place in Japan where people have to separate and organize their household trash and only take it out on certain days of the week or month, which also serves as a factor in how the Japanese view trash and how to get rid of it.

    So, what is with the lack of trash cans? The answer lies in the country’s a reaction to a terrorist attack by a doomsday cult in the 1990s.

    The Tokyo Subway Sarin Gas Attack of 1995

    In a coordinated terrorist attack on March 20th, 1995, five members of the cult Aum Shinrikyo released deadly sarin gas into subway trains in Tokyo during the early morning rush hour, using plastic bags wrapped in newspapers as a dispersal mechanism. Twelve people were killed and well over 5,000 were injured. The same cult had already attacked judges working on a case against them in Matsumoto, Nagano, the year before, and this deadly attack left Japan reeling in the aftermath with fears of other possible terrorist attacks.

    Sarin gas is extremely dangerous and even just a thimble full can kill an adult. The sarin gas released on the trains affected thousands of people; over five thousand went to hospitals where affects ranged from critical to minor. Some passengers even went to work, not realizing that they had been affected until they saw the incident on the news later on. Sarin gas affects the nervous system and can cause breathing problems, neurological damage, constriction of the pupils, nausea, and spasms. Sarin gas, which is considered to be a weapon of mass destruction, is so dangerous because it is colorless and odorless as well as deadly. Production and stockpiling of sarin was outlawed in 1997 by the Chemical Weapons Convention.

    The perpetrators were eventually caught, but in the meantime, there were a lot of scared people demanding the government do something to protect its citizens and help prevent any more attacks in the future. 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 trash cans have not returned to Tokyo, and it appears that other places in Japan followed the same example.

    Even now, over twenty years after the attack, it is easy to see anti-terrorist behavior being encouraged, particularly in train stations. Passengers are urged to alert staff if they see any suspicious persons or bags. Keeping maintenance on trash cans is one thing, but it would be impossible to check everyone’s bags and clothing before they boarded the train. Hopefully, the deadly attack in 1995 is the last Tokyo will see.

    Fewer Trash Cans, Less Litter?

    Funny enough, the disappearance of many of the country’s trash bins resulted in cleaner streets. This may seem counter-intuitive, but the logic lies within the “broken windows theory”, a criminological theory of norm-setting. 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 litter in a place that already has a lot of trash there. If trash stays contained in a trash can, 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, trash cans can overflow. This overflow doesn’t really stop people from continuing to pile trash on, and if it happens to be a windy day, it can potentially cause a huge mess. Trash gets spread around, and perhaps because of this, others may be more apt to throw more trash on the ground thus proving the “broken windows theory”.

    Even though there are some people who prefer to litter, it’s also relatively hard to find trash in the streets or on trains compared to other countries. This is one of the things that visitors love about the country, and it might not be a bad idea for other countries to follow Japan’s example.

    Few Trash Cans Does Not Equal No Trash Cans

    You can be as careful as you like, but it is highly likely that at some point you will end up with some form of trash that you need to get rid of. 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.

    Head to any convenience store and you will see trash cans for burnable, non-burnable, cans, glass bottles, and plastics. It is very rare to come across a store that doesn’t have these services. Since people buy many things here that come in some sort of plastic wrapping, it makes sense for the shops to provide a way to dispose of it. In addition, most vending machines have recycling bins for plastic bottles and cans right next to them. Chances are that you’ll be far away from the machine where you originally bought your milk tea or canned corn soup from, but, since vending machines are all over the place, this likely won’t be much of a problem. Just keep in mind that those bins are for the designated type of trash only – don’t go stuffing paper or plastic into the holes labeled “glass”, for example. Japan is very recycle-conscious, and it is expected you follow the rules while you are there.If you are lucky, you will also find some trash cans while walking down the street, but don’t count on it.

    The last public place of note for getting rid of trash is on 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 have reached your destination. Simply look for the large and easy-to-spot trash cans on the platform, double check the labels to see if they’re burnable, cans, etc., and get rid of your trash there.

    Eating in public, especially while walking, is generally frowned upon in Japan, but many people may admit that more than once they have consumed a plastic-wrapped rice ball from their local shop for breakfast while eating on the run. Waiting on the platform for a train ride can also be a good opportunity to save time and clean out your bag or wallet. For safety, the bins are generally packed with translucent bags, meaning it is difficult for potential terrorists to hide anything inside them and therefore maintaining the safety that getting rid of trash cans in the first place initially promoted.

    Chances are that 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. Pack it into a plastic bag, tie it, and either carry it or put it in your bag. 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, making a cleaner and more considerate society.

    Would you like to stay in Tokyo? Check out all the hotels in the area here!

    1. Alice says:

      I used to live in Japan, and I often travel back and forth now. Usually when you have a small trash, you can ask the sales person at the counter to kindly throw for you, and they used to do it or politely tell you why they cannot do it. However, recently, I discovered that some people are not willing to do so. On top of this, they will give you a racist look and rudely said no to you. This is no longer an issue of trash disposal , but a trash of value in good manners. I found that people in Osaka are not friendly to foreigners who cannot speak Japanese. I am disappointed that the used to polite and friendly manners are no longer valued by the younger Japanese generation.

    2. dasmodul says:

      On our first trip to Japan two years ago we found this the most miserable part of our experience that has really made us think twice about going back. It is ridiculous that there is no trash cans anywhere to be found. Even when we’d luck out and find one by a store the owners would often rush out and scold us for dumping stuff in it. Being a mildly OCD person about cleanliness, I didn’t take too kindly in having to carry around sticky, smelly waste in 110degree weather in the summer. What it ended up doing was made us not spend money. We would want to try out street food, ice creams, candies, etc. but the thought of having to carry the garbage with us for the next 5 hours had us thinkin, ‘no thanks’. Sad actually. I think if you live there, it’s something supposedly you can get used to. As a visitor it can be almost a deal-breaker for some.

    3. Tito says:

      I’m not really sure what this article is talking about… or maybe it’s using old data, but almost every train station in Japan has a full set of recycling bins (I’m not sure I’ve been to one without a trash bin). I think it’s not so much a problem that they’re not they, but rather they just don’t like having them in plain sight. It’s just a matter of knowing where to look for them. By the sides of convenient store and supermarket entrances (some have them right inside!), next to food stalls or on almost every train station platform (or even in some train cars). I think food stalls are required to take the garbage back from your order (trays, papers, sticks) as well. If you have a recyclable drink container, look for another vending machine and you’ll probably see another recycle bin right next to it.
      Regarding what the above commenters have been saying, I’m not sure their experiences can sufficely represent Japan. I’ve heard that Osakans are WAY more laid back than Tokyoites. I’ve even had store clerks offer to throw something out for me if it looked like I was holding too many things while trying to get my money out of my wallet (and thanked them heavily for it). As I said, you just have to take your food container & utensil trash back to the place you got it from. You shouldn’t ever have to carry your trash around for 5 hours unless you’re doing something like a nature hike (then yea… you’ll have to carry it home, but then that’s probably the same in your home country too). It’s true that some Japanese people are going to be biased against foreigners unfortunately. I’ve had similar things like the above comment happen to me too. Hopefully as a by-product of the upcoming Olympics, they’ll learn to be a bit more tolerant and other incoming foreigners respect the rules here and not make things worse for us.

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