In many countries, public places such as city streets and local parks have a large number of trash cans that are easy to spot 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 cans. 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. There is also 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. Perhaps this is also a factor in how the Japanese view trash and how to get rid of it.
So, what is with the lack of trash cans? Is it to save money on public funding and waste disposal? Are Japanese people so conscientious of their trash that there’s no need? Are trash cans just too unsightly? Because of the strict laws with getting rid of trash, are the Japanese on another level when it comes to being considerate with waste? You may be surprised to hear that one of the big reasons is something else entirely: it was a reaction to a terrorist attack by a doomsday cult in the 1990s.
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.
While the terrorist attack of 1995 is often stated as the primary reason for the lack of public trash cans nowadays, 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 trash cans in cities, but, at the time, there was more litter on the streets as well. After they disappeared, apparently the litter did as well. How could this be?
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 drop 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”.
Of course, there will always be people who will drop 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 necessarily 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 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.
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.
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.