Oct 12, 2017
One of the biggest cultural clashes you can get while living in another country semi-permanently is the mundane stuff. Stuff you don’t really think is going to be a problem until it does. Now, this includes things such as food preference (I’m a meat and potatoes kind of guy in a country dominated by rice. Sue me!), getting used to pushy salarymen on the train every morning, and of course garbage collection.
Many countries, my own included, deal with their garbage like they deal with their problems. Just sweep it under the rug and let someone else worry about it. And when you move to a country like Japan, you get an embarrassing culture shock. People actually care where their garbage goes?!
I once dismantled an entire sofa with a box cutter and threw it out with the household garbage because I was too lazy to drive the whole thing to the dump! And now I’m supposed to know about burnables and non-burnables? (Given enough heat, anything is burnable).
Depending on where you live in Japan, garbage is handled quite differently. Case in point: I currently live in the city. My apartment building has a little room on the first floor where I can throw any garbage any time of day. Although the city probably has some rules regarding what garbage is okay or not, and Amaterasu knows I separated my garbage professionally for many months after I started living here, it seems no one cares enough to notice. And so, I have devolved into separating my trash into two vague categories. Plastic-looking stuff in one bag and ...the rest... in another.
Well, there is a third category. Paper and cardboard. A lot of supermarkets around Japan have these containers where you can drop off your paper-based items in exchange for points. Usually this is one point for one kg of things. Each point equals one yen in said supermarket.
This was not a problem when I was living in the countryside and had a car. Every now and then I would load up the car with all our cardboard and drive it to the local supermarket and probably get around 10 to 20 yen worth of points. Including gasoline cost I probably netted around -10 yen in profit, but it felt right (or so I told myself).
Now that I live in the city and sold the car off, surely I’m off the hook, right? Wrong! I have been coerced by the powers that be to haul boxes upon boxes to the local supermarket, which is probably around a kilometer away. Well, at least I am not paying for gasoline anymore, so guess it has some monetary value. Plus I suddenly have all this upper body strength I have no idea what to do with…
After hauling about 100kg of paper over the course of a year, and collecting points enough for one bottle of coke, I was informed that I need to collect over 200 points to be eligible to use the points! I’ll be eagerly waiting for those two bottles next summer.
Living in the countryside has its benefits. The clean air, the peace and quiet, and of course all the space. For people who can survive the terrible loneliness of not having a convenience store one every block, living in the countryside or even the suburbs seems like a wonderful idea. That is until you need to take out the garbage…
This is where society breaks apart. You start wondering if you accidentally got sent to a dictatorship with rules that don’t make any sense on purpose. Questions like: ‘What do you mean I today is PET bottle day?’ ‘I’m only allowed to use bags provided by the city?’ and ‘What if I have a plastic wrap with paper glued to it? Where does it go then?’ will become normal pieces of conversation as talking about the weather.
In the countryside, the rules are enforced by elderly ladies who are up at the crack of dawn, monitoring the garbage pile for anyone who isn’t following the rules 100%. Failure to comply might result in being shunned by the community. Or worse. Finding your garbage kindly returned to your doorstep.
Different days serve different garbage too. Tuesdays might be burnable garbage, while Wednesdays may be plastic. And if tomorrow is burnable day, don’t think for a second that you can drop off your bags the night before. That might attract pests such as crows or cockroaches. You can sometimes see their carnage while walking down the streets. There will be half open bags and garbage lying everywhere. You will know it was crows or tanuikis or raccoons. On another note, the reason people put yellow nets over the bags is because crows have a hard time seeing through a certain shade of yellow. If they cannot see it, they will not try to eat it.
It depends on the city schedule. You can find all that information either at the city website or by taking a trip to the city hall. Someone somewhere will be able to point you to the correct pamphlet.
Some people, in case they miss the correct day for garbage disposal, will put their raw garbage in the freezer. This reduces the smell and keeps the garbage from attracting unwanted visitors.
Whether you live in the city or the countryside, learning the ebbs and flows of daily life as soon as possible can mean the difference between living peacefully in your neighborhood and starting a war with the neighborhood watch. We may not be able to completely fix the social stigma against foreigners that exist in every country, but at least we can try to reduce the rubbish we create. Unless you like being woken up at 5 A.M. by a crow spreading your garbage all over your front door. I know I do. It`s like a horrible, horrible alarm clock.