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Saturday, June 9, 2007


Key garbage experiences in the land of the sanitary enthusiast

Years ago when I first moved to my island, some Japanese friends from the mainland came to visit. The plan was to have a barbecue, so they brought all the ingredients from the mainland, since meat and some other things were hard to come by on the island.

Industrial garbage disposal in Hokkaido
You too can operate dangerous machinery like this industrial garbage disposal in Hokkaido. AMY CHAVEZ PHOTO

At the end of the day, as they were boarding the ferry to go home, I noticed that among their baggage was a bulging grocery bag. The bag was packed to the brim, yet it was so light it swung freely from side to side. Suddenly, I realized with great alarm: They're taking their garbage with them!

My house is not a palace, but it is certainly not a campsite either. "Please," I pleaded, "let me take that bag of garbage from you!"

Finally, when they felt the struggle had gone on long enough to be polite, they surrendered the garbage, happy that their hostess had finally realized they were just being polite and did not really want to take dripping meat trays, slobbery chopsticks, and half-chewed octopus tentacles with them on a crowded ferry. Besides, surely they would be exceeding the allowance for accompanied garbage.

Of course, I was horrified that they didn't feel free to leave their garbage at my house. And, they were surely equally horrified that I had not offered to take it off them long before we had arrived at the ferry port. Would our friendship endure?

You see, every Japanese person is, instinctively, a sanitary engineer. They are not born this way, but the training starts so early that soon they feel a natural affinity toward garbage disposal.

In kindergarten they are taught to separate garbage into burnables, nonburnables, and recyclables. Finally, in their teenage years, they learn about that very special day, sodai gomi day, that rare day when you can put out even big garbage, such as furniture, carpets and refrigerators. Such due preparation is needed to put out sodai gomi — dismantling, buying a voucher, filling out forms with your personal details, etc. — you'd think it would be a public holiday on the calendar.

At the rate people separate recyclable garbage, you wonder why Japan isn't considered one of the great recycling nations of the world. It makes me think that perhaps it is a plot to get everyone to organize and clean — even down to their garbage. One thing is for sure though, Japan has very polite garbage.

The other day, while separating my garbage, I noticed something written on the cardboard cylinder found at the end of the toilet paper roll. Arigato gozaimashita. That was truly the first time I had ever been thanked by my toilet paper. It was actually quite embarrassing. "Kochira koso," I replied, feeling I should be the one thanking it.

For the true sanitary enthusiasts in the household, you can take your garbage to the local dump yourself and experience the thrill of operating dangerous machinery.

Why they let ordinary citizens operate industrial garbage compactors, I don't know, but perhaps it is a privacy issue. After all, you wouldn't want anyone to know what really happened to that annoying pooch next door that used to bark all night.

In Japan, every household must buy and use special garbage bags to help cover the cost of garbage removal. This is why my friends took their garbage with them — they didn't want me to appear to be pushing me to pay for the garbage they helped create.

I wonder if this is the reason this country has taken so well to fast food. The fast-food outlets have figured out that if people take away their food, the company will not have to pay for the disposal of the garbage they create. So if you really want to avoid paying for fast-food garbage, the next time you go to a fast-food outlet, order a hamburger not wrapped, a handful of fries, a fingernail full of mustard and a bellybutton full of ketchup.

Remember that in Japan, what you bring, you must also take away. If you bring your lunch to the park, expect to take it home with you, not just inside your belly, but also any resulting garbage. But no worries, the Japanese have now invented edible paper plates. Now you can eat your garbage.

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