Quotidian Wonders

Japan: Garbage and Its Cultural Roots

Poster_gomi bunbetsu

Poster explaining the garbage separation by categories (gomi bunbetsu)

Japan is one of the few countries where recycling has become an art form. When I first lived in Yokohama, some years ago, I dealt directly with the incipient phases of garbage recycling in Japan. During my one-year stay, the two major categories of garbage—moeru (burnable) and moenai (unburnable)—became three: burnable, plastics and other recyclables. All denizens of that particular district of Yokohama had to purchase plastic bags printed and color-coded by the district hall (kuyakusho). The three types of garbage were collected on different weekdays, depending on the garbage collecting point that one’s residence was assigned to.

Over time, garbage collection and recycling in Japan became a rather elaborate system which in turn made it necessary for special offices to be formed in district and city halls. The color coding system also became increasingly diversified. Municipal autonomy allowed there to have in some areas as many as ten different bag colors designating as many garbage categories. All those bags had to be purchased from grocery stores, a rather profitable business for the local administration. Depending on the area you lived in, there would be bags for burnable/household garbage, plastics, PET bottles (no caps, no labels, which are recycled with generic plastics), paper (no newspapers), newspaper, aluminum cans, steel cans, milk and juice cartons (cut open and flattened), cardboard, chopsticks and wood and the list can go on. All recyclables have a very strict collection schedule, and if one fails to take out the bag with the corresponding category on its respective collection day before 8 am, there is no other option but to hold on to your garbage for another week or two, until the next collection day of that category. Separating the garbage by categories (gomi bunbetsu), as well as purchasing the bags, taking the garbage to the collection points on the right day, and at the right place are all citizens’ responsibilities.

In order to get the full picture of garbage culture in contemporary Japan, it must be added that, to the best of my knowledge, there are no street garbage cans anywhere in Japan, and that big pieces of garbage, such as furniture or large electrical appliances are only picked up by the city, a service for which one has to apply and pay a pickup fee. In some cities this system allowed for the development of local businesses specializing in the collection of large garbage pieces, which are then refurbished and sold as used merchandise in the increasingly prosperous used goods store (chukohin no mise).

Behind this well-developed and very efficient industry of garbage and recycling collection in Japan, I suspect there may be something more, something historically and culturally determined. Japan’s careful and minute obsession with garbage may be the natural continuation of a process that started during the second half of the 19th century, with the country’s modernization,. After two and a half centuries of feudal military dictatorship, when the de facto leader of the country was the shōgun (although de jure the emperor remained the head of the country), an all-powerful military leader who was enlisting all of Japan’s feudal landlords’ loyalty as well as collecting their yearly tribute, and the country was closed from the rest of the world (sakkoku jidai), Japan re-invented itself as a modern country beginning with the year 1867, when Emperor Mutsuhito (Meiji) was restored with full rights to the throne.

Religiously, Japan had become almost exclusively Buddhist under the shogunate, the continuation of a conversion process that started in the 7th century and was consolidated between the 9th and the 15th centuries, throughout the Heian (794-1185), Kamakura (1185-1333), and Muromachi (1336-1573) Eras. The old animist religion, Shintō had been politically eradicated, although it might have still been practiced in some remote parts of the country. By the 17th century, Japan’s religion was already defined as syncretism (shinbutsu shūgō), a mix of Shintō, Buddhism and Confucianism (heavily promoted by the shogunate).

With the Meiji Restoration (1868) and the emperor’s return to power, the young samurai clique who made the restoration possible found themselves in the position of having to create a new national ideology, one centered on the person of the emperor as deity manifested in a human being (arahitogami). That is how Shintō was reborn in Japan as a way to justify the emperor’s divinity and his legitimate presence on the throne. The entire nationalist ideology of modern Japan was thus tailored around an almost-lost religion which needed to be re-invented from ground up. The nation was defined as a family whose father was the emperor (kazoku kokka), national symbols were made sacred and intangible, and the image of the Japanese nation as “chosen,” “divine,” and destined to free the other Asian nations from Western imperialism was thus solidified. This ideology, “the body of the nation” (kokutai) turned into the justification for Japan’s hunger for territorial expansion which started in 1894 with the Sino-Japanese War.

A major ideologue of the Meiji Era (1868-1912), Fukuzawa Yukichi (1835-1901) argued for the concept of “Escaping Asia” (datsu-a). Fukuzawa’s take on Japan’s modern destiny was that, in order to become a nation equal to the Western powers, it had to “escape from Asia” spiritually, ideologically, militarily, and economically. Fukuzawa’s idea must have touched somewhere the Shintō concept of absolute purity, thus becoming one of the ideological pillars of Japanese nationalism and racism. From the religious combination of purity and the desire to be dissociated from the rest of the Asian continent, regularly described by Westerners as “chaotic,” “barbarian,” and “impure,” cleanliness became a national institution and obsession in modern Japan, and it continues to this day.

Learning to recycle our waste is an integral part of all humanity’s effort to contribute to environment protection. We all still make mistakes or don’t quite understand what it means to recycle. In the building where I live in Chicago they practice a non-sorting type of recycling (all recyclables go in the same container) that always makes me wonder about its efficacy. In Japan, non-sorting recycling must be un-imaginable by now. Recycling there is not only an art, but also a way of dealing with dirt that may be rooted in the nation’s invented practice of modernity.


  1. Reblogged this on Parti Pris and commented:
    I’m working in an internship at Cannon Design in Chicago, and this article is related to the project on which we’re currently working. I used to live in Japan, and can attest to the complicated method of recycling. I hated it at first, but by the time I left to come home, it was second-nature. I had a hard time understanding why Americans don’t organize their recycling in a more efficient manner.


  2. George (QW)

    Thank you for your comment. I feel the same way about the wasteful way in which we recycle here in Chicago. I am not sure about other cities in the US, but what we are doing here is not recycling. But, then again, I guess there are a lot of cultural factors behind the neat ways in which the Japanese do it. :) Please let me know if I can be of any assistance with your project.


  3. Pingback: Japan: Garbage and Its Cultural Roots | ZenStor...

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