In 1958 Shinichi Hoshi (星新一) wrote a very brief story entitled ‘Hey, Come on Out’ (おーい でてこーい). In this story a deep hole is found at a damaged shrine after a typhoon. A person shouts down into the hole ‘Hey, Come on Out!’ but there is no echo. A pebble is dropped down it, but there is no sound. After further investigating no one is really sure how deep the hole is. A scientist comes and tries to measure it but fails to. Soon someone buys the hole, promising to build a new shrine closer to the village, which the townspeople happily accept. He starts a business allowing people to dispose of things in the hole. It is so deep it is thought safe for nuclear waste. Animals used in experiments are disposed there. Everyone uses it. Government documents, evidence of crimes, love letters, and an assortment of other things are thrown away. At the very end of the story a construction worker atop a building hears a voice cry ‘Hey, Come on Out!’. Afterwards a pebble flies by, and the story ends. Shinichi Hoshi makes clear he is critiquing society’s wastefulness. It is now more than 50 years on from this story and perhaps Japan has learned from it in some ways, but in others it still has some way to go.
When I first arrived in Japan, on the surface the country seemed to be quite a wasteful place. For all the talk of loving nature Japan seemed to love the use of plastic bags, and other disposable objects. It’s hard to not get a bag (or two) in a shop. Buy some bread in my nearby Aeon Mall and you’ll get a bag for your bread, and another one to put that bag in. Similarly, go to any convenience store and buy a small chocolate bar or drink, and you’ll get an equally small plastic bag to put that it. Sometimes they ask if you want them but often they don’t. It’s quite common to find small items in packaged products individually wrapped too. Why does every biscuit in a packet need to be individually wrapped?
But it’s not just plastic bags and packaging. At the beginning of every meal you get an おしぼり (oshibori), which is just a flannel to wipe your hands on. However, usually it’s completely disposable. So that’s one extra thing to throw away after every meal. I also find the Japanese dislike of handkerchiefs particularly frustrating. It’s OK to have a handkerchief in Japan sure, but to blow your nose on it, and then put it back in your pocket is widely disliked. I think more and more people in the UK feel the same way too. I am perfectly willing to accept different customs, but to me this cultural preference for disposable tissues just seems wasteful.
But perhaps the worst of all is the disposable chopsticks (called 割り箸 or waribashi) that you get at so many restaurants. Some restuarants are admittedly enlightened enough to give you plastic ones or reusable wooden ones, but many don’t. I’ve been told that wood ‘makes the food taste better’, but I suspect this is just a form of Japanese snobbery. China does this too, and according to a recent New York Times article 3.8 million trees go into their production every year in China. Over a third of these chopsticks are exported to Japan. The New York Times article also points out that using reusable chopsticks is actually cheaper than buying hundreds of their disposable counterparts. So it seems here the finger must be pointed at Japanese stores and the Japanese consumer.
It would be wrong to talk about just the negative though. When you look beyond what you initially see in restaurants and shops you start to get a different picture. The fact is Japan does recycle, in fact it recycles a lot. A 2011 guardian article showed how far Japan is ahead of other countries in their recycling of plastic (recycling about 77% of plastic waste in 2010). Japan has numerous types of bins to separate waste for recycling, and most electronics have to be disposed of in a responsible way.
Japan’s supposed to love the environment and in many ways it does and is a great example. My students certainly claim they are interested in the enviroment, and after last year’s tsunami and nuclear crisis are very concerned about the need for clean energy. Before that though, an easy next step might be to stop embracing these one-time-only disposable items.