“That Japanese guy looked at me as if he wanted to kill me,” the foreigner said to me while we were standing on the beach.
What did you say to him? I asked.
“All I did is ask him where I could throw out this trash,” he said, holding up a convenience store plastic bag with a half-eaten o-bento in it.
Later in the day, some tourists came up to the bar, held up a small bag of garbage and asked, “Can you throw this out for us?” I peered into the plastic bag: an empty bottle of tea, a beer can, an orange peel, a yakisoba plastic tray and some left over rice clinging perilously to the inside of the bag. I wouldn’t touch that bag with a 10-foot samurai sword.
“Um,” I said, knowing I was going to have to give them the gomi shake-down. “I’ll throw it out for you if you first take out that PET bottle, remove the label, and rinse it out over there in the sink. Same with the beer can. You didn’t put any cigarette butts in that empty beer can, did you? If so, you’ll need to take them out, then wash out the beer can again. See that orange peel smashed up inside the plastic yakisoba tray? The plastic tray is recyclable and the orange peel is burnable, so separate those for me. Oh, and is that a Corona bottle inside there? Sorry, didn’t see that. You’ll have to remove that slice of lime in it,” I said while handing him some chopsticks. “After you’ve done all that then sure, I’d be happy to throw it away for you,” I said.
They looked at me as if I was crazy. They said, “No thanks,” while grumbling, “What a hassle!” and went off in a huff.
I didn’t think this was a very polite way to treat someone who had just offered to throw out their garbage for them.
But some foreigners miss the point. Coming to Japan is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to become a sanitary engineer! Even if you don’t have any prior experience, you’ll be well-trained by the end of your stay. Separating and disposing of trash is a basic survival skill here, so don’t think you should be exempt.
In Japan, public trash cans are not a human right. There is nothing in the constitution that says “Bins will be provided at 500-meter intervals for your garbage enjoyment.” No, don’t think for a minute that in Japan someone else is going to clean up after you.
Besides, it’s your garbage, so why should someone else have to take responsibility for it? Would you ask someone else to do your laundry? Garbage is a personal possession in Japan. Once you’ve bought something, it’s yours, even after you’re finished with it.
Many of these garbage no-no’s in Japan stem from the fact that people have to pay per bag to throw out their garbage. That’s why you won’t find any garbage cans sitting around in visible public spaces. Oscar the Grouch would be homeless here.
Although there are many no-no’s of pitching garbage in Japan, here are a few yes-yes’s that may help you.
If you buy something from a restaurant or street stall, when you’re finished eating, take the garbage back to the vendor and they will throw it away for you in secret trash cans behind the counter.
Vending machines always have a garbage can next to them. Notice the round holes the size of a can on the trash can lid to remind you that nothing other than cans should be placed in them.
The garbage bins in front of convenience stores are for the purpose of depositing wrappers, and packaging from goods bought at their store. (They are not meant for that McDonald’s rubbish in your car nor the assorted French fries that have been hiding between the seats for years.)
If there is no receptacle, don’t make a spectacle. Instead, do as the Japanese do — take your rubbish home with you.
Now that you have a fairly high rubbish IQ you’ll make a great sanitary engineer. And once you are very experienced, be sure to pay yourself a nice salary.