The local garbage police dig in the dirt


On my island, we have garbage police: community members who stand guard over the garbage heap to make sure everyone puts out their garbage properly. These normally laid-back people can get very testy when they are put in a position of such authority. They have a very high garbage IQ.

Garbage is serious business in Japan, and if you try to throw out something nonburnable on a designated burnable garbage day, for example, the garbage police will send you back home with the nonburnable item, even if it is a small tuna can that will have to wait another three weeks for recyclable garbage day. And when that day comes, the garbage police will again send you home with that same item if you haven’t cleaned it out before throwing it onto the heap. On recyclable garbage day, when cans, bottles, newspapers and magazines are segregated according to race and religion, the garbage police are especially strict. Did you know there is a special pile for funeral “o-bentos”? Yes, those extra large black plastic lunch boxes given out at funerals are separated into their own pile, next to individual stacks of milk cartons, Styrofoam meat trays and plastic wrap.

On the island, we don’t have garbage trucks. Instead, we have a garbage boat. And no, it doesn’t sing Stevie Wonder songs like the garbage trucks do. Everyone must mobilize their own garbage to the port, usually by wheelbarrow, and pass the garbage police inspection. The garbage police gather at the port and, as a group, descend upon individuals as they wheel in their garbage. Although the garbage police appear to be merely helping you toss your garbage, they really are inspecting it in order to separate it into the proper pile.

Each neighborhood has its own month for garbage police duty. I don’t usually take part, since I work full time, but recently when it was my neighborhood’s turn, I had some time and felt it would be a good opportunity to re-connect with my neighbors. Besides, I should make appearances to remind them I’m still here. Every now and then, someone has a memory lapse and asks me when I moved here. This is not surprising when you consider that it is very hard to notice the passage of time here, since there are few new buildings or other landmarks to show the transition to modern times. It’s a wonder that people here even realize we’ve passed out of the Heian Era. You just have to remember the years, and I only know them because I make tally marks on the wall to keep track.

When I arrived, the garbage police were already out in full force, each neighbor wearing their own version of the garbage police uniform: a synthetic jogging suit and sneakers.

I joined them, first wheeling in my own wheelbarrow of garbage.

“Amy, I see you have some magazines in there that still have the plastic on them,” said a member of the garbage police, and soon they were into my stack of bound magazines, tearing off the plastic.

“Oh!” said one of the ‘o-baa-chans,’ clearly astonished at the content. She had opened my Victoria’s Secret catalog.

Soon there was a gathering of 70-to-80-year-old o-baa-chans who had run over to see what the gasping was about. “You actually wear this stuff?” said one of them, giggling.

“Um, well,” I stuttered, standing there in a baseball cap, tattered sweat shirt, jeans and hiking boots. Victoria’s “secret” was suddenly apparent: sexy on the inside, manly on the outside.

“Hora, hora!” (“Look, look!”) yelled one of the o-baa-chans, pointing excitedly at some lacy lingerie. “We could never wear that,” she laughed. But there was a gleam in her eye.

I do believe that on that garbage day, I did bond with the o-baa-chans. I even suspect that on the next recyclable garbage day, they’ll also be throwing out their old Victoria’s Secret catalogs.