Quick, what do these things have in common: thousands of plastic bottles (a few from far-off lands including Vietnam, China and South Korea, but 99 percent Japanese), hundreds of empty fishing-line packages, dozens of golf balls, a tennis racquet (stringless), a giant sea turtle (dead), a big skate (dead), a small shark (dead), a medium-sized octopus (dead), a boom box (nonfunctioning) and an artificial vagina (used)?
If you guessed that these are all things that have washed up on the beach in front of my house over the past few years, you’d be correct.
Around three years ago, after a big typhoon, I went down to the beach just after dawn to see if anything interesting had washed up. On that day nothing too exciting had, but I noticed an extraordinary amount of broken glass, and decided to pick it up (coz, you know, the beach is nicer that way). I picked up 25 kg of broken glass that day, plus a half-dozen big bags of cans and bottles, and miscellaneous plastic.
Since then, every week or two, I go down either early or late in the day with two or three large rubbish bags to pick up after my fellow man — who lives in Tokyo, Kawasaki or Yokohama and comes to the southern Miura Peninsula to fish, barbecue or just drink, and often decides it’s too much trouble to bring his gomi back home with him.
As an example, a few weeks ago I was playing soccer with my son in a small park not far from our house and by chance turned my head to see a well-dressed young man — walking from the beach to the car park with three friends — sling a large bag of rubbish into the woods.
“Oi!” I said in Japanese. “What do you think you’re doing?” An elderly couple stopped to stare. “Do you think just because you don’t live here, you can leave your crap behind? Throw it into the woods and who cares, because you’ll never be back here?”
“Gomen nasai,” he said. I stared him down until he clambered into the woods to retrieve the bag, then bowed his head, apologized again, and the four hooligans continued to their car. And probably threw the bag out the window just around the corner.
Another time, glancing from an upper window of my house, I saw two young couples, already apparently drunk, carrying barbecue gear past my house en route to the beach (my beach is not served by a road, and has no parking, so few people discover it, and I consider it my beach). I thought to myself, “Uh-oh,” and sure enough, the next morning when I went down to check things out, I found that they had left everything behind. I mean everything: They’d even dumped their grill into a tide pool. What’s up with that?
A few months ago, the world was amazed to see Japanese football fans picking up their rubbish in Brazilian stadiums after World Cup matches. And Japan, of course, gave the world Ryoanji, Kinkakuji and wabi-sabi. And the kimono, kaiseki cuisine and the tea ceremony. So why is there so much crap on my beach?
Japan rightly has a global reputation as a very clean country — in part, I think, because so many people clean the street and sidewalk in front of their homes and businesses. But do Japan’s social rules apply only when society is watching? Do Japanese sweep in front of their homes only because if they didn’t, the neighbors would gossip? (In part, certainly.)
Do Japanese take their gomi with them only when people are watching? The view from one small beach in Miura Hanto suggests that is the case.
Many things in Japan “work” (and work very well) because of social pressure. But when the pressure is off, well, you have armies of unconscious drunken salarymen asleep on the train station floor. And you have used artificial vaginas washing up on the beach.
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