Voices | FOREIGN AGENDA

How my local Japanese supermarket killed 'Methuselah'

by William Lang

Contributing Writer

I can recall reading about a pre-industrial community that had the custom of throwing all of its rubbish on the ground at the back of its members’ homes. This was fine as long as they were chucking out scraps of food, or wooden or plant-based material.

However, they got access to cheap plastics and then their homes became fronts for rubbish tips. Plastic has that often annoying habit of sticking around almost forever.

To avoid plastics overwhelming my own household, I opted to start carrying my own bag to the local food stores. Sure, it had seen better days, but I was still greatly proud of its wrinkles and rheumatism.

One day last year, I hit the neighborhood Kaldi to pick up two packs of cheddar cheese from New Zealand and one jar of hot Mexican salsa. I took them to the cash register.

“Would you like an ice-pack to keep your cheese chilled?” asked the polite woman behind the counter.

I was touched by her solicitude on behalf of my cheese. My purchases only came to around ¥1,000. Is a slow-melting ice-gel in a plastic packet really so cheap to produce that it is given out for such modest purchases? Only in Japan would this happen, I thought.

“That will not be necessary,” I beamed. I segued into my cash register spiel. “I don’t need a plastic bag, either. Could you put everything in this?” I handed over “Methuselah,” my trusty bag. The Biblical Methuselah lived 969 years and I hoped for the same for my bag.

Did I only imagine that the pause in the cashier’s response dragged on indecently? “Thank you,” she said at last, “but I do have to add a little tape to show proof of purchase. Would that be OK?”

“Sure,” I answered. Because I am blind I couldn’t see exactly what she was doing, but I assumed that she was adding a little tape to the items and putting them in the carrier bag I had given her.

I practically ran home, because I am easily influenced by the thought of previously unknown hazards. Just as news that plastic was choking the planet filled me with terror all of a sudden one day, I now had grave fears for my cheddar cheese — already four minutes out of the fridge, and not a speck of slow-melting ice in my possession to keep it safe!

So I was relieved to reach my front door, after which I could dive out of my shoes and hurl the cheese into the protective coolness of my refrigerator. I went inside, opened up my backpack and pulled out Methuselah. I reached in and touched some odd, crinkled up paper. It was wrapped around my hot salsa like a corset, or the world’s worst body armor. It had been added after purchase without comment. The sturdy glass jar had made it all the way from Central America to Japan. Was it really likely to shatter from a little jostling in my backpack without this additional paper fashion statement? I put the thought to one side and searched for the cheese. I touched the smooth surface of a virgin plastic bag. The lady at the cash register had indeed put everything in my wrinkled old carrier bag. But she had made sure to put my cheese into another little plastic bag first, upon which was taped a sticker to show proof of purchase. The hard plastic of the cheese packet had been protected by the flexible plastic of this new plastic bag, which was protected by the wrinkled plastic of my old carrier bag. Do you, like me, ever feel like a pre-industrial soul struggling to grasp modern civilization?

So what was the point of me bringing my own bags and requesting that they be used? If I hadn’t said anything, would there have been even more packaging? Maybe some bubble-wrap in case of a sudden fall? Maybe a miniature mouse-trap to safeguard my cheese?

Japan has a bigger problem than most countries with unnecessary packaging. It’s the flip-side of having such good customer service and attention to detail. Businesses would rather cause waste than inconvenience their customers.

And perhaps I got my tactics wrong. I think that the sight of my ancient and wrinkled carrier bag genuinely disturbed the kindly lady behind the cash register. Neatness and orderliness are borderline sacred concepts in Japan, especially where guests or customers are concerned. Have you ever received a souvenir from a Japanese acquaintance that looked absolutely gorgeous, until you took all the packaging off and realized that there were just four or five bog-standard senbei (rice crackers) inside? It’s better to hand over an insubstantial gift that looks lovely than insult the recipient by handing over something in a shabby old carrier bag, even if it has been flown all the way from New Zealand or Mexico.

So I will try using a “bag for life” made of cotton, which will look a lot nicer. And I will have to put to rest my faithful old servant whose surface now resembles a fermented plum, and whose face just couldn’t keep up with modern society.