Have you ever thought about where your trash goes after it’s tossed into a basket and whisked away by the garbage truck that shows up like clockwork every week?
If not, comic Shuichi Takizawa says now is the time to think about it.
Though he may not be a household name, Takizawa, who rides around the residential roads of Tokyo collecting trash when he’s not doing stand-up, deserves a listen even when he’s not on stage.
“We’re drowning in our own garbage. It’s horrifying to see how much stuff people throw away every day. Spoiled food, broken appliances, and a lot of pornography,” Takizawa says.
“There’s not enough land in our country to bury all the trash,” he continues. “Experts say in 50 years the Chubo (Central Breakwater landfill sites in Tokyo Bay) will be filled to capacity. Then what? No one knows.”
“Gomidashi,” the Japanese term for waste disposal, is a universal topic and, no matter how good our intentions, we’ve all likely been guilty of one or two of the recycling goofs Takizawa makes note of on social media.
Juggling two careers in seemingly unrelated fields, the 42-year-old comedian is calling for the public to embrace environmentally friendly habits as a way of life, and he does so with jokes and lots of enthusiasm.
Takizawa, a member of a manzai comedy duo called the Machine Guns, became an online celebrity overnight when TV personality Hiroiki Ariyoshi began retweeting his day-in-the-life-of-a-garbage-collector tweets.
Little did Takizawa know when he started his showbiz career 20 years ago that his breakthrough would come as a green campaigner and bestselling author, and that he would find his path to the limelight by wading through garbage.
His book “Kono Gomi wa Shushu Dekimasen” (“We Can’t Collect This Garbage”), based on his tweets, sold out on Amazon on the day of its publication in September.
“I didn’t become a garbageman hoping for more job offers (as a comedian), but I’ve been guided on my unique career path and now I smell opportunity,” he says.
Despite the filth, danger and smells that come with the job, Takizawa says being a garbage collector has brought out his best qualities by teaching him that his day-to-day actions, along with everyone else’s, have an impact on the planet.
Like a majority of the comedians who belong to his talent agency, Takizawa needs a second job to make ends meet. Convenience stores, karaoke boxes, call centers, building security services and construction companies are among the popular side gigs.
“Of course, you have to be skilled to make a living as a comedian, but you also have to be very lucky. There are tons of funny guys out there who live in the shadows,” he says.
Takizawa considers his own side hustle — as an on-call substitute for absent frontline sanitation workers — to be his core business, since it pays better. “If asked, I’d have to say I’m a sanitation employee who does comedy on the side, not vice versa,” he says.
Other than Fridays, when he has a radio recording session, Takizawa gets up at the crack of dawn to witness the consequences of human behavior in a material culture as he hauls away a never-ending supply of rubbish.
On a regular day he wakes up at 5 a.m. and by 6:30 he’s at work, where he begins his check-in with a mandatory Breathalyzer test — the reason he stays away from the booze.
The early riser has battled wasps, rats, cockroaches, caterpillars and maggots, but he says it’s humans and their insensitivity toward sustainability that scares him most.
“You can tell a lot about a person and a neighborhood by looking at their dumpster. Clean trash can? You’re probably a clean person. Yes, we judge you by your can,” he says.
When bags rip open, you get a peek inside someone’s life, he says, but it’s not all buried treasure. The men in blue don’t need to hack your computer or break into your house to tell your gender, what you eat, what you smoke or what you read.
Takizawa is surprised at the amount of personal information thrown away without shredding — phone bills, bank statements, tax documents, medical records — he even wrote a suspense fiction about a psychopath who stalks a woman and goes through her trash.
“I learn something new every day,” he says. “I was unemployed and broke when I first started, so I feel fortunate to have a job. I actually like being a garbageman now. I might do this forever.”
Though he does not downplay the fatigue the job entails — there’s a lot of flexing, squatting, heavy lifting and running — Takizawa has succeeded in turning an everyday routine into an adventure, at times even feeling like a detective unearthing clues from discarded histories.
Combustible trash collecting is done by a three-person crew: one driver and two collectors. Takizawa is the guy working behind the rear-loader, throwing bags into the rotating drum that compacts and grinds the waste.
“Teamwork is key. When you team up with the right guys, and most of them I meet for the first time that day, you get in the zone. You feel the oneness. You feel the groove. When that happens I feel like I could be trash-picking all day long,” he says with a laugh.
All joking aside, Takizawa worries that we are creating more waste than reducing it and not doing enough to save our resources for future generations in Japan, one of the most wasteful countries in the world.
According to Environment Ministry data, Japan generated 43.17 million tons of general waste in fiscal 2016, enough to fill the 55,000-seat Tokyo Dome 116 times and working out at about 925 grams per person per day.
The country’s obsession with packaging and vending machines contributes to the problem, Takizawa says, and as a former waiter at an izakaya (pub), he’s also well aware of the amount of edible food thrown out every day. Mindless consumption is another bugbear.
“When you walk into a 100-yen store you end up buying needless things because everything is cheap,” he says. “Don’t buy it if you don’t need it or you’re going to eventually dispose of it. You can take matters into your own hands. You can make sure it stays out of the landfill.”
Compared to six years ago, when he was a rookie in the so-called dirty business, Takizawa says there is more public awareness of recycling and reuse today. He notices more rinsed-out bottles, removed bottle caps and torn-off labels.
If you live in Japan and don’t read Japanese, he suggests you visit your local authority for an English gomidashi booklet that tells you the do’s and don’ts of recycling.
“Most people don’t start thinking about the future of waste management until they’re older,” he says. “Young adults have other interests, but I want them to know this is about them too. It’s where their taxes go.”
Being a father of two — a 5-year-old and 2-year-old — Takizawa knows keeping your home junk-free is no easy task. And he also sees the direct link between clutter and cash.
“There’s an obvious difference in the dumpster of a wealthy neighborhood and a poor neighborhood. Lower-incomes families tend to throw away large amounts of trash at once — I mean like catastrophic levels,” he says.
“I don’t see too many cigarette butts in rich communities but get a lot from the non-rich, whose top trash items also include manga, alcoholic drink containers and energy drink bottles. It shows how addiction to little things can result in big spending.”
Tackling the waste problem involves more awareness and education, Takizawa says.
Some don’ts: leaving junk out on the curb when your moving day doesn’t coincide with your trash days; going through someone else’s trash; dumpster diving, despite the temptation to scavenge for still usable items.
“When I know for sure it’s intentional littering or illegal dumping, I’ll slap on a sticker and leave the trash behind,” he says, referring to the red sticker of shame that labels you a garbage offender for all your neighbors to see.
Trash collection is serious business. But Takizawa intends to keep his sense of humor, because being funny is what he’s paid to do as a comedian. He sometimes dreams of adding to his resume — novelist, children’s story writer, beach cleaner, singer — but once a garbageman, always a garbageman.
“We know your darkest secrets. We’ve seen the evidence. When I see a trove of X-rated magazines and videos, my guess is this guy is about to move in with a new girlfriend. When I see food waste wrapped in newspaper, I know there’s a granny in the house. This is all trash talk,” he says.
“If I had chosen to work at a convenience store, I’m sure I would’ve found fun and humor as a cashier. It doesn’t matter what you do — there’s always something to laugh about.”
Check out more from Shuichi Takizawa on Twitter at @ takizawa0914.