“Super Oyaji,” also known as grocer Junichiro Yasui, has been gaining attention for his green streak — and it has nothing to do with his produce section.
The local business leader has been raising eyebrows by wielding such unusual weapons as recycling and the environment in the battle to revitalize the Waseda district in Shinjuku Ward, Tokyo. And he seems to be winning.
With mom-and-pop retail shops threatened by the specter of department stores, and landfill sites brimming with trash, Yasui has come up with a recipe to ease the strain on both.
As head of the local retailer association, he spearheaded what has grown from an annual summer event — the EcoSummer Festival — into a local recycling campaign.
The community initiative has proven itself good for the environment as well as profitable for local shops.
But according to Yasui, it’s about more than just the environment or money. It boils down to “machi-zukuri,” or creating and supporting the community.
“I was born and raised in this neighborhood. I live here. This is where I do business. It is about looking after our neighborhood ourselves.”
Yasui and crew have set up two “ecostations” near his supermarket in the shadow of Waseda University’s main campus. Here, locals can recycle raw garbage, steel and aluminum cans, PET (polyethylene terephthalate) bottles and cardboard.
All are win-win propositions for local businesses and consumers, Yasui said.
“The raw garbage mileage” program, as Yasui is fond of calling the composting initiative, “has been a big hit.”
Under the system, locals bring kitchen scraps to an ecostation, enter their phone number, record the weight of their garbage, and dump it.
“Once they contribute 100 kg (of raw garbage), they get a free bag of organic vegetables,” Yasui said.
The produce comes from farmers in Annaka, Gunma Prefecture, where the waste is sent after being broken down into fertilizer.
Likewise, there is an incentive for consumers to haul used cans and PET bottles to the other ecostation nearby.
Yasui demonstrates the procedure, opening the slot on one of two vending machine-size recyclers and putting a plastic bottle inside. Slamming the door shut, a video-gamelike display jumps into action, with a pitcher winding up and letting it rip.
If the batter homers, the machine dispenses coupons for items like a free side order at a local Chinese restaurant.
If the batter flies out, then at least the container gets recycled.
Yasui does not pretend that it was altruism or an environmental mission that led him to promote recycling.
“Originally, with the festival (in August 1996), we just wanted to do something that would make us look smart, that would get us praise and get Waseda University to lend us use of its campus,” he said with disarming frankness.
Local retailers were looking for something to help them weather the drought when students — 30,000 of the district’s 52,000 residents — flee during the summer vacation. During this period, consumption drops off so much that some restaurants temporarily shut down, Yasui said.
The retailers mulled the usual array of schemes to spice up local life and boost profits — everything from a samba carnival and a summer sales event — to coincide with the annual Tanabata Festival.
“But we wanted to do something different,” he said.
So the local retailer association latched onto the environment buzzword and decided to hold a festival emphasizing waste reduction.
“The festival taught us that if you properly sort stuff when you throw it away, then you can reuse most of it,” he said, adding that all but 10 percent of waste from the event was recycled.
It also changed the views of store owners who traditionally offer knee-jerk resistance to waste reduction schemes because of fears that they lower consumption and boost waste collection fees, Yasui said.
“Shops have seen that if you separate garbage and don’t throw it away, it doesn’t require as much money,” Yasui said. “It is the recycling-oriented society everyone is talking about, so everyone praised us.”
The project, ballooning into something beyond merely scoring brownie points, has spurred 55 retailer associations around the nation to set up similar recycling receptacles, where participants can play video games for ticket prizes, Yasui said.
As a result, the Waseda area has even become a destination for rural junior high and high school students that come to Tokyo on field trips, Yasui said, adding that “sometimes they stop by after Disneyland.”
Since publishing “Super Oyaji no Tsukai Machi-zukuri” (“Super Oldtimer’s Thrilling Efforts at City Revitalization”), a book detailing his experiences, Yasui has gained so much attention that he is constantly traveling the country to discuss and promote schemes to strengthen local communities.
“Right now we are awash in material prosperity. Japan has become the second-wealthiest country in the world,” he said. “But it does not mean everybody is happy. Why do 30,000 people kill themselves each year?
“We thought we had become wealthy, but we haven’t. We are coming to a turning point in this country now that is about rethinking things in your own hometown. It is about putting people first.”
To see that this philosophy is working in Waseda, he points to the nearest elementary school, where enrollment has jumped to 448 students in 2002 from 319 in 1999.
“This means that the number of residents is rising, which means people feel comfortable and safe living here.
“You can have as many high-end supermarkets as you want, but that won’t boost school enrollment. It takes something more,” Yasui said.
Apparently Yasui and Waseda’s neighborhood shops have found that something.
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