Shibuya loaner-umbrella campaign aims to aid community, environment

by Setsuko Kamiya

Cheap and readily discarded clear plastic umbrellas are just the thing when you’re caught off guard by a shower.

But the same qualities that make them so handy in a pinch are why they often end up, after the shortest of lifetimes, on the trash heap, adding to the mountains of petrochemical garbage blighting the environment.

Taking advantage of a “community currency” system already in place in Shibuya Ward, a group of university students in Tokyo has started a project to reuse discarded plastic umbrellas.

The system behind “shibukasa” — a portmanteau word combining Shibuya and “kasa” (umbrella) — is simple. When one returns a shibukasa — which can be identified by a sky-blue umbrella logo — to a cafe or other store that keeps them, the borrower will receive Earth Day Money, which is accepted at some establishments in the ward.

By incorporating umbrellas in this system, the students hope their project will not only raise awareness of recycling but also bring the community closer together.

“We want shibukasa to help people (who don’t have an umbrella) when it suddenly rains,” said Hiroki Suehara, 21, a student at Aoyama Gakuin University and head of Symbol of Life, the student group that began the project last month.

The Earth Day Money system is run by the nonprofit organization Earth Day Money Association. The currency, which can be obtained through volunteer services, is good at more than 70 member eateries and shops mainly in Shibuya Ward. It can be used for partial payment of items or redeemed for desserts, herbal teas and the like. Community currency has been circulating in Shibuya since 2001.

“Using a shibukasa and bringing it back so that other people can use it is considered both an environmentally friendly activity and a deed of helping others,” said Suehara, explaining why the project was well received by the Earth Day Money Association.

One rainy day a few months back SOL member Kazuo Ikari spotted people standing in a long line at his train station in Setagaya Ward waiting to buy plastic umbrellas at a convenience store. While he waited for the sky to clear, Ikari, a 22-year-old student at Aoyama Gakuin, said he started thinking of establishing a system that would meet people’s need for umbrellas while also contributing to society.

Ikari, Suehara and 11 other SOL members who are studying social entrepreneurship took an interest in the project and began discussing its feasibility. They found that there were already several rental umbrella systems in place but that most were failing because people hardly ever returned the loaners.

Seeking a good way to encourage users to return the umbrellas, they landed on the idea of participating in the Earth Day Money currency system. The idea struck a chord with the Earth Day Money Association, and the students were accepted.

Initially the group asked friends to donate unused umbrellas. Then they went convenience stores and restaurants. To their surprise, the businesses happily provided them with several plastic umbrellas abandoned by their owners.

When it rains, it pours. More umbrellas are lost than any other item in Tokyo. Last year, some 427,000 were turned in to the Metropolitan Police Department, accounting for 20 percent of all lost items. Yet only 0.3 percent were claimed by their owners — leaving behind many for SOL to choose from.

The lost umbrellas are held for three months. According to Suehara, Shibuya police told the group some businesses buy the best secondhand umbrellas to resell, but the plastic ones are thrown out.

So far, six cafes and shops, including the Global Environment Information Centre and the chic Aoyama Book Center, have agreed to keep shibukasa, and the students are trying to drum up more interest.

Convenient as their umbrellas may be, SOL members acknowledge that factors both behavioral and meteorological may prevent Shibuya from ever getting a grip on shibukasa. For one, when it rains in the morning, people typically tote their own umbrellas. And Tokyo hasn’t experienced a sudden downpour since the project began.

Nonetheless, the students maintain a sunny optimism, insisting that come rain or shine their efforts will connect people in Shibuya and improve the community.

For all Shibuya’s cosmopolitan charm, people are often wrapped up in their own world — often to the point of rudeness, Ikari said. It is a problem he hopes SOL can address.

“Once shibukasa start circulating, it may trigger those folks to think more about others, and that could lure some of them into volunteer activities or raise concerns about the environment, making Shibuya a better place.”