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Talking trash: The sport of collecting as much waste as possible

by Philip Brasor

Contributing Writer

Thanks to Netflix, many are familiar with Japanese clutter-buster Marie Kondo and her soothing remedies for the melancholy brought on by conspicuous consumption. Kondo is already a superstar in Japan, where closet sizes barely keep up with snowballing affluence, but she wasn’t the first in her field, nor necessarily the most influential. She reportedly now lives in Southern California but occasionally comes back to Japan to oversee her publishing and mentoring empire. A few weeks ago, NHK took advantage of KonMari mania with a show about the ecstasy of organizing, but mainly had to settle for her local acolytes.

As is often the case, NHK is behind the curve because domestic media organizations have already moved on to the next stage in personal space care, which is what to do with all the junk produced when you rid your life of things that no longer spark joy. Supposedly, the KonMari boom in America has done wonderful things for second-hand book and clothing stores, but less great things for the environment.

Given Japan’s limited space, refuse is a more compelling concern here, and I’m not just talking about gomi-yashiki (garbage houses), where trash accumulation is so severe that residents can barely move around. The issue there is mostly one of temperament, which is why TV shows about hoarding seem to be universal. However, excess trash is firstly a matter of excess consumption, a slippery slope for the authorities, who want people to buy things in order to keep the economy running. So the real challenge is taking charge of one’s garbage.

This challenge has been met with a sub-genre of recreational activity and entertainment that finds enjoyment in the management of trash. In January, the Asahi Shimbun ran a story about something called supo-gomi taikai, a “sport” where teams compete to collect as much litter as possible.

The article focused on one such meet held in Wakayama Prefecture in December. Around 70 participants ranging in age from 6 to 78 were divided into teams of between three and five persons. Everyone started at the same point in a public park, and when signaled to begin they started collecting trash within a 1-kilometer radius of that point. When a player found a piece of trash they called out their discovery, which was not limited by size. In fact, smaller items are often valued more because points are rewarded not just for the weight of the garbage collected, but the type as well, the idea being that certain items, such as cigarette butts, have a higher priority. So just because a team ends up with the most volume of trash at the end of the allotted time, it doesn’t mean they will win.

The man who came up with the sport, Kenichi Mamitsuka, told the Asahi Shimbun that whenever he went out for his daily run he would often pick up litter and, in order to make the activity more fun, he tried to collect as much trash as possible without extending his exercise time. He then realized that such a challenge might be appealing to young people, who usually don’t pick up trash. He set up an organization to promote litter collection as a sport, and so far has overseen 639 events nationwide and abroad comprising about 76,000 participants. One research institute reported that the sport has demonstrably improved environmental awareness among children who take part. They can directly see the benefits of such activities, even more so than turning out the lights to save electricity.

The entertainment sector wasn’t going to ignore such a phenomenon. TV Tokyo, which never met a theme it couldn’t exploit on the cheap, aired a special program in March featuring boy band Da Pump in competition with a civic volunteer group in a bid to clean up a section of Tokyo Bay near Yokohama. The competition was a convenient excuse. The real purpose was to reveal the kinds of things people throw away so irresponsibly and, if that purpose was to shock, the show was successful. A team of scuba divers dredged up appliances, cellphones, a bullet casing and a bus-stop pole. When they found a woman’s wallet complete with credit cards and a driver’s license, they brought it to the police, assuming it had been stolen and tossed in the sea after the cash was removed.

However, those finds were almost trivial compared to the amount of common garbage they collected, the bulk of which was made up of PET bottles and other plastics, thus leading to a mini-report on the scourge of illegal dumping, which amounts to 16 million tons nationwide every year. Part of the problem, according to TV Tokyo, is that legal landfill sites charge money and have strict rules. The program’s guests managed to track down one illegal dumper in Mie Prefecture and show him how to dispose of his garbage properly.

There is one comedian, in fact, who has managed to boost his brand by moonlighting as a refuse collector. In his book “Kono Gomi wa Shushu Dekimasen” (“We Can’t Collect This Garbage”), Shuichi Takizawa says that when he became a father he realized his work with the comedy duo Machine Guns didn’t pay enough, so he got a job as a garbage man with his local government. While working he often tweeted about how much fun he was having, and other show business personalities would retweet his comments. He was more famous as a sanitation engineer than he was as a comedian.

However, the most successful example of turning refuse into entertainment is probably the YouTube channel for Katazuke Tonton, a cleaning service out of Aichi Prefecture that make videos of their jobs tidying up gomi-yashiki that are as sophisticated as any you will find on commercial TV. The channel’s videos are in fact much more edifying in that these workers are not only total professionals but more attuned to the psychology of hoarding than Marie Kondo is, since they actively do the work of decluttering people’s lives. When you’re this intimate with someone’s garbage, you can see into their soul.