On environmentalism in Japan

ON PRESENTATION AND RECYCLING ­— Eighteen individually wrapped senbei were placed in a nice box, wrapped in nice paper, in a nice paper bag. photo by Jeff Asai

One of the fascinating things about living in a foreign country is the apparent contradictions. For example, Japan is often seen as a high-tech country and in many aspects, it is. On one hand, the train system is amazing; fast, efficient and reliable. On the other hand, fax machines are still popular. I had a student who was so fast at typing with her mobile device that she wrote her entire graduation thesis on her smart phone. That, and because she can’t touch-type with a computer keyboard.

But after living in Japan for a longer period of time, you realize that they aren’t contradictions at all; they are often practical or logical evolutions coming from a different historical and cultural path than the U.S.

Environmentalism in Japan is similarly complicated. It isn’t simply that Japan is or isn’t “green”; in some ways it is, and in other ways, it isn’t.

Generally speaking, Japan has a deep connection with nature, which has its roots in Shintoism, where everything has a spirit. In my capacity as a Buddhist minister, I was once asked if it was necessary to perform a religious ceremony because a family was planning on cutting down a tree in their yard that had been there for several decades. (The short answer being no, it wasn’t necessary.) There are strict building codes in my village of Asuka, but also in other places such as Kyoto city, which restrict the height of buildings so that people can enjoy the view of the mountains.

But there are other aspects to environmentalism as well, such as recycling and reducing waste.

The calendar informs residents of what trash or recycling materials they may throw out each day of the week. photo by Jeff Asai

Recycling in Japan, like many other countries, is common, but more complicated than in America. Trash pick-up schedules and rules differ depending on the city, but in Asuka, we have burnable trash pick-up on Mondays and Thursdays, and the other days of the week are dedicated to PET bottles, aluminum cans, glass, cardboard/paper or non-combustibles. These don’t occur every week though, so one Tuesday might be for glass, but the next week it’ll be for aluminum cans. We have to check the trash calendar almost every day to see what materials we can throw out. Each recyclable has to be separated and the labels have to be taken off the bottles. Because of this, labels are made to easily separate from their containers, whereas when I buy goods imported from America, the labels are usually glued on to the can or bottle.

One downside Japanese culture has wrought on environmentalism is their concern with presentation. There is a clear delineation between clean and dirty. The outside, which is dirty, must be separated from the inside, which is clean. This is why Japanese people take their shoes off when they enter a house. I have an etiquette book that says one should also remove their coat, muffler and gloves before entering a house.

ON PRESENTATION AND RECYCLING ­— Eighteen individually wrapped senbei were placed in a nice box, wrapped in nice paper, in a nice paper bag. photo by Jeff Asai

As such, separating the outside and inside by wrapping souvenirs and presents is important. For example, for omiyage such as cookies, they will likely be wrapped individually. They will be placed in a box. The box will be wrapped. The wrapped box will be in a nice paper bag. And if conditions outside are bad, the paper bag will be placed inside a plastic bag that is discarded before presenting it to the recipient.

Even things like Oreo cookies or Pocky are often packaged by serving size. So in a box of Oreo cookies, there will be several packages of three (or sometimes six) cookies. They’re not all laying out on a tray for the taking. I remember an American friend here in Japan muttering while he ripped open package after package of cookies to put them on a plate. After all the packages were ripped apart, he gestured to the plastic graveyard laying around while exclaiming, “What a waste!” Although to be fair, packaging foods in serving sizes probably helps reduce consumption, as after eating one package of Oreos, one has to think twice before ripping open another one.

Money, besides in business transactions such as stores, is rarely handed out without first being put in an envelope. At the temple, people put money in an envelope, and then wrap the envelope lightly in a cloth or pouch used for such occasions. Once, someone apologized for handing me money without putting it in an envelope first. It was kind of funny, because she said in Japanese: “I’m sorry to give this to you naked,” which struck me as funny, both for referring to the money as ‘naked,’ and also for the ambiguity of the sentence, which can make it sound like an illicit dealing. I was pondering joking that as long as both she and I are clothed, it’s fine, but as she was a prim and proper lady in her sunset years, I didn’t want to offend her senses. Being a minister can make life a bit dull like that. But by the end of the month, we usually have a pile of ripped open envelopes, which, aside from a Japanese sense of propriety, is completely unnecessary.

Although there have been steps taken recently to reduce waste, such as encouraging people to bring their own bags instead of using one-use plastic bags, Japan is still a long way from realizing a waste-free society.

There are areas in which Japan is very eco-friendly and others which can use a bit more help. It’ll undoubtedly take a lot to undo hundreds of years of culture and etiquette in order to promote a greener society. But I am hopeful that the necessity of the situation will be a good impetus for change.

Jeff Asai, a Yonsei who grew up attending the San Jose Betsuin Buddhist Church, writes from the town of Asuka, Nara Prefecture, where he serves as an assistant minister at a Jodo-shu temple, Jokokuji, teaches English and lives with his wife Yae Hosokawa with their children Madoka and Yui. He can be reached via e-mail at jeffasai@gmail.com. The views expressed in the preceding column are not necessarily those of the Nichi Bei News.

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