House ownership in Japan doesn’t give you that feeling of security I imagine it gives, for example, Northern Europeans. The proverbial “Sword of Damocles” looms over us in so many ways. Ever since buying a house, I have come to truly understand just how uncertain it all is.
First there are the weeds; the ever creeping, green jungle that must be violently chopped back almost weekly during the hot and moist summer season, in a futile effort at stopping it swallowing up everything from houses and roads, to parks and fruit trees.
Then there is the mould and rust that will eat away at all your treasures, as soon as you take your eyes off them. No matter if they are kept inside your built shelter, tools and clothes not regularly oiled or aired will just begin to corrode or grow green hair.
And for a few weeks a year, usually just after rainy season finishes, there are extremely heavy and relentless rainfalls lasting several weeks, often causing whole hillsides to slide, the massive but shallow rooted cedars to topple, and rivers to break free from their confines. Usually these come together with tropical cyclone storms and 200 km/h wind gusts that threaten to carry away any poorly attached roofs.
To top it all off, Japan alone accounts for about 10% of all active volcanoes in the world and sits on a junction of 4 tectonic plates, making it also one of the countries most frequently affected by earthquakes in the world1.
Yes, even the ground itself cannot be relied upon here. Trembling with repressed anger, shivering with held back excitement and occasionally exploding in fits of unrestrained fury, the earth itself can rise up to flatten all that has been built upon it.
Of course this is reflected deeply in the culture. Housing is expected to last no more than 30 years and it’s design clearly demonstrates that there is no time to rest.
Open air vents underneath and huge eaves that swallow up any heat you produce during the chilly winters, it is often colder in the house than outside, while in the scorching summers the many tiny rooms and long corridors often feel hotter.
“You must get out”, the houses seem to be saying. Your futon bed is rolled away daily, it must be or the moisture trapped will make it mould and harden. There is always work to do. Nothing you have gained will keep here.
Even modern jobs, just like traditional farming work, require long hours. 10 and 12 hour days are nothing special, weekends are rarely free and holidays usually no more than a few days in the year.
There is even shame in telling people of taking time off and relaxing, enjoying yourself. No bragging about your great weekend. Better to say how hard you worked. Better to go and volunteer for another job in your spare time.
A local tradition here is for men wearing scary masks to come into family homes to frighten the children not to be lazy2. Don’t relax! Don’t take anything for granted.
And as I watched the recent earthquake lift up my house that I had just spent 3 years renovating, as if it was surfing a wave, I suddenly realised how deep this sense of impermanence must be to the Japanese. Suddenly, the love of Sakura made a lot more sense to me..
Many Japanese people would like to believe that the words 勿体無い mottai-nai – an expression of regret over wastefulness – are part of what defines the national character.
Surely in the post-war era it was a widely-applied way of life, similar to the idea of “waste not, want not”, but times have changed a lot from the days when clothes were mended, tools were repaired and all parts of, for example, the rice plant were used in numerous ingenious ways.
The words mottai-nai are still in everyday use, including as a self-effacing expression of unworthiness of someone’s kindness or affection, but that culture of not wasting anything hardly exists now, except for maybe telling kids to finish every last rice grain in their bowl.
It has been replaced by the convenience of throwaway and buy new consumerism of the 100 yen shops and combinis and an excessive cleanliness and superficiality that leads to triple and quadruple packaged and wrapped food products.
The Japanese way of life today certainly produces a lot of trash and while Japanese fans abroad made headlines for cleaning up after themselves inside stadiums, their lifestyle back home is probably better summarised as “not my problem” than the famous mottai-nai it maybe once was.
Living near the beach, this “not my problem” approach can be witnessed daily during the summer swimming season. The trash of a long day at the beach, from lunch-boxes to cheaply made tents, sun umbrellas and even swimming trunks, is often simply left behind or rather unceremoniously thrown out the car window around the next corner.
Many foreign visitors to the area note with surprise that there is a lot of rubbish along the roads, seafronts and in the forests, if you ever venture away from the areas specifically prepared for tourists to see. And that is not even mentioning the state of many people’s houses, abandoned or not, and sheds, garages, yards and fields.
Surprising as that may seem, it all starts to make some sense when you realise that in most places, as at our official swimming beach of Noto Town, where there are free toilets, showers and even lifeguards on duty, there is not a single rubbish bin or trash can provided for the many visitors. None whatsoever, along the whole beach.
And no bin-men or cleaning crew come to pick up any rubbish either. It is down to local volunteers to go and clean up, but if you do, you also have to pay to dispose of the trash you collected as part of your personal waste.
Only once a year, on the volunteer cleanup day just before the start of the summer seasons, when we make everything look nice and pleasant for the soon to be arriving tourists, the town generously collects the rubbish for free. Every other time, you picked it up, well now it’s your problem.
Officially, the idea is actually that visitors should keep all the trash they amass over a typical camping weekend and then take it back to their homes and dispose of it carefully and correctly there.
Well, that sounds so simple on paper, but there are two key reasons why many choose not to do this.
One is that they may well have collected a lot of trash. Far from mottai-nai, everything in this country is so incredibly wastefully wrapped and packaged that a family spending a week camping and coming in a typically tiny kei-car (instead of a truck) may not actually be able to physically fit all the waste they amassed. Even one single family meal could easily produce a shopping bag full of leftover trash.
Number two is that once you, theoretically at least, have brought it all home, you certainly can’t just bring it to your local trash collection point and be done with it.. oh no, silly, silly you for thinking it could be that easy.
No, no, you must separate, but in an incredible confusing and unintuitive manner (that also differs for each town and prefecture). Here in Noto Town, for example, the “burnables” require a pink bag you must buy at local hardware shops, which can be put out on Mondays and Fridays.
The category “burnables” (left page) includes food waste and most plastics (and wood) bowls, trays, wrappers, etc. even diapers, but not plastic wellies or sandals, no, no, also no tape, no clothes, no rope and no slippers or belts (right page, top), these are not burnable, haha, how could you think that. They require a pink bag too, but must be put out on entirely separate days.
Now the category of “non-burnables” (right page, bottom) ranges from umbrellas, brooms and toasters to kitchen knives, frying pans and cameras, oh and radios. Those are ok to put out in green bags that also must be bought at hardware store and will be picked up once a month, but not stereo equipment, noo, this, together with bikes and furniture, must be driven by you to a special place called a “clean centre”.
Having helped an elderly neighbour once with bringing his old kitchen cupboards to a clean centre, I was amazed to find that things are not quite that simple once you get there either.
Firstly there is a hefty fee for the waste you leave behind, around €60 for the 4 cupboards we brought, but also, as the 4 young staff standing around at the clean centre helpfully informed us, they do not accept various bits of waste there either.
Such as the glass part of the kitchen cupboard doors, no, no. They can’t have those at their oh-so-clean centres. No, we were forced to break the glass out ourselves and take it back home with us. “Not my problem”, the clean centre said…
Well what do you do with the glass, you may ask? Well that can be thrown away in a green bag once a month, together with such random items as magnets, spray cans, make-up, normal lightbulbs and bottle caps, provided it is broken glass, otherwise you are to take it to a glass recycling place where you again pay to leave it.
The green bags you must use are so incredibly flimsy and entirely unsuitable for even the smallest handful of broken glass that they instantly rip to shreds when you try to fill them up. Nobody seemed to have troubled themselves with the actual practicalities of returning broken glass. Again, not my problem.
Just look at this helpfully illustrated guide. Bottles, separated by white, brown and other colours of course go into clear bags once every 2 weeks, while pet bottles and cans are also in clear bags but on completely separate days.
All of these must of course be cleanly rinsed or the bin-men may refuse to get their hands dirty and just leave your bags behind with a helpful yellow sticker, ticked in the appropriate section to inform you that it was not possible to take your rubbish because of one of several errors you may have committed.
Here in Noto we actually have a comparatively simple system. In some prefectures and towns you are required to separate waste into up to 30 different categories!
Now what do you do if your waste happens to not be pictured in the colourful guidebook provided? Well, then you can call the helpline and really get to see the Kafkaesque workings of the Japanese way of waste management in action.
Calling about such common local waste as broken roof tiles, which had been rejected with a yellow sticker on the broken ceramics day, caused widespread consternation and several staff members to be consulted, before it was eventually decided that they cannot be accepted by anyone, not even the local landfill.
They fall under building materials and therefore require you to hire a private construction company who would then have special access to disposing of said materials. They explained that if they allowed people to bring things like that, far too much would be brought; never mind that people actually have to pay to bring things there, and that it’s, well, kind of their job to deal with it…
So here we are, finally understanding why people have so much trash cluttering up their sheds and gardens and why exploring a little bit into the forest along a roadside will inevitable result in you finding yet another fly-tip.
The clean centres are beautifully clean and Japan has managed to reduce wastewith just one simple trick.
Simply refuse to accept people’s refuse.
Genius. You see, if the clean centre and landfill doesn’t accept it, it doesn’t show up in the records and that, my friends, means waste has been reduced that year. In the true Japanese way of just not taking any responsibility, the problem is solved.
Looks great on paper. Politicians and officials get to congratulate themselves and journalists can write glowing fluff pieces about how Japan is heading towards Zero Waste and some towns are inspiringly almost “waste-free”.
In reality, Japan ranks terrible in the international comparison, with only 20% of the (accepted) waste being actually recycled. The rest ends in the incinerator or landfill, and no, generating some electricity from burning your plastics is not actual recycling, nice try Japan.
Carefully cleaned and separated, the whole burden and cost of waste management is simply placed on the citizens, who are also charged for delivering the somewhat valuable resources, such as aluminium and scrap metal, carefully separated paper, cardboard, or cleaned pet bottles and plastic trays, to their specific collection centres.
In truth, with the system so incredibly complicated, the responsible town hall department so completely unhelpful and the bin-men so happy to refuse to pick up whole bin bags for as little as a single bottle cap wrongly included, a large part of the ageing population is simply overwhelmed, leading to them throwing their waste into the forest and sea and burning it on their fields.
Or simply not dealing with it at all and instead just piling their waste into some backroom or shed, if not right in front of their houses. Who can blame them, especially when we consider that they are often physically unable to bring their heavy old appliances and furniture to the local clean centre, where it may yet be rejected anyway.
The vast majority of abandoned houses are never taken down because of the huge costs involved in doing so, which only adds to the somewhat rundown feel of the local area.
When we moved into our house, it was of course filled with years of accumulated waste. While the plastic was somewhat manageable, the broken fridges and tons of plates and mouldy futons (it used to be a guest house) where not. So we asked a friend for help who happened to be the head of our town’s waste department at the time.
His solution was to one day turn up in a big truck, load everything up and drive it to an abandoned clean centre – yep, the town just leaves those standing to slowly decay as well – for which he had the key. We then dumped everything there and drove off before anyone saw us.
Another friend, employed by one of the biggest local businesses, told us that the company he works for had started making their own landfill. As land is cheap and waste removal is expensive, they just instructed their staff to dig a big hole.
As staff and neighbours started to use this opportunity and began throwing in their own “undumpables”, a complaint was made to the police, who refused to challenge the big company on it’s practices and instead just forced the staff and neighbours to take their personal waste back home again.
Mottai-nai is impossible in modern Japanese culture. Planned obsolescence is designed into products everywhere, so your car or washing machine simple cannot last or be repaired, but in this country even houses are built to only last around 30 years, so it feels even more hopeless.
In addition to the millions of 100 yen shops pumping tons of made to break trash products into society, the insane food wrapping culture really takes it to another level. A simple rusk (i.e. dry bread) biscuit is considered fancy enough to be individually wrapped and then put inside a plastic tray that is again wrapped in a plastic sleeve.
And cashiers will routinely place every fresh fish or meat products, already on a plastic tray wrapped several times in cellophane, into yet another plastic bag (for fear of it leaking) and look at you perplexed and in total confusion when you ask them not to.
Sadly, the nature paradise that I keep hoping Noto might become feels like it is drifting further and further out of reach each day, largely due to the realities of a waste management system that seems to only be concerned with economic benefits, while considering all the dirty work “not my problem.”
Ah, the Noto peninsula…When I am feeling nice, I describe it as the heart of Japan, as it roughly sits in the middle of Japan’s northern and southernmost points, but on other days I think of it as Japan’s most central dead-end.
A place where the only local cash machine that accepts Visa shuts on Sundays, Bank Holidays and Saturdays after 3pm, while the abundant rice polishing machine stations are all open 24 hours a day. The priorities are different here, and I love it!
In May 2021, about 2 months after an approx. €230,000 squid statue was erected next to the road station in Tsukumo Bay, about a kilometer from my house, something very strange happened…
Newspapers across the world all published an identically worded Reuters article on Noto’s newest attraction; right down to the final conclusion of one anonymous Twitter user that, “No matter how you look at it, this is wrong.” I read at least 7 different articles that friends forwarded to me, most of them identical, word for word, and all unanimous in their criticism of the giant squid statue.
While I cannot explain how so many different news outlets would publish such identical opinion pieces on Noto’s newest attraction, I can explain why I see the matter somewhat differently.
For the last 15 years I have lived on the peninsula, about 15 minutes walking distance from the squid statue. In this time I have seen a lot of public funds wasted in what, to me at least, can only be described as either incompetence or corruption.
From building tens of kilometres of roads that no one uses – I have heard estimates of the cost of a new road in our area is around €8m per km – to a concert hall with acoustics so bad that no one wants to perform there, a lot of our public funds have been wasted.
Ushitsu has also recently built a new town hall, replacing a perfectly decent old one, in order for our local politicians to move around 50 meters further inland. It was done because of a supposed Tsunami risk that they were all concerned about after the Fukushima disaster in 2011. Never mind the hundred or so residential houses that are closer to the sea than our new town hall… a better sea defence might have been a more reasonable investment, if there is in fact a genuine risk of a tsunami in our quiet inland facing peninsula bay.
“No matter how you look at it…”, there certainly has been a lot of missed opportunities in the struggle to attract visitors to the local area.
For me, the biggest mistake of all was probably the closing of the Noto Railway, a total of 61 kilometres of train track that connected 30 stations along the peninsula coastline down to Anamizu town, from where faster trains run to Nanao, Kanazawa City and the rest of Japan.
Ignoring the fact that there are thousands of train enthusiasts around the world that would have loved traveling on the big-windowed carriages that passed countless beautiful coastal views and stopped at the Sakura covered stations in the middle of idyllic Japanese villages, it was also a waste of a hugely valuable existing infrastructure.
The rail tracks, stations, bridges and tunnels that used to give the mostly elderly population of Noto a comfortable and affordable connection to neighbouring towns, supermarkets and the rest of the country are now adding to the general feel of decay and abandonment that this area is really struggling with.
The train line was shut on April 1st, 2005, like some bad April Fool’s joke, and replaced with an overpriced bus service that is slower, far less scenic and frankly unpopular, even with the locals, let alone overseas visitors.
There has been a lot of mismanagement in the Noto area. Promoting the area as an Eco paradise, a nature reserve of traditional farming and fishing, full of delicacies from the clean forest, fields and sea would certainly have been more of a longterm attraction for tourists than continuously adding to the existing road network, as if that was the reason people didn’t choose to come here.
The one recent investment that has been a relative success is the road station in Tsukumo Bay, the Tsuku-Mall. It sells the locally fished squid in its restaurant, organises boat tours and exclusively offers products made by local businesses in its popular shop.
Using the Corona Relief Funds for local businesses to build a cool, photogenic and thankfully not cutesy squid statue right next to the already popular road station was, in my opinion, actually a really good idea.
The tourism from within Japan has picked up significantly, and all that at a cost of around 40 meters of local road, so why is it being so heavily criticised by so many different news outlets around the world?
Of course the readers enjoy articles about the weird and unusual from around the world, coupled with pictures of an impressive squid statue, it obviously makes for a better article than an analysis of Noto’s history of public spending, but why the united criticism of it?
The article never bothers to explains why it was “wrong”, it just makes a big deal out of the price, as if that number doesn’t pale into insignificance when compared to the cost of, for example, an unnecessary new town hall.
The fact that supposedly reputable newspapers all printed such a poorly researched article that hilariously cites “a twitter user” instead of a single local resident or representative is a rather worrying indicator of the state of journalism today.
Sadly it seems to be just another example of news around the world straying further and further from its duty of objectivity into opinion-based content designed to evoke specific emotional responses.
Many readers won’t even notice that they were actually given very little factual information on the topic and instead mostly told how they’re supposed to feel about it.
Ironically, the articles actually prove how good this giant squid statue is at drawing attention and making people aware of the existence of the Noto peninsula, but someone really needs to tell all of the misinformed readers that the squid statue was probably Noto’s least wasteful use of public funds in the last 15 years…