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It has been replaced by the convenience of throwaway and buy new consumerism of the 100 yen shops and combinis and an excessive cleanliness and superficiality that leads to triple and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 waste with 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.”