You may not be old enough to remember, but there was a time when the air in Tokyo was so polluted that there were oxygen vending machines in the streetcorners. Japan was drowning in household garbage, since the small islands have limited space for landfill - in particular landfill that pollutes by runoff into the groundwater, smells and attracts noxious birds. The traffic was so bad that it could take several hours to get from one part of the city center to another. And all those cars would create even more pollution.
Today, Japan is well on its way to meet the Paris targets for carbon dioxide pollution, and the country could become a fossil-free economy if the governement worked a little harder on it. All households recycle plastics, glass, and metal, and household garbage incineration generates hot water and electricity. Most people take the train or subway when they want to go somewhere.
The air is clean and breathable, except when there is a dust storm from China or the Japanese cedars are flowering. There are so many of them in the mountains surrounding Tokyo that the pollen becomes like a dust cloud. But in winter, you can see mt Fuji from almost anywhere in Tokyo.
Quiet and poop-free
.But even though Tokyo is one of the biggest cities in the world, it is also one of the cleanest. Even though dogs outnumber children (by some counts two to one or more), it is rare to see dog poo anywhere outside the dog exercise compounds in the parks, and even there the owners pick it up. There is hardly any grafitti (it is considered a crime, although sometimes the grafitti remains for months in unmonitored places). There is only occasional littering, even though there are no public wastebaskets.
And it is quiet. Noise is a kind of pollution but you do not have to go far from the main streets of any neighborhood in Tokyo at night for it to be as quiet as a boreal forest, the occasional cyclist.
The main reason that Tokyo is such an ecologically successful city despite its size rests on two things: strict regulations and an eco-conscious population. And this is also how you notice the eco-consciousness as a visitor.
The most noticeable thing is the lack of public wastepaper baskets. You have to carry your garbage with you either until you get "home" or until you come to one of the few places with wastepaper baskets. There are public wastepaper baskets in some parks, in the train and subway stations, and in some convenience stores.
Triple wastepaper baskets
There used to be wastepaper baskets outside all convenience stores, where you could throw away the packaging of the things you just bought, or the bento trays after eating. But in many places they have moved them inside the stores, because people threw away their household trash. In Japan, garbage is collected on alternate days, so you have to keep your trash at home until the pickup day comes.
That does not apply to diapers (or nappies) which are not recyclable no matter what you do with them. There are usually plastic bags and wastepaper baskets in the changing rooms, but not always. That is why you need to carry a few plastic bags of your own, so you can put your trash there and tie it shut when you are done with the change. Even if it is tempting you should not throw it away in the convenience store or train station wastebaskets. Especially not in summer. You can imagine yourself what it will smell like.
There will usually be at least three wastepaper baskets in a row, which are used for sorting garbage. All garbage in Japan is sorted in at least burnable and plastics. In addition the PET bottles and cans are sorted separately, and often glass bottles as well. The train station wastebaskets usually have a separate wastepaper basket for newspapers and magazines, especially the incredibly popular manga comic books that people read on the train. Those are often fished out by people who resell them from streetcorner stalls for 100 yen or less.
Use it till it breaks
Japan has a long tradition of re-use and resource stewardship. To mend things and use them until they have broken so badly that they can not be used anymore is common, but so is throwing away things that are no longer wanted. But the perception of what is old and what is broken is not necessarily the same as yours. At times, things that may be considered completely new are thrown away. Often they end up in the recycling stores, if they can be reused.
Mottainai means no waste
It begins at home, where children are told that the "mottainaimonster" will come if they waste water, or heat, or cold, or other things. "Mottainai" translates as "wasteful" and is very negative when it comes to household economy, although it does not really apply on the macro plane (to things like bridges to nowhere and airports on uninhabited islands). But not wasting is a virtue in Japan, although it is always subsumed by the goals of the activity. If you have a goal to achieve a certain amount of waste is allowed, and if the goal is to entertain, expected.
Not wasting, including time
Not wasting means not wasting time as well, which is one reason trains always run on time. To consider your neighbor and their resources is the oil that makes the gears of the Japanese society revolve and makes sure that things do not come to a screeching stop. That includes time. To waste the time of other people is frowned upon, so as a tourist you will be appreciated if you make your questions easy to answer and if you do not ramble along but come to the point quickly. While people will take a long time to become visibly frustrated, they will be seething inside that you are taking advantage of their kindness and wasting their time.
This was one part of my ongoing series about daily life in Tokyo. I have written about how you buy diapers as a parent, how and where to buy other baby supplies, how to get around in Tokyo taking the train, how to use a laundromat in Japan, how you can get your tax back when you go shopping, and what foods in Japanese supermarkets your kids will love. And answers to 20 common questions about traveling with children in Japan.
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I am Wisterian Watertree, recently moved from Bangkok to Tokyo, with a brief visit to Honolulu on the way. I write about travel, especially with our three beautiful kids (two girls and one boy, soon turning six - yes. they are triplets). Travel is education and fun rolled into one, and if you are like me, that is something you want to give to your kids. If you want more tips and want to find out when I will publish something, get it from my email list. If you want to be personal, drop me a note on email@example.com, or if you want general tips, follow me on Twitter @wisterianw.