While there are certainly some similarities between the two highly developed nations, there are also major infrastructure differences between Japan and the United States. As we have talked about in class and observed throughout the trip, these differences are often a product of deeper cultural nuances. Because of these cultural differences, Japan and the United States vary in their practices and overall attitudes toward municipal solid waste (MSW) disposal.
Solar panels built over at landfill at Kansai Electric Power Company
A major factor that has influenced the handling of MSW disposal between the two cultures is the geography of each nation. Due to Japan’s relatively small size and mountainous terrain, there is very little flat and usable land available. Of the 12% that is viable for development, it is nearly all designated for residential and agricultural purposes due to Japan’s high population density. Accordingly, there is very little space for landfills, making incineration an even more appealing alternative. Furthermore, landfilled terrain sinks overtime and therefore can’t be built upon, while incineration byproducts can be used to create new islands. This is not the case in the United States, however; there is plenty of sparsely populated land that can house landfills, so much so that there is even a market for interspersing waste between states. On our field trip, we got to visit Kansai Electric Power (KEPCO) and tour a landfill that they had repurposed to produce solar energy with a layer of photovoltaic cells. While primarily an experimental project, the idea shows Japan’s commitment to making the most of their scarce habitable land.
Pristine pond at a very old property in Shodoshima
Another aspect influencing each country’s MSW disposal processes is the feeling of cultural ties toward the land and a respect for the nation’s natural resources, or the lack thereof. Japanese culture has existed and evolved for thousands of years, while the US has had only a few hundred years to begin developing the foundations of a cultural identity. Consequently, US citizens are more detached from their roots and cannot possibly experience the same connection to their countries’ resources and history than the Japanese can. American culture promotes a “rugged individual” mentality in which people are encouraged to act in their own self-interest rather than in the interest of society. In the context of MSW disposal, this sentiment translates into Americans wanting cheap and convenient waste technology that is far from them or their homes. The Japanese, on the other hand, consider the implications for the overall group and are conscious of the future when making development choices. The Japanese word “mottainai” is an environmentally minded sentiment meaning “treasuring and reusing things as long as possible.” This idea pervades in society and influences their government and industry attitudes toward waste management.
Trash collection system at Hiroshima festival
One interesting example of the Japanese attitude toward waste disposal that I observed was at the Kimono festival in Hiroshima. There were tens of thousands of people in the streets, purchasing food items from street vendors, which caused an overflow in the already strained and limited garbage cans. At the center of major intersections, they had large disposal containers set up with employees stationed in front. You’d hand them your garbage or recycling, and in exchange, they gave you a cute plastic wrapped (ironically) napkin with the festival logo on it. This system was literally rewarding people for properly disposing of their trash and seemed very unlike anything you’d encounter in America.
Percentage of landfilling materials reported by the US EPA in 2015
Ultimately, each country’s waste management system is influenced by its efficiency, convenience, and the culture of the people it serves. Japan’s geography and cultural identity has helped shape its MSW disposal program into an effective and relatively sustainable system. If we want to improve our waste management practices in the United States, we will likely need a cultural shift to spark a trend toward reducing waste production and developing landfill alternatives.
One very obvious societal difference between Japan and the United States is each country’s unique waste management system. It is clear that both nations differ not only in garbage disposal practices, but also in their attitudes towards waste generation itself. After spending the past month in various cities across Japan, I’ve experienced the Japanese methods firsthand and recently got the opportunity to learn more thoroughly about their origins in lecture.
Forbes graphic showing the contrast in per capita waste generation between the US and Japan
Municipal solid waste (MSW) is defined by the EPA as trash from consumers including plastic, food waste, furniture, and most other non-toxic public waste. The MSW collection processes are relatively similar between the two countries, with both depending heavily on collection and transport vehicles. It is the fate of the waste once it has been picked up that is most stark difference. Japan incinerates their MSW before transporting the remnants to sanitary landfills, while the United States primarily exports its waste directly landfills and dumping sites. Japan operates over 1,200 incineration sites, while the US has less than 70. Instead, the US relies on landfills to dispose of hundreds of millions of tons of MSW each year. Food and plastics accounted for about 41% of these landfilled materials in 2015, while the Japanese combust opt to similar food waste and recycle many of the same high-grade plastics.
Waste bins at the train station separated by combustibles, papers, and plastics
Moreover, Japan has a much more stringent MSW preparation process prior to transport than that of the US. Recycling and combustibles are sorted with intense guidelines and must be disposed of at specific locations at fixed times. For example, our dorm room has three different types of MSW disposal, each with a special type of bag and strict pickup hours. The United States, on the other hand, is much more lenient with waste collection rules. Trash is not separated prior to collection and larger items can be left on the curb for pickup. Recycling practices are often times poorly explained, which can result in batches of municipal recycling becoming contaminated and sent to the landfill along with the rest of the household waste. For these reasons, Japan’s MSW management practices are more efficient and resourceful than the United States’.
Trash just before pickup outside a Tokyo restaurant separated by cardboards, plastics, and food waste
Another very pronounced difference between the two nation’s waste management systems is the availability of public trashcans and recycling containers. The US has accessible trashcans in nearly all public spaces and a growing number of community recycling bins. In Japan, however, public waste and recycling receptacles are extremely hard to locate. There are usually PET plastic and aluminum recycling bins stationed by vending machines or tiny trashcans outside food stalls, but their scarcity often times leads to people carrying their garbage with them until they return home.
Landfill we visited that has been repurposed for solar energy generation
Because the Japanese are required to separate their garbage and recycling prior to disposal, they are forced to be more aware of the waste they produce each day. Maintaining this consciousness encourages people to generate less waste, both for convenience sake and for environmental reasons. In the United States, the ease of MSW disposal creates an “out of sight, out of mind” mentality. The ability to constantly discard food or consumer waste removes any feeling of personal accountability. The EPA reports that the per capita MSW generation in the US was about 4.48 pounds per person (closer to 6 pounds in Georgia), while the average Japanese citizen produces closer to 2 pounds daily. Perhaps if the US could alter their MSW disposal practices to mirror the Japanese and promote public consciousness, we could see a decrease in waste generation and consequent increase in the sustainability of our waste infrastructure.
Although Japan is known for having an extremely homogenous population with an ancient and relatively rigid culture, there are a few noticeable differences in the traditions and lifestyles practiced in its major megaregions. After growing accustomed to many of the social norms and etiquette in Tokyo, I have been surprised by some conflicting experiences so far in Kobe. As we learned in class, there is a certain rivalry and tension that exists between the Greater Tokyo (Kanto) region and the Keihanshin (Kansai) region. While definitely expressed, these discrepancies aren’t too drastic or divisive for the most part. When compared to regionalism in the United States, there are several parallels and a few minor differences.
Outer Kobe near Mega Don Quijote
One of the major differences I have observed between the Greater Tokyo and Keihanshin regions is expressed through person-to-person interaction. In Tokyo, many people were proficient English speakers and therefore were relatively open to assisting foreigners; waiters worked hard to help us as we ordered dinner, people stopped to help us navigate the subways, and storeowners were welcoming and excited as we browsed their shops. In the Keihanshin region, however, I have noticed a greater communication barrier and much colder reception of foreigners. In an Osaka restaurant yesterday, the waitresses didn’t understand anything we were trying to communicate but yet made no effort to do so, making us feel very uncomfortable and out of place. Despite this, the people of the Kansai region tend to give off a warmer and friendlier vibe amongst themselves than those in the Kanto region.
Norms on walkways and escalators by region, Source: CNN
Another marked cultural difference between Keihanshin and Greater Tokyo can be observed through social customs. As we learned in class, common greetings and dialects differ between the two areas. For example, to express gratitude in Tokyo, you’d say “arigato,” while in Keihanshin, the common expression is “ookini.” Moreover, people tend to stay to the left on sidewalks and escalators in the Kanto region, while often times people choose the right side in the Keihanshin region. While significant enough to be perceived by a foreigner, these disparities seem to be slight variations of an overall cohesive culture.
Train platform in Hyogo prefecture
Another difference between the two regions is infrastructure and demographics of their major cities. The greater Tokyo region depends upon the clean, efficient rail system of JR East, while Keihanshin is supported by JR West, which is a little less accessible and relies more heavily upon buses. From my experiences so far, it seems Keihanshin is generally more habitable than the Greater Tokyo region. Tokyo’s population is significantly bolstered by workers commuting in and out of the city each day and its surrounding areas are inhabited by wealthier families. Keihanshin, on the other hand, is more spread out and has smaller outlying suburbs that more people are able to afford. In Tokyo, I only ever saw one homeless person on the streets, while in Keihanshin I have already seen several within a week of being here. Additionally, there appears to be many more foreigners in Keihanshin than in the Greater Tokyo region.
When compared to regionalism in the United States, there are many similarities and a handful of key differences. Two example US megaregions to compare are the Northwest Cascadia megaregion and the Southeastern Charlanta megaregion. These two parts of the country differ in political beliefs, sports followings, popular food, and degree of “hospitality.” Many of these regional discrepancies are similar to the nuances between the culture of the two Japanese megaregions. However, the US megaregions share several comprehensive traits. Both have advanced technology, high GDP, and are home to prominent company headquarters. In the Japanese megaregions, however, it seems that Tokyo attracts a disproportionate amount of business, giving it a higher household income and better transportation infrastructure. Ultimately, the similarities in US and Japanese regionalism seem to share the common origin of millions of people condensed into smaller areas and developing a cohesive culture. It is more difficult to identify the cause of the differences between US and Japanese regionalism, but perhaps Japanese culture plays a large role.
Over the course of our stay in Tokyo and exploring during the travel leg, I have experienced several information and community technologies (ICTs) that show Japan’s commitment to cultivating smart cities. These innovations not only promote sustainability, but also improve the everday lives of Japanese citizens by increasing accessibility and limiting the waste of resources. Some of these technologies exist in the United States, but many are still unique to Japan. However, there are some areas where the Japanese have not yet introduced smart technologies that could aid in their mission for sustainable development.
Shinkansen at the platform
One major part of Japan’s organizational structure in which it has implemented smart technologies is within its transportation system. As we have studied this summer, Japanese railways are extremely efficient and are able to move people in and between major cities. The Tokyo Metro has an expansive network of 13 lines that makes it possible for millions of people to travel around the entire city each day. Moreover, the Shinkansen bullet train is one of the fastest trains in the world and makes inland traveling much easier for many of the Japanese. In addition to the train infrastructure itself, the stations and auxiliary transit are constantly developing new technologies that make them more accessible and sustainable. JR East has created handicap-accessible Suica card readers as well as automatic detection systems that raises or lowers the roof of the station according to the number of people present. The buses that we take each day to Kobe University have push-to-stop buttons in order to eliminate unnecessary stoppage and improve traffic flow. These transportation innovations only scratch the surface of what Japan has done and will continue to do to provide intelligent public transit.
Fukushima solar farm
Source: Minoru Karamatsu
Japan has also introduced smart and sustainable energy sources. Japan currently supplies about 10% of its electricity from renewable energy technology and has pledged to increase that number by another 15% by 2030. They have installed solar panels in less inhabited regions, invested in wind turbines on the leeward sides of mountains, and have developed leading hydroelectricity technologies. In addition to generating cleaner energy sources, Japan has also implemented electricity-saving measures in its major cities. Many restaurants and hostels we have visited use motion-detecting lights or LED lightbulbs. Household appliances tend to run on a lower wattage, which in the case of our dryers has encouraged us to hang our clothes outside to dry each night. Japan’s commitment to developing energy efficient ICTs will both reduce their consumption of fossil fuels and limit their overall electricity demand.
Giken Eco-Park via Giken
Another way Japan has incorporated smart technologies with sustainable development is through their infrastructure. During our stay in Tokyo, we got to visit Giken, a construction company with the mission to “contribute to the world by creating original products and technologies that benefit society.” In addition to learning about their products and their environmentally-friendly press-in method for pile penetration, we got to take a tour and experience some of these technologies firsthand. They have installed “eco-park” garages that efficiently store vehicles in compact underground spaces. This system limits the amount of land being taken up by empty vehicles and promotes sustainable urban development. Similarly, they have an eco-cycle system that encourages bicycle usage by removing the eyesore of illegally parked bikes. This underground facility ensures safety and security while also saving land for other public use. Smart construction technologies will be crucial to the establishment of smart cities as they will use a more sustainable means to get to a sustainable end.
Food waste in Tokyo streets
Overall, Japan has invested in research and innovation to produce some of the world’s most groundbreaking ICTs, which has made them a world leader in smart cities development. However, there are some areas I have noticed that could use some improvement, particularly with waste management. While the Japanese have established an efficient plastic bottle recycling system, the other forms of waste disposal are lacking and unnecessary use of plastic packaging is common. Almost any fruit or vegetable in a convenience store or supermarket is wrapped in an extra layer of non-recyclable plastic, which ultimately ends up getting incinerated. Additionally, there are no easy options for paper recycling and composting does not seem to be a common practice. If Japan were to introduce these initiatives, they could simplify their waste management system and promote sustainable development by limiting unnecessary waste.
In just two weeks, I’ve had more pleasant public transit experiences in Japan than I’ve had over the course of my life in the United States. Effective transit is the vessel that drives all of Japan’s productivity and innovation. The type and frequency of transit systems differ slightly throughout the country in order to meet the needs of specific regions. In Tokyo, we relied heavily on the Tokyo Metro and its extensive network to get us around the city. During the travel leg, we have primarily been riding the Shinkansen bullet train to cover longer distances more quickly. We also purchased bus passes in Kyoto and used their bus system to explore opposite ends of the city. In Hiroshima, we even rode the electric streetcar a short distance to get to the Peace Park faster. While these forms of transportation certainly have differences, the key elements common to all of them are what make Japanese transit efficient and sustainable.
Hiroshima Electric Railway
Source: Wikimedia Commons
My experiences with the passengers on the Tokyo Metro and Shinkansen have been largely the same. Riders arrive to the platform early and line up, then quickly file on and off of the trains. People are extremely cleanly, quiet, and respectful. A major perk of the Shinkansen is the assigned seating, which makes the ride more comfortable and prevents you from bothering other riders. This is very different from the transit I have experienced in Western countries. While riding Marta at home or traveling in Europe, I’ve experienced pushy crowds, loudness, and uncleanliness. The user-friendliness of each of these forms of transportation entices people to use them and consequently reduces the number of private vehicles on the road, even in less densely populated areas.
Additionally, the various transit we’ve used during the travel leg has been nearly as timely as the Tokyo Metro. The one exception was a delay coming into Kyoto – an issue with the tracks caused several trains to get backed up, causing us to miss our connecting train – but one holdup out of countless perfect trips is a much better track record than that of American transport. The rest of the transit systems have been excellent, with the trains and buses arriving exactly at their expected arrival time.
Subway arrival information at Tokyo Station
One thing that has decreased since leaving Tokyo is the accessibility of transit stations. With 179 subway stations, you can’t walk very far in Central Tokyo without finding a metro stop. The Shinkansen, however, is designed to cover larger distances more quickly, so its stations are further spread out across inland Japan. To access the Shinkansen so far, we’ve either had to walk or take a separate train to a bigger station. The Kyoto bus line had many frequent stops, but the system was difficult to understand and required several connections. Overall, transit is easier to access and understand in Tokyo, but the other networks of transportation outside the city work just as well once you get the hang of using them.
Shinkansen cars on display in the Transit Museum
In general, the various transportation systems throughout different regions of Japan all possess shared elements of timeliness, reliability, and accessibility. I haven’t yet had much firsthand experience getting reserved seats on the Shinkansen or coordinating connecting rides because of the travel leg itinerary, but I hope that over the course of weekend trips I will learn how to navigate new transportation systems.
Branching out from the heart of Tokyo and venturing further into the country’s mainland during the travel leg has allowed me to experience a very different side of Japan. Tokyo, the heart of a bustling megaregion, is packed full of people and skyscrapers, with clean streets and efficient transportation. Its infrastructure is made to be sustainable – their population density allows for effective public transit and their culture promotes cleanliness and minimalism. Further outside the city, however, there are obvious differences in transportation and land use.
Flooded rice paddy
Source: A Matter of Taste
As we switched over from the Tokyo Metro to the JR trains, we got a better feel for life outside of the city. The buildings are still compact, but are more spread out and shorter than in Tokyo. The transit system has less centralized hubs, so people more frequently drive cars or take buses. Additionally, a much smaller proportion of the land appears to be used for residential purposes and instead is utilized for agriculture. Much of the terrain we passed on the way to Fukushima from Tokyo was covered with smaller and likely less wealthy villages surrounded by rice paddies. I thought that this difference highlighted an important point that some aspects of sustainability are contingent upon the wealth and resources of an area. Outside the megaregion, cities don’t have the same financial resources or built-in infrastructure to achieve the same sustainable development that Tokyo and nearby major cities have.
Trashbags full of radioactive soil
Visiting Fukushima and meeting with the residents was very moving and inspiring. I had heard of the disaster when it happened in 2011, but never truly understood the scope of the nuclear meltdown or the extent of the citizens’ displacement. I was also especially struck by the social justice aspect of the story – TEPCO, a massive corporation from inside the megaregion, was exploiting a less wealthy village to provide energy for Tokyo. After their failure, the residents of Fukushima have been left to pay the price of an extensive exclusion zone, decreased agricultural market value for crops, health risks, and overall loss of livelihood. They are also forced to bag up and compile what has grown to be 19 million bags of radioactive soil that TEPCO has no real plan for disposing of.
Fukushima’s resilience is incredible – even after being exploited in this way, they are determined to rebuild their hometown and do so even more sustainably than before. Instead of turning to fossil fuels after the nuclear disaster, the city has invested in safer clean energy technologies. They have recently opened solar parks and installed wind turbines to generate energy locally. Their emphasis on future-building education is very impressive and will raise a generation of impassioned locals working to revitalize the area. I am hopeful that this generation will continue to grow and foster renewable energy technologies and help Fukushima become self-sufficient and sustainable.
J-Village in Fukushima (if you look closely you can spot a wind turbine!)
Exploring different regions of Japan has shown me how life varies inside and outside a megaregion. It has also shown me that the ability to practice sustainable development relies on a number of factors that are often harder to achieve with sparser populations and lower GDP. However, Fukushima’s resilience and commitment to revitalize sustainably gives me hope that when a community unifies in support, sustainable development approaches can be attained anywhere.
It is very clear after the in-class lectures and from my firsthand experience over the past week that Japan’s approach to sustainable transit far surpasses that of the United States. They equip their extensive network of trains and monorails with some of the worlds’ finest technology, and have privately-owned rail companies that invest in research and innovation. The Tokyo Transit system has mastered the elements of good transportation, creating a system that other forms of transportation are not able to compete with in terms of convenience and sustainability.
The most critical elements of providing good transit include having stops and stations in major hubs that are easily connected to each other. The Tokyo Metro does an excellent job of this - it has more than 170 stations around the entire city, with bigger stations in popular areas and business districts. A good deal of US transportation systems, on the other hand, do not typically consist of as many stopping places. Back home in Atlanta, MARTA receives criticism because it has very few stops, and many of the stations are not in easily accessible areas. Personally, I only ever really rely on MARTA when I’m in a pinch to get from the airport to Georgia Tech or from Georgia Tech to downtown. In Tokyo, we’ve been able to use the train system each day and locate a walkable station from wherever we are.
Another important element of good transit systems is frequency of arrivals and departures. Japanese trains have a very quick turnover –so far in Tokyo I’ve never had to wait more than five minutes for a train, whereas in the United States trains usually come in fifteen minute intervals. MARTA and similar US transit services can also experience delays and are often late, while the Japanese rail system is extremely timely. It helps that Japanese transit systems get the right of way and don’t have to account for traffic or sharing the rails as US transit services do. This reliability is an important element of good transportation because it gives customers an incentive to choose the railways over private transportation. Many Americans don’t use their local public transportation systems for this reason – the risk of being late to work or missing a connecting service outweighs the other benefits.
Source: Georgia State University
Our tour of the JR East facility showed me just how much money and research the Japanese have invested into making their transit system more sustainable and user-friendly. They are piloting solar panel blinds and window attachments to generate electricity for the station. They also are looking into technology that could capture the energy used when braking to conserve as much energy as possible. I thought it truly showed their commitment to being more sustainable that as a private company, they were taking the initiative to fund the development of a more energy-efficient system. JR East is also testing improvements that prolong the lifetime of the tracks and make the rail system more accessible to all customers. We got to tour their cement testing facility, where they are able to simulate the weight of a train on various types of concrete to test its durability. They also showed us new turnstiles that are more easily accessible for wheelchairs and an overhead system that can read Suica cards automatically. These sustainable improvements will save JR East money on energy while also reducing their energy demand and emissions.
Overall, exploring Tokyo’s transportation system has shown me that the US has a lot to learn from the Japanese in terms of providing effective and sustainable transit. Many of our transit systems struggle to meet the goals of good transit service, making private transportation the most desirable option to get around a metro area. JR East is constantly working to improve the sustainability, durability, and accessibility of their railways. If the US could invest in similar technologies, it would make public transportation more feasible for many people and reduce its energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions.
Tokyo’s transit system runs seamlessly and efficiently, even while serving a massive population, making it one of the most impressive transportation systems in the world. Even after using the railway only once, I was struck by how a system so expansive and complex runs so smoothly and effectively, especially when compared to simpler systems I have experienced in different cities. While I have only been traveling on it for a couple of days, I feel more confident in my ability to navigate and more impressed by its efficiency after every use.
One of the first things I noticed about the train stations was that they are busy, but not as busy as you’d expect in a city as densely populated as Tokyo. We learned that around 8.5 million people use the Tokyo Metro each day, but you’d never feel that congestion when riding it. While the rail system is undoubtedly frequented by many, the quick turnover of the trains alleviates a lot of the crowding. One of the stations we visited, Shinjuku station, serves 260,000,000 people per year. They even have employees called “pushers” that will push people onto the train in peak hours. The train cars themselves tend to be pretty packed, but people arrange themselves facing the windows to optimize the space. The use of private cars seemed to be low relative to the population density of the city. From what I observed on the bus ride to Shinjuku on the first day, bus transportation is popular but is only really useful for specific routes. Overall, it seems the metropolitan railway system is the most feasible and busy transportation in Tokyo.
Inside of a Train Car on Yamamote Line Bus in Chiba
All forms of transportation we used were extremely timely. While I didn’t actually time the arrivals and departures myself, there were no noticeable delays or interruptions that occur on other public railway systems. The cars on the trains and monorails also have a screen showing your transit in progress and listing an ETA for each station. It is also very clear that timeliness is a big part of Japanese culture; the locals line up for the trains well before they arrive and are quick to hop on and off. It is convenient that the trains arrive very frequently in case you miss the line you were hoping to take. The commitment to timeliness and cooperation of the riders make the transportation system very reliable.
It’s relatively easy to find information about the transit systems if you have a general idea of the layout of the city. When you enter each station, there’s an overhead sign showing the trains and their arrival times. Before the card entrance, there are color-coded posters depicting the lines between each city. They also have platform information posters that list the locations of each line and give you an estimate of the travel time between your current location and desired destination. Once you’re on the train, you’re able to see the number of stops until your destination along with any announcements of delays. They also have an English announcement system that comes on as the train approaches the station that tells you which trains you can connect to at the upcoming station. We even had a local man assist us in the Shinjuku station when he saw us looking at the maps and struggling to determine the quickest train to Tokyo station. All of these factors together make the transit system much more navigable for both locals and first-time riders.