Waste management is not a topic many people want to discuss in America, but we may not have much of a choice as landfills eat away at our geography. This is a problem shared with many other countries, but Japan is not one of them. In fact, Japan has taken the opposite route and uses incineration plants to get rid of their waste. Though neither method is without its weaknesses, it is curious how two highly developed countries developed such different ways to manage their waste. So why does Japan favor the incinerator and America the landfill?
The first factor is land itself. America has land to fill so to say; whereas, Japan’s small island space is overrun by mountains and other unusable land, leaving them with less than 30% of their already miniscule land mass. Japan has no choice when it comes to getting rid of waste; trash being dumped in livable areas literally means dumping trash on people’s lawns, and dumping it in the mountains would be not only dangerous (consider: trash landslides), but it would also likely be met by extreme backlash. A large part of Japanese culture revolves around the concept of wa, or harmony. Harmony does not just mean getting along with other people, though. This concept includes respect and a good relationship with nature and one’s general surroundings. The surroundings are often more important than the self in Japanese culture, so to disrupt the natural environment in any way, nonetheless by dumping trash on it, is somewhat of a sin.
This can also be seen on a smaller scale, as there is a serious lack of litter in Japan, especially compared to America. Americans are humanitarians if they even find a can to put their trash in, and they are saints if they actually try to sort out their trash into the proper bins, but in Japan the latter is expected to perfection with every straw, every crumpled homework assignment, every empty soda can, every time. This is, once again, to keep the harmony that is essential for the Japanese way of life. In Japan, one is responsible for their own trash, even if they must carry it for miles, because to leave it in the streets would be soiling not only the appearance of that area but also the area’s harmony. In other words, if you threw trash on the ground, you have made something stand out in a negative way and, therefore, made a negative impact on society.
There is another core concept apart from harmony worth noting, as it is also responsible for the conscientiousness of Japanese citizens. Japan maintains a long-term vision for their society; according to Hofstede, they should be ready for anything that comes their way with the amount of future planning that they do. Perhaps there are some uninhabited places to put a landfill, but large areas filled with trash would cause serious problems for future generations, and this is something that Japan takes careful note of. America, unsurprisingly, not so much. Americans want what they want when they want it, and they won’t let a little litter get in their way. Despite daily news stories about the destruction of wildlife and human life due to over used landfills, Americans continue to say “that’s awful! We should do something about this” while throwing their coke bottle in the nearest trash can. America is a lot of talk and not a lot of action regarding future planning, and this leads to a peculiar final factor I believe may impact how we manage our waste.
Americans tend to be rather dramatic when talking about changes for the future, but seldom do those changes actually happen. Social issues gain a little more traction and tend to lead to some result, but until we physically see the damage of landfills right in front of us, we will not have the desire to change what it going on. This is because America is a hands-on culture. Maybe it is because we are so low-context, but Americans want to elicit change themselves, and they only want to elicit this change after they experience or even see an injustice firsthand.
None of this is to say that incineration is a perfect waste management system. It helps Japan keep its usable land mass usable, and that is one of their main priorities regarding sustainability. Though the devilish view Americans have of trash incineration is not entirely incorrect- there are oftentimes harmful fumes etc involved- the Japanese are coming up with ways to use the fumes for energy and other positive developments, something we could learn from.
In the United States, we often associate waste incineration with toxic fires and deadly fumes which single handedly ruin the atmosphere. Albeit somewhat true, we need to recognize that we are no better than countries using this method when it comes to MSW disposal. After all, dumping trash on a selected plot of land doesn’t do wonders for the environment, either. Though there is not yet an inherently “good” way to handle waste disposal, both landfills and incinerators do have their comparative strengths and weaknesses, and examining these differences may lead us to the more sustainable waste management we so desperately need.
Upon hopping off the plane in Japan for the first time with my empty cheez itz bag in hand, I became immediately aware of the lack of the one thing I needed in that moment: a trash can. Indeed, with street food and fast food at every corner and konbini at every turn, it would only seem rational to have trash cans every few feet, but they are almost nowhere to be found. Despite the lack of trash cans, there is also an incredible lack of trash lying around. The United States, however, has a plethora of both: trash littering the streets and trash cans everywhere you look. So how can it be that the two countries have such different situations, and more importantly, why? Perhaps it is a mutual unspoken respect for one’s surroundings in Japan that the States doesn't share; maybe it is from a geographical perspective- Japan doesn’t have room to be throwing trash on the street- but then, it could also be that each person is seen as responsible for their own trash, that they are expected to carry around their waste and dispose of it in their own homes. Though likely a combination of all the above and more, it is hard to really get to the bottom of it given Japan’s high context culture. To them, it is second nature to carry around trash without groaning about how inconvenient it is (though not so for our group).
Going back to the lack of waste baskets in Japan, on the off chance you are lucky enough to find a trash can, you may find yourself puzzled once again- why are there four cans with different symbols, and which one do I use? If you read Japanese or have ever seen a recycling bin, however, it is actually very easy to determine which bin takes what waste and it is expected that you sort your trash accordingly every. single. time. While it is equally as evident in America which bins take what, we tend to ignore those recycle signs and throw all our trash in whatever bin is closest. The problem with that aside from the laziness is that the closest one is often just that- one. There are not multiple bins for each kind of MSW at every site, normally just a trash can and, if you're lucky, perhaps a lone recycling bin, too. In America, we know where to put our trash, we just don’t do it because not every kind of waste basket is available to us, and we, sometimes understandably, cannot be bothered to search for a bin of the right sort.
These differences also play into large-scale MSW disposal. To recap, America thinks of incinerators and think of the Devil’s fire, but then we turn around and dump millions of tons of trash on otherwise usable land, something which would cause mass upheaval in Japan. America has one incredible advantage when it comes to using landfills: land. Japan has masses of people packed into small pockets of their land, but a large majority of their geography is made of mountains or other unusable land, so dumping trash on a large, usable area would be criminal to them. Japan rates as one of the best countries regarding having a long-term vision and planning for the future, so this solution really only makes sense for them, and it might not be a bad idea for the US to join the trend, too, as we begin running out of space for landfills. Although incineration is not without its faults regarding waste disposal, Japan is creating innovative ways to reuse the gas released from their incineration plants and turn their trash into treasure.
Despite being the closest thing the world has to a perfect nation-state, Japan is not without its regional differences. Ironically, these differences are one of the biggest similarities I have found between Japan and America. Though we are, indeed, the United States, we often see large idealistic gaps between geographical regions, mainly between the north and south, and Japan surprisingly has similar tendencies even if they are expressed in different ways. In going from the greater Tokyo area to Japan’s other megaregion, Keihanshin (Kyoto, Osaka, Kobe), there were a number of differences that were very easy to spot and others that took more of a trained eye and some background knowledge on Japan to discover.
One of the biggest and most obvious differences given our initial focus on transportation was the stark increase of personal vehicle use in Keihanshin. Though a majority of the population, including ourselves, still commute, and there is still an extreme lack of Atlanta-like traffic, there is still a very noticeable increase in personal vehicle usage in the area. This is, of course, in large part due to Keihanshin’s smaller population and larger land area, which creates a slightly less imperative need for public transportation, but it is still on a far greater level than any transportation in America. It is also harder for Keihanshin to build railways and subway lines, as the area is situated within mountain ranges (which we have experienced firsthand on our daily class commute), as opposed to Tokyo which is situated on relatively flat land surrounded by mountainous areas.
Despite its slightly more rigorous physical layout, however, Keihanshin has managed to develop into a travelable and workable megaregion. Whatever gap exists in technology between itself and Tokyo, it makes up for with rich cultural experiences and history. As the first long-standing capital of the country, Kyoto specifically has literally countless shrines and historical hubs which, although present in Tokyo as well, are far more frequent and sometimes significant than their other megaregion counterpart. Most of Japan’s unique cultural icons are the most present in Kyoto, for example, Torii gates, geisha, and ancient battlegrounds are the most abundant in this area.
Despite its homogeneity as a country, the regional differences in Japan are actually very pronounced. The citizens further this by showing regional pride, something which I found many similarities to from an American perspective. While some of the regional differences in Japan were created inadvertently and shouldn’t necessarily be seen as cultural statements, some of the differences were self-created and mirror the petty rival culture we have between the north and south of America. For example, in many parts of Keihanshin, I noticed that people walked on the right side of escalators, stairs, etc. I discovered that the cause of this was a refusal or unwillingness to follow Tokyo’s standard (which was followed by virtually every other region in Japan), which reminded me of silly rivalry things we do between the north and south in America. Although historically in our own country the implications of one region going off on its own tends to be very negative, however, in Japan it is less malicious and more just a petty act. This difference, I would argue, comes mainly from cultural backgrounds and the fact that Americans speaks their minds against other countries and amongst ourselves, but Japan is more prone to small actions that have strong implications in a very high context. That said, I still find it funny that, upon further research, I discovered that Keihanshin, specifically Osaka, likes to be very explicit regarding their differences from Tokyo and take pride in being the odd one out in the typically silent Japanese culture. Perhaps the homogeneity heightens differences between regions or perhaps they are just very proud of their unique regional cultures, but either way, the dynamic is one that surprised me in regards to its similarity to America’s.
Japan has been forced into a position of being the world’s leader in creative and smart technology; being an island nation with few resources and a miniscule percentage of usable land mass means that they must create valuable exports or suffer economic dependence on other countries. Even coming from America, another tech hub, I have been incredibly impressed with the advanced nature of every technology I have encountered since arriving. Everything from transit to toilets is far beyond anything that I have ever encountered in my lifetime, but that is not to say that everything here is all perfect. One thing I find very interesting about Japan’s technologies is the gap between them; for example, they have the highest-class transit on the planet and yet cannot create functioning dryers. Putting my nitpicky observations aside, though, the way that Japan has handled their technological development is wildly impressive.
On a large scale, Japan is filled with metropolitan hubs packed with millions of people in tiny areas, and the fact that they can sustain this packed population is only made possible by their technological development with regards to public transit. Were it not for their timely, convenient trains and top-of-the-line shinkansen, the country would not be able to withstand their own people. Even just the thought of Tokyo’s population attempting to use something as underdeveloped as our own transportation system, MARTA, is enough to send chills down one’s spine. Going so far as to investigate how the country would run if the same percentage of people used cars here as were used in Atlanta would be catastrophic when considering traffic and emission levels, but every area in Japan has ensured that they are more than equipped enough for inter and intracity travel.
On top of the much-discussed transit system, Japan is also known for their state-of-the-art computers, televisions, and entertainment systems. We experienced this first-hand all over the country, but especially in Tokyo (namely Akihabara), the sight of the neon electo city is enough to make anyone’s head spin. While at first glance all the technology seems excessive and over-the-top, I realized while I was there what a tourist hub it is. Though this may sound superficial, tourist traps are actually incredibly important to Japan’s sustainability, as they bring in a large amount of revenue to the country with a rapidly declining workforce. Yes, the neon lights and games and technology centers may seem unnecessary, but they are part of Japan’s international identity, and this identity could end up making or breaking their economic sustainability in the near future.
Even aside from large-scale technologies which have gained the island a lot of international attention, some other less talked about technologies have also impressed me a lot since arriving. The first thing that blew me away technologically speaking was, believe it or not, the bathrooms here. Even just a single Japanese toilet has an astounding amount of environmentally friendly technology. From built-in sinks in many residential buildings to solid and liquid waste options, Japan has created several inventive ways for something so mundane to be an icon of environmental sustainability. There are other day to day technologies which have also impressed me here, for example, showers that time how long you need water, fridges that remind you to shut the door when cold air begins to escape, etc, are also ways in which Japan is trying to create an environmentally sustainable future.
Japan is not, however, without its shortcomings with regards to technology. As mentioned, the dryers barely work, but this is because Japanese people tend to air dry their clothes as an alternative. That being said, however, with an ever-growing tourist industry and the necessity to make up for a dying workforce with foreigners, perhaps it is time for Japan to make a few tweaks to daily activities such as drying clothes to be truly sustainable in the long run.
Two weeks in Japan has exposed me to more public transportation than I have ever used in my twenty years on the planet. This is not, however, due to any particular feelings against public transport as a whole. Rather, it is just that much easier to learn and execute in Japan than anywhere else I have been, especially Atlanta. Though I have not experienced public transportation in many places, especially not outside the states, I can honestly say that my own hometown Atlanta has the least convenient system out of the ones I have used (including systems all over Japan and in places like New York and Boston). Even the regular trains and buses we have taken in Japan have been incredibly timely and convenient, but we were also lucky enough to ride the Shinkansen, or bullet train, which added a whole new dimension to the transportation experience. Even though we were left on our own at the station each time we rode the bullet train, not once did any of us get lost nor need assistance finding the correct platform. Keeping in mind that there are typically dozens of these platforms per station and few of us know any of the native tongue here, the credit for this lack of chaos must be given to the stations’ efficiency and easiness to use. Times for the Shinkansen were even more on the dot than the normal trains if that was at all possible, and even when we had to make last minute changes, the stations were very accommodating and made things more convenient than I thought humanly possible.
(picture via JR East 2012)
It goes without saying that it is now very clear to me just how much more the Shinkansen is than a Mount Fuji photo op- one of the things it is best known for. Its timely operations complete with amenities including wifi, resrooms, and food trolleys make for an all-around pleasant public transportation experience, and while having a pleasant train ride doesn't seem like a daring feat, it is important to note that MARTA's reputation revolves around untimely, unsafe spaces, so it seemed beyond me to have an experience that was even beyond tolerable.
Much of the convenience of the system also has to do with the people using it. We experienced this on every form of transportation we used; the motion of people getting to one car was like that of a wave, no interruptions or people moving the wrong way. The Shinkansen, however, is mostly reserved seating and free of the crowds that take over most of the other trains we used. As opposed to masses getting on and off rail cars, the Shinkansen boarding process was very tame, and we experienced no complications whatsoever while using it. This contrasts greatly with the transit that we are used to in America (although I will only be discussing Atlanta as I have little experience with others). MARTA is the epicenter of our public transportation, and it is known for being late, dirty, unsafe, and inefficient. Compared to the timely, spotless, cautious, and uncannily efficient Shinkansen, it is clear that we have a lot to learn and a lot of room to grow in our transportation system.
Japan is known as one of the most homogenous nations in the modern world, but that is not to say that they have complete equality nor homogeneity across prefect boundaries. With each unique prefecture culture comes a unique perspective on sustainability, and going from the middle of the world’s largest mega region to a town beginning to rebuild itself after a world-shattering disaster proves this more than anything. Environmentally speaking, of course, Fukushima, a city which experienced a nuclear disaster in 2011, faces an uphill battle- rebuilding a whole region after eight years of evacuation- but it is facing the challenge with resilience and incredible new ideas that the whole country could learn from. Despite being plagued by physical radiation alongside emotional devastation, the people are trying to be a model for renewable energy with a solar focus. Tokyo also has a unique take on environmentalism, though they do unsurprisingly have an upper hand in sustainability overall as the world’s largest megaregion and a long-standing technological hub. One thing that I found very impressive was Tokyo’s ability to be as populated and large as it is and yet still manage to incorporate nature in their urban lifestyle. It was not uncommon to see rooftop gardens or architecture which involved some green element; even some of the trains and public boards had the UN Sustainable Development Goals posted.
While this concrete/nature combination was relatively exclusive to Tokyo, however, general respect for nature was not, as everywhere we visit is filled with parks and natural landscape at every turn.
Economically speaking, too, Fukushima is currently in a serious rut, as most of the people who have moved back thus far are above the age of sixty. Tokyo is privileged to be the capital and have the most draw for foreign investors and workers, a huge advantage as the Japanese workforce diminishes. Though the population as a whole is older in Japan, their megaregion is the most likely to draw in young workers from other regions in Japan and around the world, so it is more fiscally sustainable as a general rule. That said, however, it is worth noting that Tokyo's privilege has not been without damage to others. In fact, the nuclear plants which exploded in Fukushima actually created energy for Tokyo, keeping little of the benefit for itself and experiencing near obliteration to keep the megaregion running.
Having said this regarding Fukushima, the extent to which they have already rebuilt their town a short eight years post nuclear breakdown is beyond admirable, and their resilience should stand as a model for the whole world to follow. Though eight years is not long in the grand scheme of life, it felt like a lifetime for residents forced to uproot their lives after a disaster which should not have involved them in the first place. However, rather than giving up on their home and moving on or accepting the injustices they faced, the people immediately began rebuilding their town to a point where a new government building has already been established and residents, though few, are already moving back. Former residents have rejected all statements that Fukushima will never be as good as it once was and have bounced back to make it better and more environmentally sustainable than ever; even our own tour guide designed solar panels which now supply a large portion of the city’s power.
Even beyond the physical rebuilding of the region, there is an impressive movement to rebuild the social environment. We visited a high school in the surrounding area and heard about projects that students there had been working on, one of which was a café designed to be an open area for people to come exchange ideas with dishes inspired by Fukushima’s best-known foods.
The people of Fukushima are incredibly welcoming to outsiders: the mayor himself thanked us for visiting, and our tour guide’s father, one of the residents already back in Fukushima, allowed us to come talk to him about the disaster. Their desire to share their story with anyone who will listen will likely prove as a great strength in the future, as Fukushima tries to break tensions between regions and encourage all people to visit their rapidly developing area.
Boiling down the aspects of “good” transportation to fit only seven categories is a Herculean task considering just how much effort goes into every public transport system, but the seven we discussed in class do it as best as possible in a model which unintentionally prizes the Japanese rail system. Every aspect described has been pinpointed by the Japanese and optimized to the most extreme levels, and we can compare it to our own transit system to see just how true that is. For example, no one can beat the timeliness of Japanese transportation, which is always impeccably timed (with timing displayed in the most convenient ways possible on top of that), covering the “good use of my time” and “when I want to go” aspects discussed. Especially compared to Atlanta, in which being five minutes late is still considered on time and most trains still run late, this is an incredible feat. Even though some places like New York do timeliness slightly better than us, America’s transit as a whole is known for being less timely, just as American culture would predict. Especially considering just how many trains and stops and routes there are in Japan (with the sheer amount of stops making it easy to get where you want to go with freedom to change your plans), thinking of every single one as safe and reliable is almost impossible to us.
Safety is another huge factor in useful and good transportation services. A country or city could have the best technology available and run in the most timely and efficient manners, but if it is unsafe or people feel as though they can’t trust it or aren’t respected there, very few people would use said service. Luckily, this is not true of Japan. With guards every few yards and top of the line precautions in place, it is actually impossible to try anything suspicious without being noticed immediately. Another great cultural difference between Japan and America which causes some variance in transportation is comfort with crowding. Even somewhat knowing what I was getting into with Tokyo transportation, I was shocked at just how many people were crammed into every car, and to us Americans, this probably seems rather unsafe. However, since Japan as a culture and as a transit system is so safe, there is no reason to feel as though crowded should equate to unsafe, especially due to the incredible stability of the cars keeping people from stumbling or having any difficulty moving around.
With the already incredibly developed Japanese railway system and their tendency to always be on the cutting edge of something new, one has to wonder where their heightened technologies will take them in the near and far future. At the forefront of this development is the groundbreaking JR East, a company whose facilities we were fortunate enough to tour. They test everything ranging from earthquake proof concrete to laser gates to wheelchair accessible swiping systems within their grounds, but most of these have a sole focus on use in transportation. Overall, the goals for all their developments tend to revolve around bettering the safety and efficiency of the transportation system as a whole in Japan. They referred to it frequently as the “next generation” of transportation, but this made me further consider Japan’s next generation of people and how that could impact their public transport. Even with all the developments in railway technology, these developments are only as strong as the society that they serve, and with their rapid decline in workforce numbers, Japan may soon be forced to allow an influx of immigrants. This means people disobeying the unspoken rules which keep the system running so smoothly and, despite all the praise that I and many others have given the Japanese rail system, it makes me wonder if these rails can keep up with the serious cultural changes Japan may soon be experiencing.
At first glance, Tokyo’s public transportation systems may seem more efficient than most, but nothing of a systematic wonder. This first glance, however, does not even begin to do the system justice. As we experienced today in our tour of said transit system, every finite detail is expertly crafted to function in the most harmonious way technologically possible. As a first testament to how smoothly (literally) this operation runs and one of the first things I noticed upon boarding, the trains themselves were so smooth that while running, people were walking through the cars with no stumbling incidents. The information offered aboard the train was also incredibly useful and well laid out- with everything from stop names (alternating between languages so at least one screen was English at all times), to minutes it would take to arrive at each stop, to rail names, etc. The on board experience as a whole was made pleasant not only due to the written information around the cars, but also due to auditory cues. Japanese people, as a social rule, do not speak loudly on trains; thus, it was very easy to hear the easing female voice announcing which stations were next (once again, in English and Japanese). This is a testament to how much the Japanese people are integrated into and mindful of their own public transportation. If so much as a handful of people were rowdy in such a small, crowded area, no one would comprehend the routes, but this is not the only aspect in which people impact their own transportation. Some other cultural phenomena which aid the smooth rail systems are the use of priority seating for pregnant women/the elderly (along with a car for females only to avoid groping), as well as the comfort with crowding in smaller spaces. While the priority seating is meant to be out of respect, I also noticed that it makes things faster; the in-shape people are free to get off without the obstruction of slower-moving peoples.
This cultural integration into the system is not a choice in Japan, either. If anyone does not follow the cultural cues, chaos could be insued, and the main reason for this is the sheer business of the stations and rails themselves. Even the smaller lines that we went on were filled nearly to the brim with people packed in like sardines, but there was no panic in people’s eyes as there is in even a half-empty MARTA. Despite the crowded nature of the trains and stations themselves, the stress levels seemed relatively low. Another set of details gone unnoticed by the untrained eye- and ear- comes int the form of stress-reduction methods placed thoughout stations and trains, from pleasant lighting to keep people from committing suicide, to jingles which indicate trains leaving as opposed to harsh buzzers preventing accidents, to lively colors which promote happiness and calmness. These solutions maintain short-term sustainability in an incredibly efficient manner; however, these are all psychological tricks, not solutions, and psychology is not necessarily stable. This means that perhaps citizens’ brains will eventually become numb to the destressors or future generations will have less inclination to register the noises as pleasant since it will be normal to them. The changes are very effective, but even a slight slip in their effectiveness could put a stop to the whole system.
That being said, there have yet to be many slip-ups with the system in its current state, and the timeliness of the stops is impeccible. Even from ten stops away, I timed one of the trains I was on and it got the exact minutes between stations (not to mention that they actually have times for the stations readily accessible).
This is to be expected from a system which had to apologize for being one minute late, but the question does still remain of how long these psychological tricks will uphold. Possibly, there could be no break in the seemingly unbreakable system, but resolving serious psychological epidemics with lighting tricks and catchy tones is not ensured to hold up forever. Even with their faults, however, the bells and whistles (and jingles) are incredibly impressive and well thought out for immediate resolution. Some credit must be given, after all, considering the harmonious workings between every miniscule part of the operation is, indeed, the Japanese Way.