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.