Different societies have different means of dealing with waste disposal. In America, waste is primarily sent to landfills after being processed. In Japan, however, incinerators are used much more commonly to dispose of waste material. Japan has almost 2,000 incineration plants, compared with fewer than 100 in America. There are several reasons as to why Japan and America have radically different waste disposal systems, primarily related to the geographic and cultural differences between the nations.
A number of covered bags of contaminated soil in Fukushima Prefecture. The large amount of otherwise unusable land in the area makes landfills more useful.
One of the main differences between the two nations is the amount of free land available. In America, there is a good deal of open space available, making landfills much more lucrative. In Japan, however, the small amount of land available relative to the large population means that landfills are difficult to set up. Conversely, however, this makes land reclamation programs, in which trash is piled up in specified locations on the coast to create more land, much more useful. The solar power plant that we visited was built on reclaimed land. Land reclamation is not popular in America due to the large amount of available land compared to existing coastline. Incinerators are not used widely in America as they have relatively few advantages over landfills, except in areas where landfills cannot be situated, such as Florida.
Japan's high population density and small amount of available land area means that incinerators are usally preferable to landfills.
The other main reason for the differences in waste disposal systems between America and Japan are cultural differences. The democratic nature of America means that if a local government intends to install an incineration plant, the local community will likely protest this idea. While Japan is similarly democratic, the lack of public protests against these projects means that they are more likely to go through. America’s culture also looks towards using natural gases for energy generation, which can be harnessed from methane production from landfills. Japan, however, uses a variety of energy sources, such as from energy regeneration facilities, meaning that incinerators are more widely accepted. Overall, waste management differs in countries due to a variety of cultural and environmental factors, meaning that there is no singular sustainable method of disposing of waste. Incineration methods may not work in less advanced societies, as advanced technologies are needed to limit the production of greenhouse gases; on the other hand, some countries may not have the land area necessary for landfills.
One of the first noticeable differences from the US that I saw after coming to Japan was the public waste disposal system. Trash cans are not as widely present as in America, but they are always kept tidy and neat. More importantly, almost every waste disposal system has at least 3 sections: one for bottles and cans, one for plastic products, and one for combustible products. Despite these waste disposal locations not being as prevalent as in the US, Japan’s culture of group harmony means that nobody litters but holds onto their garbage until they are able to dispose of it properly. While this is sometimes a hassle, it is an improvement to having streets littered with trash as can be seen in many places throughout the US. Also, all trash receptacles are clearly labeled in multiple languages about which trash goes in which receptacle, so it is generally straightforward as to what type of trash goes where.
The waste disposal system also differs after consumers throw away their garbage. Since Japan is a small island nation, there is little space for landfills and therefore waste products are generally treated before being disposed at landfill sites. These landfills also can be repurposed, as we saw at the solar power plant (pictured below). Prior to the 1970s, waste material in Japan was dumped into anaerobic landfills or burned, producing large amounts of methane, a greenhouse gas. More recently, Japan has used semi-aerobic landfills, which supplies air to landfills underground, which reduces flammable gas production while stimulating the decomposition of organic matter, leading to a faster stabilization of the landfill.
An important aspect of the waste management system is to keep different types of waste material separate, as different waste products need to be treated differently before disposal or reuse. In the recycling process, plastic bottles are collected separately, initially from consumers or local municipalities. Afterwards, specific corporations receive recycled waste to create recycled products. At these recycling businesses, recycled products are cleaned, and bottle caps and labels are removed. After sorting, the plastics undergo many processes, being crushed into flakes, and transformed into one of many different forms, such as resins or fibers. The differing disposal methods of materials in Japan require that consumers, rather than companies, do all the sorting of the main types of waste material, which considerably decreases the stress on the waste management companies. The willingness of Japanese consumers to properly dispose of their waste materials is a major part of the functionality of the country’s waste disposal system, which is something that we do not see as extensively in the US. With certain cultural or institutional changes, perhaps US consumers would be more willing to sort and properly dispose of waste material.
Despite Japan’s small size relative to the United States, there are still regional differences present throughout the country, particularly in the two largest megaregions, Greater Tokyo and Keihanshin. Some of these differences are caused by the history of Japan. Tokyo is the current capital whereas Kyoto was the former capital of Japan before the Meiji Restoration. In Feudal Japan, the emperor sat in Kyoto, whereas the shogun, who was the military and true leader of Japan, sat in present-day Tokyo. The Kansai region also had port cities, particularly Kobe, which were open to Western cultures and therefore more influenced by Western ideals. Osaka was also a hub of commerce throughout Japan’s history. It can be assumed, then, that the Keihanshin megaregion is expected to have differences from the Greater Tokyo megaregion, which it does.
One aspect in which the two megaregions differ is in the peoples’ overall attitudes. In Tokyo, citizens tended to be much quieter and keep to themselves more, not willing to talk much with others. This was evident on the rail lines, where the cars were almost silent when not crowded, and still relatively quiet during busy hours. On the other hand, rail lines in the Kansai region, while not loud by American standards, generally had some level of noise with passengers conversing with their neighbors. People in the Kansai region have tended to be more friendly and talkative in general, whether it be at the convenience stores or while in public. While hiking up a mountain trail on Miyajima, all the Japanese hikers that I passed greeted me politely, showing their openness to others, and other customers in some restaurants in Osaka happily greeted us.
There are also other, less impactful differences between the Greater Tokyo and Keihanshin megaregions. The regions have different dialects and phrases, although this is more difficult for foreigners to pick up on. However, phrase usage seems to tend towards the traditional Tokyo way of speaking, particularly for younger generations. Another main difference between regions in Japan is the cuisine available. In the Kanto region, soba noodles tend to be more popular, whereas udon tends to be more popular in the Kansai region. In Tokyo, people stand on the left side of escalators, whereas people stand on the right in Kansai (except for Kyoto). While this isn’t a very impactful difference in Japanese society, it highlights the fact that even in Japan’s close-knit, homogeneous culture, there are cultural differences between areas in the countries.
The easiest comparison between the Kanto and Kansai regions in the United States would be the North and South (particularly in eastern US). Like in Japan, the North and South of the US are close together, but quite different in terms of culture. For the US, these changes are partly caused by the original settlers of each region and partially caused by the climates of each region (the South being conducive to plantation farming, leading to slavery and a different culture from the North). However, in Japan, the Kanto and Kansai regions have been settled for thousands of years, and are relatively similar in climate, so other factors (discussed above) are at play in creating these cultural differences. Overall, despite having a very homogenous and harmonious culture, Japan still has cultural differences between its megaregions, which should be taken into account when designing sustainable infrastructure for each region.
Our group has observed many technologies in Japan that make living and commuting easier and more sustainable. These smart technologies are incorporated in all aspects of life and society and are sometimes more related to policy measures just as much as technological innovation. One example of these smart technologies are the rail line cards, such as the Suica card that we used to move between rail stations throughout Japan. The Suica card can be scanned in and out of stations, allowing for lines of passengers to move quickly and efficiently. These cards can easily be obtained, and money can be added conveniently at any of the stations when needed. This technology is one of the cornerstones of the Japan rail system. While such systems also exist in other places around the world, Japan’s system is the most extensive and convenient, as the Suica card can be used in any location in Japan, rather than being restricted to a single city or megaregion.
One other example of smart technologies in Japan is the presence of more compact personal transportation vehicles. Cars in Japan tend to be much smaller than those in America, allowing for more to fit on roads, and to drive down narrow roads in which pedestrians and bikers share the path. Mopeds are common in the streets as well, taking up even less space than cars and therefore allowing for more efficient flow of traffic. While not cutting-edge technologies, these vehicles and their implementation in the streets of Japan is nevertheless sustainable, allowing people to travel as directly as possible between locations and decrease idle traffic.
Another smart technology that can be seen in Japan are the vending machines spread across the country. Like convenience stores, their presence is as much of a policy decision as a technological innovation, but it is one that allows for citizens to quickly get food and drinks at almost any location. Vending machines are also used at stores such as ramen shops to speed up the process of ordering food. Like Japan’s personal vehicles, these machines have a small footprint, which is particularly useful in Japan’s densely populated environment. The widespread pervasiveness and accessibility of the vending machines also means that people will never need to worry about finding a place to eat if they are away from home.
There are, however, some aspects in which smart technologies can still be introduced to Japan. One example of this is the dryers in Japan. In my experience so far, Japanese dryers are rather ineffective, and while that may save energy in the long run, it is also inconvenient. One technology that could be implemented is a more energy-efficient system that is capable of drying clothes, or even just a retractable clothesline system in rooms that allows for clothes to be dried without taking up much space. Another potential area for implementation of smart technologies in Japan is in transit for schoolchildren and college students. This is particularly important to me as the transit time to and from the Kobe University campus in which we are taking classes is 50 minutes despite only being a few miles from the dorms. The existence of an express rail system or designated roads for buses could lower the commuting time. While Japan already has a number of smart technologies that increase the country's overall sustainability, there is always room for future innovation.
After leaving Tokyo, we saw several different forms of transit that were not used as widely in the megaregion. One of these transit forms was the Shinkansen. While similar to the Tokyo rail lines, the Shinkansen mainly differs in that its stations are farther apart, meaning that the train can move faster, and the wait times between stations are increased. As a result, the ride has designated seats and is overall more comfortable, like a plane ride. When compared to other intercity transit that I have taken, such as the Amtrak, the Shinkansen is cleaner and more comfortable to ride. Other passengers all move to their assigned seats and either sleep or work quietly throughout the ride. The Shinkansen also has a loud but calming jingle that plays whenever approaching a station to awaken passengers who might otherwise oversleep past their station. Finally, there is information available at the front and rear of each of the cars about the next stop, and there are frequent announcements on which cities and areas the Shinkansen is planned to stop.
A Shinkansen station. The Shinkansen doors, as with other forms of rail systems in Japan, always line up with the gates on the platform.
One of the modes of transit we used frequently in Kyoto was local bus lines. This form of transit was slower than the rail lines that we had used in Tokyo due to being in traffic with other vehicles and pedestrians. However, the bus system had the upside of being able to stop at more locations, often almost directly adjacent to the location of interest. While being relatively easy to get to stations, it was more difficult to find information on navigating between bus and subway routes. The bus system is still generally timely, much more so than the systems found in Atlanta and Georgia Tech, and the passengers are accommodating, particularly when the bus becomes crowded.
More personal vehicles are used in places such as Kyoto, often competing with bus systems on the streets.
Another mode of transit used in Kyoto was the local subway system. The subway system in Kyoto was generally not as well-developed as the one in Tokyo, as it was less comfortable and visually appealing, but it was still timely and present where it needed to be. The headway (time between arriving trains) was longer than the rail system in Tokyo, but it was sufficient considering there were generally fewer passengers at any time of the day. The subway system was much timelier than the MARTA system found in the Atlanta region, but did not have quite as many amenities and comforts as the Tokyo megaregion railways.
While Kyoto is an old city that was designed far before modern transit systems were developed, the transit systems are still developed to optimally accommodate the city's attractions. Walking is also always an option to get between nearby locations.
The Japanese transportation systems between cities and outside of the Tokyo megaregion are still much more advanced than those of the United States. While the city of Kyoto is ancient and therefore not as convenient to plan around for transportation purposes, its bus and subway system was still timely and easy to use, even for foreigners who are new to the area. This is in direct contrast to many US regions, where even locals may have difficulty finding bus or train stops, and there is no guarantee those transit systems will arrive within even 5 minutes of their expected arrival time. The United States and other countries can particularly learn from Japan’s intercity transportation system, the Shinkansen, which is both high-speed and easy to access; it has all the upsides of plane transportation without dealing with long wait times for departure and disembarking.
Our group observed many differences between living conditions inside the Tokyo megaregion and in Fukushima, an area outside of the Tokyo megaregion that was damaged by the March 2011 earthquake. One of the most obvious differences between the two regions is their population densities. This results in the use of different sustainability methods to improve the living conditions of each region. In the Tokyo megaregion, the high population density means that it is difficult for power to be directly generated inside of the city. Instead, power is outsourced from other regions. For instance, the Fukushima Daiichi power plant was used to power the Tokyo megaregion before the March 2011 disaster. Areas such as Fukushima are instead used for power generation, since this generally require a large amount of open space. I saw many solar farms set up along the countryside, often right next to rice paddies to be used for food supply.
The Tokyo megaregion's population density makes cutting-edge, sustainable technologies a requirement to sustain so many people in such a small location.
In general, the Tokyo megaregion imports the raw materials from the external regions, such as Fukushima, to supply the region with resources that would otherwise be impossible to produce in such densely-population locations. On the other hand, the Tokyo megaregion is also a hub of technological activity, as we saw on the first week of our trip. Districts such as Akihabara sell all sorts of electronics and advanced materials. In many ways, Tokyo feeds on the supplies of the external, non-megaregion areas and is also the location in which the most advanced technologies are used. Likewise, the Tokyo transit system is also the most advanced, with the most easily accessible information system and most efficient vehicles to transport citizens to locations all around the city.
The Tokyo megaregion relies on the energy and material production from other areas inside and outside of Japan to function and produce goods at such an advanced level.
In Fukushima, we saw wide, empty regions and relatively few cars on the roads, a direct contrast to the Tokyo megaregion. The larger amount of area available means that Fukushima does not necessarily need to be on the cutting edge of sustainable transportation technologies; the larger area available allows for personal vehicles to be used without a tremendous amount of traffic congestion. The Shinkansen was the most advanced system of transit available in this region, and was particularly-suited for this area since important areas are farther apart, allowing the train to reach higher speeds.
Outside of the Tokyo megaregion, there is open land available for agricultural and energy use.
At Fukushima, we saw many workers in the exclusion zone cleaning and processing the contaminated soil, showing that the local government is committed to restoring Fukushima’s status. While the Fukushima disaster could have been handled better or even avoided together if not for the overconfidence and negligence of Tepco and the Japanese government, the local and national governments have made many changes since the disaster to make the society more resilient. Creating a separate government committee on safety, focusing more on renewable resources, and making new towns around the exclusion zone are all policy measures that the Japanese have taken to make Fukushima more resilient. Ultimately, Fukushima, a disaster-stricken area, represents a stark contrast to Tokyo and illustrates what can happen if a government is overconfident in its resilience. The March 2011 earthquake served as an example to the Japanese government that their current system of sustainability outside of the Tokyo megaregion would need to be improved to secure the livelihood of their citizens.
Sustainable transportation in Japan is overall better and more efficient than transportation in the US. One of the biggest components that Tokyo’s transit system excels at is that it is present everywhere that it needs to be. Since many of the neighborhoods and buildings are designed around the transit stations rather than the other way around, the train system tends to always be next to the most crowded and popular locations, making its location ideal for the greatest amount of people, which is one of the main elements of providing a good transit service. In most places in the US, transit systems are designed after a city is build, often making transit inconvenient. Similarly, the time span in which the transit service is available is also important. In terms of the frequency in which trains arrive, Tokyo’s system is excellent, since most of the major lines have a headway of less than 3 minutes, and the local lines have a headway of less than 10 minutes. However, the rail system is unavailable from between 11pm and 5am, which makes late night trips much more difficult, and means that almost the entire city is essentially shut down after 11pm in the evening. While this can be planned around, it still challenges the idea of whether Tokyo’s service takes you when you want to go. In the US, transit systems may be less regular, but there do tend to be systems that are in place very late into the night.
Just as the rail system is frequent, it also is fast and designed efficiently, so that passengers rarely need to take any more than 2 transfers to reach their destination. Since the train systems essentially always arrive within the minute that they are scheduled to arrive, the waiting time for passengers between stations is minimized. These factors all contribute to Japan having a transit system that is a good use of its passengers’ time. Some cities in the US also minimize the amount of transfers required, such as New York City, but are not as regular in their waiting times. Likewise, the fare charge is not overly expensive, as it takes around ¥500 to get from one end of the city to the other. Since Japan’s system is so rapid, passengers spend less time on the system itself and therefore cost the rail companies less in terms of operating costs. Therefore, the Japanese rail system has proven itself to be an excellent option for local citizens, if they wish to use it during operating hours.
Another aspect of useful transit service is whether the transit system respects the customer, which is very true in Japan. Despite the crowded conditions of the trains, people are respectful when it comes to moving around and behaving in the trains themselves, and do not litter, leading to clean and safe conditions for passengers. A good transit system should also be trustworthy, which Tokyo’s system certainly is, as I have never experienced a delay of a single minute so far at any of the stations I’ve been to. These aspects can be compared against the US’s, which is often noisy, dirty, and not on time. Finally, a good transit service should give individuals the freedom to change their plans, which relates to the reliability of the service and the availability of information. In all aspects of the rail service, Japan has excelled at providing information, whether it be in the stations or on the trains themselves. Information about the time to stations, the directions to go, and even which train car to get on to reach the optimal position on the disembarking platform. Many rail systems in the US also have information and apps available to help navigate, but not quite on the scale of Japan’s.
We also visited the Japan Rail East (JR East) research and development center in Saitama. JR East is undertaking a variety of initiatives to improve the safety, reliability, and sustainability of their transit system. For example, their research facility has a “Smart Station” building which is a replica of an actual boarding platform, to test new technologies such as integrated solar panel windows and safer boarding gates. They also have an extensive amount of machinery available for stress testing of station structures and train components. Finally, they are working on ways to reduce the energy consumption of the rail lines, by using technologies such as cold metal bars that are cooled from underground as a cheaper air conditioning alternative. Overall, these improvements show that despite Japan’s advanced transit system, they are still working to improve it to be the best that it can be.
One of the most appealing things about visiting Tokyo so far is that its transit system is highly developed and particularly useful because it allows for efficient transit at both the city-wide and local levels. For getting across the different districts of Tokyo, the Yamanote Line was incredibly convenient. Additionally, due to the private rail lines’ ownership of the area surrounding each of the major stations, many of the important stores and buildings that anyone would wish to enter are clustered around the stations. These closely-packed attractions help to promote walking and cycling, which are more healthy alternatives to using automobiles. Over the first two days, most of the transit time that I spent was walking between locations at areas near the major stations.
It is important to find a good balance between densely-packed transit systems that have a smaller footprint while also ensuring that individuals have adequate room to ride comfortably. The Yamanote Line was continuously packed throughout the day, which made it somewhat uncomfortable to ride at times, as there was little personal space. However, the Yamanote Line was very efficient and effective at transporting large amounts of passengers to a number of destinations across the city. Additionally, the railway system has a small footprint, with much of the railway existing underground. One related aspect of this I found interesting was the multiple floors for railways overlaid on top of one another, allowing for easy transit between lines while ensuring that the lines’ paths do not interfere with one another.
All the transit systems that I rode on were swift and timely. The trains would almost always arrive within 2 or 3 minutes of waiting, except for the local Sangubashi station, in which express trains often passed by the station. The monorail was likely the slowest of the rail systems that I rode on, but even that wasn’t all that slow and gave a nice view of parts of the city, as its small footprint allowed it to be built aboveground. Adding to the fact that the transit systems were timely was the fact that information was always available on what routes to take to get to your destination, when to transfer lines, and how long each ride would take. This came in handy for me many times, particularly when my plans changed and I quickly needed to figure out how to change destinations.
The main thing that I took away from the system of transit in Tokyo is that the Japanese know how to maximize the space in their city, whether it be aboveground, belowground, or on the ground itself, to make their transportation systems as efficient as possible. Given that the Tokyo Megaregion is incredibly populous and space is at a premium, this makes a lot of sense. Ideas such as multi-level stations, underground vehicle storage systems, and small-footprint monorails allow for the limited area in which Tokyo exists to be used to its full potential in terms of transit.