To really understand the sustainability of a country, you have to dig deep into the profile of the country. Every country has a different definition of “trash,” produces a different amount of trash on average, and responds to trash differently. Japan incinerates most of their waste and landfills the combusted products. America incinerates a small portion of the waste but landfills a large majority of it as it was discarded. There are several explanations as to why these two countries developed their respective waste management processes.
A major difference which contributes to the divergent garbage response is the geography of the countries. Japan is a very small country compared to the U.S. On top of that, most of the country is mountainous, making the livable and workable areas of the country extremely densely inhabited. They cannot simply bury their trash; first they must make it as compact as possible by incineration. The product of incineration must then be stored somewhere; the lack of space in Japan has forced them to look outward for solutions. Japan landfills the products of incineration in the ocean, making new islands of trash covered in soil. The landfills are then converted into recreational fields and solar panel parks. In America, open space is much more prevalent. There are miles of uninhabited land throughout the U.S., making large landfills much more common. Rather than incinerating the trash first, some American garbage is just thrown into the ground and buried. Most American landfills are built up above the ground, creating a mountain of trash. Some of these mountains are converted into fields and solar parks, but this is difficult because mountain landfills shift a great deal over time, potentially causing damage to anything built above them. Geography plays a key role in waste management, but it is not the only deciding factor on garbage disposal processes.
Another key aspect in waste management systems is the culture of a country. According to the Hofstede Cultural Dimensions analysis, Japan is much more long-term oriented than America. Burning garbage to reduce the size and creating new islands to make usable space is a solution which does not outright burden future generations. However, America’s mountains of garbage are a much more “out of sight, out of mind” solution. One day, Americans will run out of space or resources and will have to face the piles of trash stored throughout the country. America is also more of a business culture and has turned trash disposal into a very profitable enterprise. Private companies own landfills and charge heavily to dispose of the public’s garbage. While landfills are profitable, it is unlikely the U.S. will stop using them. America is also a convenience culture; most Americans do not separate their household garbage because it is an extra hassle and the government does not enforce any waste sorting of residential trash. Japanese meticulously separate their trash, which makes incineration much easier and more efficient. Getting Americans to sort garbage is a tall order, and not likely to happen without government policy.
There are advantages and disadvantages to both methods of trash disposal. Incineration reduces the amount of space waste requires, but needs advanced technology to reduce pollutants, significant energy to burn the waste, and money to pay for that technology and energy. Landfills are a fast and easy solution but require a lot of space. America has space and values convenience, making landfills an attractive, although not necessarily sustainable, solution. Japan is a collectivist culture, always working for the good of the group. This means planning for the long-term, and separating trash. They place a much higher priority on reusing products rather than tossing them out, valuing everything they have. The policies implemented in a country also affect how trash is viewed and handled. America made waste management policies until the 80’s and 90’s when the policies dropped off. Japan continued making waste management policies through the 2000’s and today.
Every country produces trash and every country must find a solution that fits their environmental and cultural profile. Just because waste disposal practices differ from one country to another, it does not inherently mean one is better than the other. The key is finding a waste management solution which works for the individual country, and then making that unique solution sustainable.
Trash is an inevitability; every country produces tons of waste on a daily basis. Disposing of this waste has been an evolving and growing concern. Each country has its own method of dealing with this waste. Japan’s method of trash disposal is widely different than what I’ve seen in America.
Japan deals with their municipal solid waste mostly by incineration. Initially when I found this out, I was concerned with the toxic fumes emitted from burning garbage. According to the article “Solid Waste Management and Recycling Technology of Japan − Toward a Sustainable Society,” using new innovative technologies, the amount of dioxin released into the atmosphere is incredibly low. Japan has a few landfills scattered across the country, but they are rare. The landfills they do establish are semi-aerobic. Semi-aerobic landfills quickly stabilize after the land is completely filled, making them sanitary. Semi-aerobic landfills in Japan are converted into parks and fields. We had the privilege of visiting a landfill that was rehabilitated into solar fields. America incinerates some of the municipal waste, mainly food products. However, most of the U.S.’s garbage is stored in landfills. American landfills often turn into mountains, and cannot be reused as parks. America is able to do this due to the size of the country; there is a lot of open space in America where garbage can be dumped and left. This is not an option for Japan due to the limited land. As long as the toxic fumes are minimized, I would consider incinerating trash more sustainable since it prevents future generations from suffering. In many years, American citizens will have to deal with the mountains of trash.
In Japan, there are surprisingly few trash cans in public places. Usually, there are garbage cans around vending machines, bathrooms, and food shops, but not many other places. Despite this, there is very little litter around the cities. Japan is a shame culture, so littering would cause a perpetrator to lose face. In America, trash cans are much more available, but the amount of litter is also more frequent. Sometimes there is even trash on the ground when there is a garbage can nearby. Another difference between the waste disposal systems I have encountered is the separation of trash types. In Japan, there are usually three or four disposals next to each other: incinerated trash, P.E.T. bottles, cans, and other plastics. These bins are usually labeled in both Japanese and English. America usually only uses a general trash can for all waste. In more environmentally friendly places, a second garbage can is available for general recycling. On Georgia Tech’s campus, there are specific waste disposals for different types of trash, like cans, bottles, and newspapers. This is not the standard in America, unfortunately.
The separation of recyclables on the user end makes recycling much more efficient in Japan. Recycling is a higher priority for their population. Japan is also constantly improving their recycling processes by refining their recyclables and removing foreign contaminants. Americans usually recycle only when it is convenient. America recycled 67.8 million tons of waste in 2015 while the total generation of municipal waste in 2015 was 262.4 million tons. America recycled 25% of its waste, making it slightly ahead of Japan’s recycling rate of 20.8% in 2012. This is surprising given the amount of effort Japan puts into the separation of trash and recyclables.
Waste management is a global problem. To make a more sustainable world, trash solutions must continue to be developed. Japan’s answer of incineration is an immediate and attractive solution if the proper precautions and sanitary processes are used. America’s solution of landfills is less sustainable; they are not a long-term resolution. Japan’s lack of litter and separation of trash is also more impressive than the U.S. Despite this, America is more efficient at recycling municipal waste. If America could implement Japan’s separation of trash and adopt Japan’s priorities around trash disposal, recycling could become even more effective.
From my time traveling around Japan, I’ve been able to compare this country to America fairly comprehensibly. I’ve traveled from Tokyo to Fukushima to Kyoto to Hiroshima and now reside in Kobe. This span of travel has also showed me many similarities and differences between the regions of Japan.
Some regional differences between Greater Tokyo and Keihanshin were fairly obvious. In Tokyo, people stand on the left and pass on the right when riding an escalator. In Osaka, people stand on the right side of the escalator and pass on the left. In Kyoto and Kobe, it is usually mixed. There are also differences in language between the two megaregions. Some words only slightly change in meaning while several words are completely different. For example, “I don’t know” in Tokyo is “wakaranai” but in Keihanshin it is “wakarahen.” Another blaring difference is the intercity transportation. I don’t believe I will ever see a subway and train system as complex and efficient as Tokyo. In Keihanshin, the train systems are still very impressive, but they are not nearly as extensive as Tokyo. Bus and bike travel seem to be more prominent in the western region. The dress between locals in the two megaregions also differs. More women in Tokyo wear high heels than those in Keihanshin. This may be due to the types of transportation women use; biking in high heels is no easy task.
A final difference I have observed between the two megaregions are the shops. In Greater Tokyo, tall department stores are everywhere. The multifloored department stores and malls are in Keihanshin as well, but on a much lesser scale. In their place are more smaller, local shops. A regional difference that I have not witnessed, but have heard rumor of, is the demeanor of each region. Tokyo residents are said to be more cold, impatient, and aloof, while Keihanshin locals are supposedly more friendly, humorous, and welcoming. Despite the rumor, everyone I have met in Japan has been extremely kind and hospitable, regardless of region.
Regional differences within a country are not unique to Japan. The United States has its own set of regional differences that are just as observable, if not more. I grew up in rural Maryland and attend university in Georgia. While both of these states are along the east coast, they have their fair share of regional differences. A change in dialect from the Northeast to the South is prominent, with the most renowned difference being “you guys” and “y’all.” But just like Japan, we have different words for the same thing. “Pop,” “soda,” “cola,” are all soft drinks. “Tractor trailer,” “eighteen-wheeler,” “semitruck,” are different regional words for the same large truck that pulls a container on the highway. Just like Japan, transportation differs based on region as well. The entirety of America is a car culture, but large pickup trucks are more prominent in the South and Midwest than either coast.
Two regional differences between the Northeast and the South that I enjoy are the differences in etiquette and food. The South is renowned for its kind, welcoming residents often referred to as “Southern hospitality.” People are more open and willing to chat. They will hold doors open for others and often say “good morning” to strangers passing by. The food in the South is also delicious, although rarely nutritious. Fried chicken, barbeque, sweet tea, Cheerwine, and pecan pie are a few Southern delicacies. The Northeast has its own set of regional food as well, including Utz potato chips and Cheese Nips.
Understanding regional cultural differences is important when it comes to promoting sustainable development. If a development is in conflict with a culture’s values or characteristics, it is not sustainable. A sustainable development in one culture may not be sustainable in another culture.
Often in modern society, “smart” technology is defined as technology that has access to the internet. However, “smart” technology can have many different definitions. One such definition is the ability for a technology to self-monitor and respond to certain stimuli. Another, which I choose to adopt for this discussion, is any technology that is more beneficial, economical, or convenient than the technology it replaces.
Japan is well known for their transportation network; their train systems are fast, reliable, and convenient. It is no surprise that they are constantly improving their technologies. Japan has prepaid cards can be used almost universally in the transportation realm and even in some non-transit applications. The cards are applicable all around Japan, making transit easy and accessible. The more convenient public transit is, the more people will use it, and the more sustainable the system is. The cards are also becoming compatible with newer smart phones, allowing the phone to replace the card. The amount of information available at the train stations also makes the stations more convenient and user friendly. In larger train stations, there are interactive screens that will display destinations inside the station and directions on how to get there. The information screens are extremely helpful to non-locals and keep the stations running efficiently.
During my stay in Japan, I’ve also noticed automatic fixtures are very common. Automated air conditioning, lights, sinks, and toilets are conventional in America, but in Japan they are almost universal. These devices are energy saving by nature. However, Japan has automatic doors that don’t have a sensor. Instead the doors have a button that you can push, and they automatically open. This is better than the standard automatic doors since they are much less likely to be triggered accidentally. Another notable aspect of Japan is the universal free Wi-Fi. The widespread Wi-Fi makes it easy to get around the city, talk to locals, and find information. The most unfamiliar characteristic of Japanese smart technology is the sinks resting atop the toilets. Once the toilet is flushed, the sink tap turns on, allowing the user to wash their hands while the runoff water fills the toilet tank. This significantly reduces water usage.
Even with all of these smart technologies, Japan could benefit from smart technologies that currently exist in America. Japan has a large issue surrounding plastic consumption; everything is wrapped in plastic, sometimes in two or three different wrappers. Smart garbage technology could make this trash more manageable or even reduce the amount of trash altogether. In the Atlanta airports, trashcans are self-compacting. Such garbage bins could automatically crush cans and bottles, reducing the space they require. An alternative to compacting garbage cans is “Pay as You Throw” garbage system. With these trash cans, a fee is required to deposit trash. These disposal bins would not be effective in many countries because people would litter instead of paying a small fee. However, in Japan, littering is nonexistent. Having to pay to throw garbage away may reduce the amount of disposables consumed. Another smart technology growing in the U.S.A. are water fountains with reusable bottle refilling capabilities. Japan has very few water fountains, and none I have encountered have the tap for water bottles. These fountains could promote reusable water bottles reduce the amount of plastic water bottles purchased. A final smart technology that Japan could benefit from is found on Georgia Tech’s own campus. On west campus, just outside the Love Building, is a picnic bench shaded by two solar panels situated above the table. The picnic table is also equipped with four outlets. Japan has many parks and outdoor areas where such tables could be placed, generating clean energy and using that energy to charge peoples devices.
People all around the world value convenience. Smart technology consistently makes life more convenient and is constantly evolving. Japan has many desirable smart technologies that also make the country more sustainable, but they could also benefit from observing and implementing smart technologies from other countries.
Japan’s most famous form of transportation is the shinkansen or the “bullet train.” The country first opened the shinkansen for commercial use in 1964 and has since continued to improve the technology, sustainability, and ergonomics of the transportation system.
Unfortunately, I haven’t experienced much intercity travel beyond the United States. While traveling in America, I’ve only ever flown from city to city or driven in a personal car. As such, I’ve never ridden on a train, let alone a bullet train. After traveling around Japan for a week, I now have incredibly high expectations for train systems in other countries. I was expecting the trains to be like that of movies: personal booths along a hallway. However, the shinkansen is more like the layout of a plane. There is a central aisle with rows of seats on either side and room for baggage above the seats. The shinkansen is much more comfortable than a plane. The seats are spacious with generous leg room. There are outlets in each row of seats to recharge devices. There are bathrooms, smoking rooms, air conditioning, and a food and drink trolley that consistently runs us and down the aisle. However, shinkansen vary slightly in size and amenities. The first shinkansen we rode had slightly less leg room but more outlets than the shinkansen I rode from Tokyo to Kyoto. This comfort is important, as the shinkansen have an annual passenger count of roughly 143,015,000 people. The shinkansen also serve the same purpose as domestic American flights; traversing the country to take passengers from major city to major city. In America, flights have roughly 741.6 million annual domestic passengers, but most planes only carry around 175 people. The shinkansen can carry up to 1,300 people, making it more sustainable. Airplanes are more convenient in America, as they can travel up to 907 km/h while shinkansen travel around 320 km/h. America is also larger, and less streamlined than Japan. The shinkansen is more sustainable and comfortable, but American flights are more direct, faster, and convenient. I would be pleased if America began using shinkansen or other large scale, sustainable transportation, but that would require a large infrastructure investment.
Aboard the shinkansen, the train is usually silent. Most patrons sleep, read, eat, and listen to music with headphones. It is very peaceful. The punctuality of the shinkansen is beyond peer. The layout of the shinkansen may be similar to a domestic American flight but not the reliability. Flights plan extra time for terminal and runway delays, and even then, sometimes they cannot arrive on time. Shinkansen leave the minute they are scheduled to depart. A shinkansen once made national news when it departed 20 seconds before it was planned. The exactness of the schedule is appreciated until you miss a shinkansen from a delay from a connecting train. Due to “dangerous conditions on the tracks,” our train taking us to our shinkansen was late by over an hour, making us miss our reserved shinkansen. However, shinkansen traverse the country frequently enough, we only had to wait an hour or so to board a different one.
JR makes it extremely easy to get to the shinkansen. They have a separate area for shinkansen than other JR and subway lines. It is clearly marked, and any station personnel could help direct you to shinkansen. Once in the station, the train number, the time of departure, the destination city, and the track number is displayed on screens when trains are scheduled to depart. This information is in both Japanese and English, making it incredibly easy to understand. Navigating the shinkansen lines is straightforward because there are so few lines, unlike the Tokyo subway system. There’s only a one line going from place to place as opposed to several going to the same station. So instead of having to decide between the Yamanote or Chuo like in Tokyo, you are given a ticket that says Tokyo to Kyoto. If you know what city you’d like to go to, you can easily get there.
All of this makes the shinkansen incredibly easy to use, especially with a JR pass. For a system to be sustainable, not only must it be environmentally friendly, but easy to use. A system could be the greenest system in the country, but if it is difficult to use, people will avoid it, negating the sustainable efforts. Shinkansen combine comfort, convenience, and sustainability making it an optimal transit system.
After spending a week in Tokyo, it is easy to see the sustainability this mega city has to offer. Tokyo is centered around convenience and efficiency. The transit system is competent, reliable, and accessible. As a primarily English speaker, I could get to and from my destination with ease and comfort. The city itself was neat and orderly. However, as we left Tokyo, the living conditions changed significantly.
While in central Tokyo, the buildings were tall and new. The streets were clean, and the inhabitants always set about with purpose. Even late into the night, I only saw two homeless locals. However, once we left central Tokyo and ventured out of the megaregion, I saw many more impoverished areas. In most countries, the cities are wealthier than the less densely populated regions; Japan was no exception to this. An interesting aspect to this was the only homeless I saw outside of the mega-region were men.
The starkest difference in sustainability inside and outside of the megaregion was the usage of public transit. While in Tokyo, I only traveled by walking and subway. To arrive in Fukushima, we took several trains that quickly moved across the Japanese countryside. This seems to be a common form of transportation; however, residents outside of Tokyo mainly travel by personal motorized vehicles. I saw a significant increase in the number of cars as we traversed from Tokyo to Fukushima. Even in Fukushima, the amount of cars was surprisingly high. With more cars comes more roadways and less railways.
Another common difference in any country when moving from cities to rural areas is the usage of space. In Tokyo, everything was built up or built underground. Space was conserved in any way possible. I don’t recall see any single-story buildings in the city. As we left the city, I began to see buildings with only one floor, although it was still rare. Without the population of the city, people could build more outward than upward. Another benefit of rural space is the option of using renewable energy. Solar fields and wind turbines require large amounts of space to operate. Before the Fukushima disaster, a large amount of Tokyo’s energy was produced by the nuclear power plants. However, after the disaster, the city mainly uses imported gas and coal. With the decommissioning of the nuclear plants, an opportunity has opened in the more rural areas to install renewable energy plants. Fukushima now has solar parks which produce locally harvested electricity in a more sustainable way.
The introduction of solar parks and wind turbines to the Fukushima area speaks to the resilience of the community and the country. To me, resilience is the ability of a community to withstand hardship and rebuild even stronger. Fukushima has acknowledged the disaster that was caused by nuclear energy, and rather than wallowing in the catastrophe, they promote a safer, cleaner form of energy and implement it within a few years. I am hopeful that the number of solar parks will continue to grow in the future. Much of the rural are used to be and somewhat still is used as rice fields. Due to the disaster, the rice produced in Fukushima is 20% below market value in Japan because of the reputation the nuclear meltdown. Perhaps some of those uneconomical rice patties could be converted into solar farms.
Unfortunately, not all of Fukushima’s new infrastructure is an improvement to the community. The radioactivity has caused a large amount of topsoil to be deemed unsafe. Contaminated soil has been gathered into large bags and must be stored for 30+ years. There is no precedent to nuclear meltdown cleanup that Japan is currently facing. They have no model to follow as they try to deal with the consequences. Large buildings and landfills will house the soil for years to come. This is hardly a sustainable solution; yet Japan currently has no better solution.
Traveling from Tokyo to Fukushima has been an edifying experience. The differences between life inside of the megaregion and beyond is very prominent, including the sustainability of the regions. Despite this, the more rural regions of Japan are slowly making efforts to become more sustainable. The cities that were abandoned or destroyed in the disaster now have an opportunity to rebuild in a more positive, sustainable fashion.
Japan’s transportation is extremely different than the U.S.; while you can find the same types of transit (buses, cars, subways, monorails), their infrastructure and usage vary wildly. The U.S. mainly uses motorized personal vehicles to travel from place to place. Most households have at least one car and many households have multiple. I know my family has always had at least two cars, with that number increasing to 5 as my siblings and I grew up and began to drive. Japan, however, has many fewer motor vehicle usage, instead relying heavily on nonmotorized transport such as walking or biking, and public transport, like buses and subways. Public transit exists in the U.S., but it is much less used that public transit in Japan. Japan’s use of space and transportation infrastructure makes their public transport more available and convenient, increasing the sustainability of the transit system. Tokyo’s sidewalks on busy roads are either fenced off from the street, or in most places, raised above the street. This prevents pedestrian traffic from interfering with road traffic, allowing for more efficient and reliable bus systems. The railways are kept away from the roads and sidewalks for the most part, being raised above or below the streets. In the U.S., pedestrian traffic is usually not kept separate. Buses sometimes have their own “bus lane,” but I have found that in Atlanta, that rule is largely ignored by personal motor vehicles. Comparing a map of MARTA to a map of Tokyo’s subway system, the difference is extremely clear. MARTA is a small cross of just 4 lines while Tokyo is an intricate web of lines. This all leads up to the fact that Japan has 1/7 of the emissions per capita than America, making their transportation more sustainable.
But there is more to transportation than just emissions. People in Tokyo and Japan eagerly use the public transit systems; they rely on it. People in America generally tend to avoid public transit systems if they can help it. This difference is explained by what makes a transit system good. A good transit system is convenient in location, timely, financially efficient, trustworthy, and comfortable. A good and sustainable transit system adds equity, safety, heath, and environmental impact into the mix. Japan’s transit systems were built in such a way that buildings and neighborhoods developed around the railway stops, inherently making them convenient. America built the railways where the population already was, making it less direct. The Tokyo transit system is frequent, reliable, and efficient. I haven’t ridden public transportation in many cities, so I can only speak for Atlanta Usually the transit system is late, and infrequent enough that I always allow extra time whenever I travel with it. One aspect of Tokyo’s transit system that I cannot outright praise is the cost. While it is probably economically efficient for a local Tokyo resident who only travels to and from work every day, I have easily spent $15 on subway tickets in one day. While this is cheaper than an Uber in Japan, I still find it a large amount of money. But the convenience of the Tokyo subway system far outweighs the price, making it still worthwhile.
I had the pleasure of touring the Japan Rail East Research Facility, a leading company in the Japanese subway system. The tour was incredibly interesting; they are testing and developing improvements to the railway system I never even considered. For example, they are testing ideal ceiling levels for subway wind flow, various stair railings and gate designs, new escalators to support the load in subway stations, and lighting. The most interesting aspect for me was the development of solar panels for the subway station windows. This is an excellent use of space and a renewable way to generate energy. The newest design put the tiny solar panels on blinds so they can adjust to the position of the sun throughout the day. Japan Rail’s innovation in the past has been commendable and their plans for the future are inspiring. I am very excited to see the improvements of the subway system in the coming years.
It is well known that Japan has incredible transit systems in operation. On the daily average, Tokyo hosts 8.5 million transit riders. It is no surprise that they have refined the art of public transportation. But just how good is their transit system? And what makes it so good? I consider the pillars of a good transit system the cleanliness, safety, efficiency, environmental impact, and equitability. Just like the rest of Japan, Tokyo’s transit systems are extremely tidy, punctual, and safe. In many of the stations, there are barriers and gates in place around the edges of the subway platforms, keeping the public off the rails. The transit systems are proven to reduce pollution and emissions, making the city much more environmentally conscientious. Japan is also very conscientious of people with disabilities, providing textured strips on the walkways and very clear announcements on the trains to assist the blind. Every station I have experienced is equipped with an elevator to improve accessibility. In Shinjuku, the busiest station in the world, I saw a station attendant escorting a man in a wheelchair, ensuring he was able to navigate safely through the crowds.
With 8.5 million riders utilizing the Tokyo subway system daily, I found it incredible that I didn’t feel cramped the entire time. While I haven’t experienced the subway at peak hours, I expected to be packing into the subway by “pusher,” with little room to breathe. During my time traveling, I felt more crowded in the stations than on the train cars, counter to my expectation. People grouped at the edges of the station platforms and pushing their way off and on trains was the foremost reason I noticed the amount of people. On the subway itself, I found that in most cars there were one or two seats open. Only around 5 p.m. on the Yamanote line (the “Beltway” around Central Tokyo) did I struggle to find a comfortable place to stand on the train.
The punctuality of the trains, however, did live up to the global excitement. I didn’t personally time any of the trains or compare the actual time to the assigned arrival time of the subways. However, on every platform, there were screens displaying the arrival of the next train. There were boards posted with the train’s arrival times for all days of the week. Announcements throughout the station alerted attendants when trains were arriving. On the train, screens display the duration to the next few stations. Apparently, it made national news when a train was one minute late. I’m always pleasantly surprised when a MARTA train is on time.
An aspect of the Tokyo transit system that I found most helpful was the abundance of information available. Almost every sign in the stations has an English translation or counterpart. There are subway maps printed in every station and in some subway trains, although I have yet to acquire a personal map of the subway. On the trains, above every door, screens display the current line, the next few stations including the time to those stations, and the current station’s layout. There were also very clear announcements broadcasting the current subway line, the next station, and which doors will open in both Japanese and English. I have no doubt the ease of obtaining information on the Tokyo transit systems keeps things moving efficiently.