Japan mostly uses incineration to deal with municipal solid waste (MSW) while the US mostly uses landfills. Out of all the OECD countries, Japan has a very low percent of recycling waste and the US recycles more of their trash than Japan. Both Japan and the US use their MSW disposal systems to help generate electricity. I will talk about the environmental and cultural differences that I think have influenced waste management policies of Japan and the US. Percent of total municipal waste that is recycled or composted in OECD countries. (Image taken from Forbes)
Japan is a small island country where only about 14% of the land is flat enough to be usable. This lack of space in the country can explain why it would rather incinerate MSW instead of storing them in landfills. The US, on the other hand, has a lot of abundant space and is about 26 times the size of Japan. The abundance of open space can explain why the US uses landfills since it has the space to do so.
Japan overlayed on the contiguous US. The size difference between the two countries is emphasized here. (Image taken from The World Factbook- CIA)
Japanese shame culture plays a huge part in why Japanese cities are often spotless. I remember walking in a train station of seeing a Japanese teen picking up someone else's trash that was dropped earlier, I do not think that I would ever see anything like this in the US. Japanese gift exchange culture produces a lot of waste for the country that is often incinerated.
One of the biggest differences I have noticed in the US and Japan on this study abroad program (other than the culture and language) is how differently they treat trash disposal. Everywhere in Japan, from train stations to household garbage, bins are separated in a manner to make the recycling and incineration processes more efficient.
Municipal solid waste (MSW) is often called trash and is a term that includes everyday household wastes. The amount of MSW a person produces is a lot higher than what I expected it to be in the US (over four pounds a day), whereas Japanese produce a lot less (around 2 pounds a day). In Japan, from my observations, trash is often separated into combustible wastes, cans/bottles, newspapers/magazines, and plastics/PET and this system of trash separation is present in a majority of places. Whereas, in the US, trash disposal is often split into only two categories: non-recyclables and recyclables (but more often than not it is all mixed into the same bin). In Japan, most MSW is incinerated and in the US most MSW is put into a landfill.
What normal trash bin separation probably looks like in most of the US. (Image from transtech)
What normal trash bin separation looks like in most of Japan. (Image from Stock News USA)
Most of the Japanese trash bins are clearly labeled in Japanese and English to ensure that waste is disposed of correctly, as do American trash bins (the only issue is that a lot of trash bins in the US do not have separate sections for different types of garbage). Since Japanese trash bins are built in with a separation that almost all people follow it is easy for Japanese trash to get recycled appropriately, whereas American trash bins often have non-recyclable materials in the recycle bin and vice-versa which makes the process of recycling a lot more difficult and time-consuming.
The first week of this program was spent in Tokyo, a part of the Kanto region, we then proceeded to the travel leg and have ended up in Kobe, a part of the Kansai region. Even though these regions are part of the same country and are relatively close to each other (at least in an American standard) there are a lot of cultural differences between them.
The first difference that I observed was the way people stood on escalators. In the Kanto region, most people stand on the left side and leave the right for people in a rush. Whereas in the Kansai region, people stand on the right and leave the left side of the escalator for people in a rush.
The differences in escalator use between regions. (Image taken from CNN)
Another difference that I learned about was the dialect. The funniest difference I learned about was the word for "idiot." The Kanto region uses the word "baka" when referring to someone but often use it when referring to carelessness, whereas the Kansai region uses the word "aho" but use it when talking to people they are more familiar with.
Overall, there are a lot of differences between these two regions that usually go unnoticed by foreigners. The difference in language, food, culture, and many other things show the regionalism present in Japan. This regionalism can be compared to the one we see in the USA, especially in the North East and the South, where there are differences in language, food, culture, and other things.
The Kanto and Kansai regions on a map. (Image taken from CNN)
One of the key factors in pushing for a place to become sustainable is to ensure you have technology that will allow you to keep doing so. Japan is a place that has done a great job in implementing such technologies. I will write about some of these "smart" technologies that I have observed in my past three weeks here.
The Suica card is similar to a Marta breeze card, it enables passengers to be able to pay for their train rides with it. One thing that sets it apart from any other metro/train card is that it can be used to pay for various forms of travels, ranging from the Shinkansen to a city's street car service (it is accepted at most vending machines too) regardless of which company operates the service. This cooperation between companies to allow for users to have the most convenient journey by allowing them to reduce the number of payment methods they have to carry to only one card is the perfect implementation of a smart technology.
A passenger putting their Suica card at a gate of a train station. Image from gogonihon.com.
The next smart technology that I saw was something that has not been implemented yet. I saw it at the JR East Research Facility. It was a ceiling whose height could be adjusted. They used this to imitate the heights of different stations but it could also be used to adjust the temperature of stations in a more efficient way. I can see this method having the potential of saving a lot of money in heating/cooling expenditure and adjust how air conditioners are used in a way that is better for the environment.
Another smart technology I learned about was also at the JR East Research Facility. They are developing translucent solar panels that can be placed on windows of trains and train stations. I found this very impressive as if this is successfully implemented it will increase the amount of renewable energy used while also saving money for the companies running train stations and trains (which are usually the same).
Overall, there have been a lot of smart technologies that I have seen in Japan and I could talk about them all day. I am impressed by how technology development is approached by taking sustainability into mind and also how companies are willing to work with each other here.
Giken, a company making underground parking for cycles and cars. This is another example of a "smart" technology. Image taken from Giken.com.
Having been in Japan for two weeks and traveling for a week, I have spent my time on various transportation systems. The various methods of transportation I have used are the train, Shinkansen, bus, ferry, cable car, and streetcar.
We used the Shinkansen a lot this past week to travel between cities. The Shinkansen are bullet trains that reach upwards of 200 mph which makes them a quick and cost-efficient method of intercity transportation. As someone who has spent a lot of my life in India and traveled using their train system, I can say that the Shinkansen system is the ideal system for intercity travel. The Shinkansen is just as timely as the rest of the Japanese transit system, something that Indian trains are not. The Shinkansen also offers a level of comfort that makes you feel almost as if you are flying, which is something I appreciate since Indian trains are nowhere as comfy. The people using the Shinkansen are also less aggressive than the people I have seen that use Indian trains, especially when it comes to getting onto the train, and the patrons on the Shinkansen are also a lot more reserved and tend to be on the quieter side.
As we left the Tokyo area, the amount of English signs in the trains are the stations still stayed the same, making navigation from place to place easy for English speakers. Even the signs and announcements on the streetcar and ferry came in English. One thing that I found interesting was that the JR west company had designed departure times for their ferries to Miyajima in such a way that people from trains that arrived had enough time to walk over to the dock. I think this method of maximizing the ease of use for passengers is what makes the Japanese transit system so spectacular.
The streetcar and bus rides that I used were not as precise in time as the train system but that is because they do not use transitways that are dedicated entirely to them. Overall, all the methods of transport that I have used in Japan have been unique in their own way, but I liked the railway system the best as it is the most developed and is an almost perfect right-of-way type A transit mode.
Walking into the JR West Miyajima Ferry. Owned and operated by the same company that operates a majority of trains of the region.
Two different types of bullet trains developed by JR Rails. These were on display at the railway museum.
The journey from Tokyo to Fukushima, and then from Fukushima to Kyoto thru Tokyo was a long one but thanks to the JR company trains it was a comfortable one. Starting our trip in Tokyo, the center of one of the biggest mega-regions, gave me a false sense of Japan is like. It was very easy to get around, order food, and direct questions in English so it was an easy adjustment. I soon realized that most of the rest of Japan is not like that.
We started our journey to Fukushima at 6:30 am on June 3rd and got there around 10:15 am. The journey was easy to follow, as most Japanese transit journeys are, and took us up the Eastern coast of Japan. There was a noticeable change in the areas around the track as we went outside the Tokyo mega-region. We stopped seeing a lot of buildings and started seeing smaller houses and rice fields, it was a beautiful view. You could tell from looking out the train that most of the economy revolved around farming.
In Fukushima, seeing the effects that the 3.11 incident had on people and how it is still affecting them to this day was a humbling experience. I saw the resiliency of the Japanese people after seeing how much of the evacuated area they have already restored and how most people want to come back to their homes. One of the biggest things that I observed was that even though we were in small towns away from big cities, people still followed the trash separation seriously and everything was clean. Another nice thing I saw was that the high school students of the area learned about the sustainable development goals and were interested in turning them into a reality. The push towards renewable energy in the Fukushima also interested me. Currently, over 30% of Fukushima's energy comes from renewable sources and they plan to go 100% renewable energy by 2040.
From Fukushima we left to go to Kyoto around 11:30 am on June 4th. Our first line from Fukushima to Tokyo was delayed due to some error in the track. This delay was the first delay of any kind that I have experienced in Japan so far (and will most likely be the only). The line we took from Tokyo to Kyoto was a Shinkansen and rode extremely smoothly.
Looking at fields of rice through the window of the train while leaving Tokyo.
A poster of the Sustainable Development Goals in an alley in Kyoto.
A model of the town hall of Okuma inside the town hall. The town had an evacuation order for most of the past 8 years but it was recently lifted and the town is starting to go back to how it was before the 3.11 incident.
Today we had the chance to visit the Railway Museum and JR East's Research and Development facility in Saitama, a prefecture northwest of Tokyo. Since it was far away, we spent a relatively long time on the train. During this train ride I realized how well connected the Japanese transit system is. We headed back towards the youth center we were staying at a little past 5pm and got to see the large amount of people that use this system. The connectedness, ease of use, punctuality, frequency of trains, comfort, reach across the nation are some of the critical elements of a good transit system I thought the Japanese transit system did a great job in providing.
When I heard we were going to the Railway Museum I thought it would be boring, but little did I know that the museum would show me the amount of passion that the Japanese have for trains. The museum had a history section that showed the evolution of the Japanese railways, and a future section that showed how they plan to further improve this already amazing system.
I found the visit to JR East's Research and Development facility incredibly interesting as R&D is something I have thought about as a career choice. The tour of the facility showed me how important safety of passengers and bettering technology to make it easier for riders is for JR East, some of the things that they were in the process of developing were: better ticket gate for handicapped passengers, better safety gates on train stations, and solar power windows for train staions. Learning about the different things they do and what some of their future projects are made me wish I worked there as I had some ideas that I think could be implemented to make the train system better.
While touring the R&D facility I often thought about how an R&D facility might be for a train/transit company in America. I know the US Government has regulations that the train companies must follow but I have not seen any American company make improvements to their trains and stations to ensure the safety of the passengers. The biggest difference I have noticed in (my 5 days of using) the Japanese transit system and (my 2 commuting semesters of using) Marta is that the Japanese Transit System is something every rider wants to come back and use. I think America knows how to imitate what the Japanese are doing, has the technology for it, and definitely has the money to recreate something as good as it, what it is lacking is the push from the government to improve the transit system.
A wall from the exhibit of the history of trains in Japan.
The Japanese transit system is something most people have heard about. The reason it is famous is because of its efficiency as well as ability to support large scale ridership in a way that seems so effortless. The transit system is used by most of the locals which usually causes a lot of rush and business, especially before work starts and after work ends for the white-collar workers. The punctuality of the trains, as well as ease of usage is a big reason the system is loved by locals and tourists alike.
When I landed in Tokyo and was eager to explore the beautiful city, I got nervous about the language difference, especially when it came to the transit system as that was what my primary method of transportation was going to be. Turns out that was not something I should have worried about because all the transit stations have an English sign and announcement for everything that they have in Japanese. This accessibility of information, especially for a non-Japanese speaker such as myself, made traveling in this transit system easy, and easy traveling is a big indicator of whether a transit system is successful.
After spending an entire day traveling around Japan with my fellow classmates in a ‘Tokyo Transit Tour’ led by Dr. Kari Watkins, I realized how important the punctuality of trains was to the transit system. All the various transit companies do their best and work together to ensure all train arrivals/departures happen exactly when they are supposed to. This timeliness is what I believe to be the biggest reason this transit system is so successful as it gives people a reason to rely on it which makes people want to come back and keep using it.
I made a lot of observations during the rides on the various lines we took with various types of trains (Heavy Rail, Monorail, and Automated Guideway Transit) and learned a lot. There were very few flaws that I found about the transit system, them being: low handicapped accessibility, no water fountains, few trashcans, and interchanging sides of walking in the station (which confused me occasionally). During my rides I also became curious about the product design of the ‘grab handles’ on the trains and why they were designed to move as freely as they do. Overall, everything that I saw from the transit system impressed me and provided me with better insight of what any transit system should aim to be like.
Example of Japanese and English signs in the Shingawa Station.
People lining up to enter a train, between each green line on the floor is exactly where the door will be when the train stops.
Sign on the display screen in the train informing passengers of a delay of another transit line.
A map of the network of lines around the Tokyo mega-region, the path of the ‘Tokyo Transit Tour’ is highlighted with the red and blue lines. (Network map taken from JR East website)