Friday, March 13, 2009

Talking Trash in Japan

(This post comes to us from Andrea Damiano. I'm sure anyone who has lived in Japan will agree, trash is taken very seriously. Andrea, thank you!)

I still remember when garbage day was once a week and everything went out in a single black plastic trash bag. Now I have to get up at 7am every Tuesday and Friday to leave disposables at the curb and on Thursday the recycling.
I admit I hate garbage day and dividing up trash, but a sense of urgent environmental consciousness forces me out of bed three times a week. Probably nothing would happen should I fail to comply, maybe at worst a warning or small fine from a surly city waste collector.

It’s a good thing I don’t live in Japan, where in recent years most community’s have restructured garbage codes and institutionalized a ‘no-waste’ lifestyle. Imagine sorting through 10 different trash categories everyday of the week: burnable, non-burnable, empty bottles, empty cans, PET (polyethylene terephthalate) bottles, plastic containers/packages, large-size trash, mirrors, thermometers and paper containers/packages.

Now imagine that each piece had to be cleaned, delivered in personalized transparent garbage bags and were monitored by an organization of your neighbors. What if instead of 10 categories, like in Yokohama, there were 35 or even up to 44, as is the case in the environmentally conscious town of Kamikatsu. These are real examples of how garbage collection is being revolutionized across Japan, whose green record puts North America to shame.

The enforcement of recent laws in Japan has decreased the amount of solid waste sent to landfills to only 16%, while comparatively the United States sends about 70% and has a disappointing national recycling average of about 34%. Kamikatsu, Japan’s model community for environmental action now has an 80% recycling rate, up from 55% only 10 years ago.

I promise, I have a point!

Historically, Japan has been ahead of the pack. In 1962 the first law to control air emissions was implemented and 14 other environmental laws were either enacted or amended by 1970. The United States and Canada trailed behind with their first legislation on clean air passed with much contention in the mid-1970’s.

Internationally Japan is responsible for politicking the Koyoto Protocol and hosting the 2008 G8 Summit with a driving environmental agenda.

There are thousands of interesting examples of Japan’s initiatives, from business efficiency to community projects to technological advancements and to trading or extracting from electronic trash (often called ‘urban mining’). Unfortunately, the constraints of this blog have forced me to limit them.

So, what does this have to do our RELG 352: Japanese Religions course? I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Japan has become the premier example of forging environmental consciousness in our tragedy of the commons. Since studying our course lectures and readings, I believe that there is something about the traditions and religions of Japan which has facilitated its green progression at a time when the world scrambles in reaction to pollution.

The state of pollution has always been a central concern to the Japanese civilization as it has been thought to bring about danger, misfortune and bad luck. As such, purification rituals are commonly undertaken in order to remove such pollution and restore good fortune. Ritualization and purification of pollution for both the living and the dead are central to Japan’s primary religions: Shinto and Buddhism. Even the Kojiki, Japan’s oldest book, outlines the balancing relationship between objects of pollution and purity.

For example in commenting on concepts of space in early Japan Professor of Anthropology, Emiko Ohnuki-Tierney, notes that then trash had to be brought to a specific area west of the house and that polluted objects were to be left outside the house until its odor had disappeared. It has also been traditionally thought unclean and taboo for excrement to be on a certain shore or to come into contact with old blood, cut hair or a dead body. These materials have dangerous power.

Are these example of early purification rituals really so different from the contemporary division of 30 trash categories to preserve the nature of Japan?

Although there are logically several reasons for the emphasis on environmental improvement, such as limited land space of the island and rapid development of industry in the last few decades, it however can be argued the Japanese also have a stronger obligation to nature and social harmony. It seems as though the culture is ripe to institutionalize environmental preservation and individuals are willing to comply with extensive trash responsibilities.

~guest blogger, Andrea Damiano