Pay It Forward: Japan Recycles and Rebuilds

My Japanese family is safe from immediate danger, and living near Osaka, but thoughts of the wonderful Japanese people came to me this morning. When I first saw earthquake video online last week, one impression was that we humans are just like ants, powerless against the forces of nature, swept away by a careless footfall or flood. The Japanese are busily responding to nature’s cataclysm as they tirelessly and selflessly clean up and begin to rebuild their homeland. Having just come from a five-week visit in Japan over the holidays, I have an entirely different perspective than I would otherwise have.

I was amused at the newscast where Diane Sawyer pointed out how organized they were in a disaster shelter by putting up a makeshift recycling center. I’m not sure she fully understood how automatic that is for the Japanese. It would be no different than Americans putting out an all-inclusive trashcan. For the Japanese, recycling is a way of life. It’s not something that just a few ecologically conscious souls practice. The entire nation practices constant recycling. They have no choice. That is how the refuse is collected. There is a calendar on the wall above the trashcan in the kitchen which indicates the specific types of trash to be collected on which days. In each home, mall, highway rest area, every public place, there are bins for separating it all. It is an amazing thing to watch, both in their behaviors and on the days the refuse collectors come to pick up the big items, like TVs, computers, furniture, etc.

During my entire visit to Japan, there were maybe two public restrooms that had paper towels. The Japanese each carry a small hand towel, about the size of a small washcloth, in a pocket or purse. These are either thin terrycloth or fabric like a heavy-duty handkerchief.

At the grocery store you don’t get a nickle credit for bringing your own bag. If you forget to bring your own bags you have to pay a nickle for each plastic bag. That’s the system the USA needs to adopt.

After arriving and preparing to depart from Osaka-Kansai airport, I noticed that it is situated on an island in the bay. Strangely, the shape of the island is rectangular. I was told that is because the island was made from refuse and there is one similar in Tokyo Bay also with an airport on top. When I watched some personal video posts that were taken during the earthquake, there was one showing the ground cracking across sidewalks and water seeping up there and across the park in the grass. It seemed strange until the explanation was given that this was an island man-made from rocks built up in the water. I would guess it also included refuse.

My first introduction to how the Japanese approach refuse-handling was when Josh, Naho and Yoshifumi (Naho’s brother) came to visit me in 2004 when I was living in Anchorage, Alaska. We had a wonderful visit over the holidays and New Year’s Day was their last day there. In Japanese tradition, all the food for that holiday had been prepared the day before, so Josh and I took the Japanese siblings down Turnagain Arm to Beluga Point to see the wonderful sights. We Americans jumped out of the car and scurried over the railroad tracks, which were scattered with the remnants of fireworks from the night before. We looked back from water’s edge to see Naho and Yoshifumi bending over the railroad tracks, picking up all the trash left by thoughtless Americans. We called to them to leave it and come look at the waves and mountains, but they remained dutifully gathering everything into a cardboard box that had also been left behind. We finally gave up our derailed expedition and went back to the railroad tracks where they had finished and Naho politely asked me if she could put the box in my trunk and take it to a dumpster. Yes, of course, but when we got in the car we had words.

First of all, I was embarrassed that our Japanese visitors were cleaning up after careless Americans. I told her that wasn’t necessary, that the railroad company would have someone clean it up. We argued this point with passion and courtesy. Naho would not back down. I knew her English was very good, but still I tried to explain in every possible way, that we did not bring them out there to pick up trash. We wanted them to see the natural beauty of the Alaskan landscape. She insisted that it was not good enough to wait for whenever the railroad company would clean it up. They had been taught to clean up whatever they came upon so that the next person to arrive there would be able to see the beauty without the distraction of trash. She had stopped me in my tracks and the argument ended with us agreeing from then on we would help them, but they had to at least take time to look at the beauty also.

In Japan, one of the first things I noticed was how clean everything was, the cars, streets, homes, yards, public buildings, parks, etc. They are not perfect and are still cleaning up along the Ibogawa River. It was flooded a year earlier and there are still some traces of straggling trash. When I asked Naho to stop the car for a photo op at a pullout along a winding road that overlooked the bay, I noticed a collection of trash scattered there. I had an impulse to start collecting it, but decided not to make it a point, since we now had three children under age four in the car. Ninety-seven percent clean was perfectly clean enough that day and I didn’t want to embarrass Naho. (Now I wonder how she will feel when she reads this.)

It will take decades for the Japanese to clean up from the earthquake and tsunami of March 11, 2011, but they will get it done collectively and efficiently. They are bonded to their neighbors and relatives in ways Americans cannot fully understand. When you see someone on the newscast grieving the loss of a neighbor, I assure you it’s not just someone who lived down the street. Their neighbors are their personal friends for many good reasons that have evolved over the centuries. But those are stories for another day.

© Copyright B. Grace Jones 2011

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