One thing about Japan that surprises every foreign visitor is how beautiful the towns are. Shibuya and Shinjuku are always full of people, day or night. The city’s central train stations have the most people using them worldwide. What is surprising, though, is that there are almost no public trash cans. Still, each area is always clean and nice-looking. This is even more amazing when considering how many people are in the city daily. Are there any other cities in the world with fewer than 9.3 million people that stay as clean as Tokyo does without trash cans? Let’s look at the reason for this: the way people in Japan are raised.
1. A mindset that says, “We will keep our towns and public spaces clean,” not “Someone will do it.”
In Japan, kids in elementary school and up have time for cleaning as part of their education. Children learn to clean their schools for 12 years, up until they go to college, because the compulsory education system doesn’t hire custodians. During the break after lunch, everyone helps clean up the school grounds when everyone is done eating. Getting kids to clean up after themselves also helps them develop a sense of community and a work ethic, which leads to different educational goals. There are different groups, each with its own leader, and people learn more about being a part of a group and taking responsibility as they clean. Because of this, everyone learns to clean from a young age and gets the idea that it’s everyone’s job to keep areas where many people gather clean. “Leaving a place cleaner than when we found it” is a moral value that people are taught from a young age. This is why towns and public spaces can stay clean and nice without trash cans.
Schools all over the world include extracurricular activities like outings and school trips in their lessons. In Japan, people are taught to list things to bring to these kinds of events. Plastic bags and handkerchiefs, which can be used if they suddenly feel sick, are on this list. So, people have to take care of their own trash until they can throw it away in the right places. This is something that Japanese children learn from a young age.
2. The way the Japanese think as a group gives them a sense of responsibility and beauty regarding trash.
In any country, people don’t throw trash on the side of the road because they want to. People all over the world have the moral sense and good manners to put trash in trash cans. This is something that is just common sense everywhere. But people cause problems when they try to shove more trash into a trash can that is already full. When they put trash next to full trash cans, and when they throw trash on the side of the road because it is too much trouble to look for a trash can. They think someone else will take care of the trash instead of doing it themselves.
The biggest difference between how Japan deals with trash and how other countries do it is probably because of the way Japanese people think. In Japan, how people act as a group is more important than how they act as individuals. One example is that when most people agree on one side of an issue, that side is thought to be the right one. This practice is called “migi ni naru,” which means “look to the right.” This phrase comes from the military, which means forming a straight line by aligning yourself with the person to your right. This can be seen at school events and activities where groups must be put together. Everyone shouts “eyes forward,” which tells them to line up in rows and look at the person in front. This makes a nice formation for the principal or person standing on the dais in front of them.
But according to this line of thinking, if the public thought “it’s okay to litter,” it would be right, but morals learned in school and at home would not let it happen. “Leave a place more beautiful than when you found it” is something the Japanese learn in school, which makes them think it’s wrong to throw trash away.
Because the Japanese think of themselves as a group, they care about what other people think and how their actions are seen. This is another reason why they keep the streets clean. It is the most important thing about our country and affects everyone. That doesn’t mean there aren’t people who litter, because there definitely are, but most Japanese are aware of how their actions look to others and try not to stand out or be seen in a bad light. This way of thinking that “if someone doesn’t like it, it must be bad” is not good. Everyone in the country shares this view, which makes people always aware of what others are doing. This is a very Japanese way of being humble toward others and strengthens group consciousness.
3. The Japanese separate their trash on purpose and follow the rules
Japan has a strong sense of how things should look, so communities have strict rules about how trash should be separated. There are different days for collecting trash that can be burned, the trash that can’t be burned, pet bottles, cans, glass bottles, cardboard, newspapers, and old paper. Because of this, you need to separate these types of trash at home so they can be picked up on their own days. This is true not only for trash at home but also for trash cans in parks, convenience stores, train platforms, and by ticket gates. Most of the time, there are more than four types of containers: burnable, plastic, cans, and pet bottles. The same is true for schools, where the rules about how to separate trash are strictly followed. As a result, Japanese kids learn to separate trash and not litter from a young age. In recent years, cities and towns have started selling trash bags that must be used to pick up trash. There are strict rules that only these trash bags can be used for collection. This makes people even more aware of how important it is to separate trash.
Some amazing examples show how the Japanese sort trash and throw it away. It shows how the Japanese like to do things the right way. Think about how Japanese people get on trains. They let people get off the train first, and they get back on when the last person gets off. Then, they get on the train in the same order they lined up when they were waiting for the train. Escalators are another place where lines form. Some people stand to the side so that people who are in a hurry to go up or down the moving escalator have room. The lines that form in front of popular restaurants or at popular attractions at theme parks like Disneyland are another example. Japanese people are careful to follow the rules and wait in line politely because they care about how others feel.
4. What the Japanese have learned from living in a small country and how each person feels responsible for trash
In each person’s conscious mind, there is a belief that getting rid of trash is the individual responsibility of each person. This is partly because Japan is such a small country. It has less land area than California (377,914 km2) as a whole (423,971 km2). Tokyo is only 2,188 km2, but it has more people than any other city in the world. Tokyo isn’t the only city without trash cans. Still, compared to the size of the city and the number of people living there, the trash facilities are small and few. Because of this, the Japanese are subconsciously aware of their environment and how to get rid of trash. This is something that everyone takes for granted. The Japanese put their knowledge to use by teaching kids from a young age how to reduce waste and not just throw trash away anywhere, but to keep it and look for a proper place to put it. Many Japanese put their trash in bags and bring it home, where they sort it into different piles before throwing it away.
5. Volunteer work in neighborhoods, schools, towns, and businesses
This is how the Japanese have a strong sense of beauty regarding how people use public spaces. It takes more than just a sense of responsibility and a conscious effort on the part of each person. Every civic group does volunteer work to pick up trash regularly. This happens because people feel very connected to their environments. Local groups decide regularly who will clean. The same is true in schools, where groups clean the school and the areas around it. The employees of a company also show respect for their location by cleaning up before they start work. People aren’t the only ones who try to keep their surroundings clean and nice-looking. Groups of all sizes and types also do their best to do this. All Japanese people have a strong sense of following rules regarding getting rid of trash and a desire to keep their streets and towns looking nice.
This sense of working together to keep places clean applies to all kinds of events that don’t happen on a regular schedule, like looking at cherry blossoms in the spring, watching fireworks in the summer, and going to baseball or soccer games. Thought is given to the next group of people who will use the space, and every effort is made to clean it up. Even if someone gets drunk and drops trash, someone else will always pick it up. During the 2018 World Cup in Russia, when Japan lost, its fans were seen all over the world picking up trash in the stadium, no matter whose it was. This was just one more way the Japanese like to keep public spaces clean and beautiful. This wasn’t done on purpose; it was just a habit, and the Japanese thought it was normal. It also showed how deeply morals and manners are ingrained in Japanese society.