Japan is one of the cleanest countries you’ll encounter as a traveler. The inside of the bullet train is kept absolutely spotless, taxi drivers can be seen buffing their vehicles of dust and road grit while waiting for the next customer. Graffiti is rare here and men in jumpsuits are employed to scrape off gum and anything else adhered to train station floors. Glamorous and gleaming is the way the Japanese like things. Even diesel trucks are washed down in their terminals after a day on the roads.

So it’s no surprise that the city streets are litter-free, that public trash bins ask you to separate your refuse into burnable and non-burnable bins, or that the Japanese have a reputation for taking their garbage home with them when attending sporting events.

So it may have been a surprise to some of our readers when someone commented on the trashiness of Japanese beaches in response to my previous article on Japanese beach culture, saying: “The number one beach activity in Japan is actually turning it into a giant open dump, full or empty beer cans, cigarette buds, and plastics of all kinds. It’s a big paradox when you see how clean the streets are.”

While I can’t speak for other beaches, our public beach on Shiraishi Island is quite clean. Beach-goers clean up after themselves and take their garbage home with them. We regularly clean the beach of any stray debris that washes up, including P.E.T. bottles, plastic bags and cans.

But I think I know what our disgruntled reader was talking about. And it’s one of Japan’s biggest, dirtiest secrets that needs to be addressed.

While Japan is known for recycling garbage and having clean streets, there is one big secret that most people don’t know about.

▼Trash cans that are found in stations and in front of convenience stores in Japan ask you toss your waste into the appropriate bin: Cans & Bottles, Newspapers & Magazines, and All Others

garbage cans

▼At 7 a.m. on the way to Okayama Station, this coffee can in the gutter was the only piece of litter I could find!

clean streets

▼As you can see, the water and beach on Shiraishi Island (where I live in the Seto Inland Sea), is sparkling clean.

clean water

You may not know it, but Japan has a garbage problem. Those who live here are well aware of the refuse constantly dumped on Mt. Fuji, a cultural World Heritage Site. As a matter of fact, because of Mt. Fuji’s garbage dispute, the sacred mountain did not qualify for status as a natural World Heritage Site when it was first nominated. After being turned down, it was resubmitted as a Cultural World Heritage Site instead, in which it qualified due to its significance to Japanese culture. Only now that it has become a World Heritage Site has the garbage predicament being tackled.

Other people are cleaning up Japan as well.

Mangetsuman is an individual who has taken it upon himself to clean some of the streets of litter in Tokyo.

 ▼Mangetsuman (Full Moon Man) volunteers his time to clean up streets and entertain people while doing so.

street cleanerMangetsuman

Greenbird is an NPO that has “teams” all over Japan of volunteers who go out and clean the streets of litter.

So it seems that Japan is doing a pretty good job with garbage on land. But what about the sea?

The truth is that the Seto Inland Sea is filthy. Sailors often have to dive into the water to untangle their engine propellers from floating plastic bags that get wrapped around the blades, freezing the shaft. Sailors, kayakers and fishermen see oil floating on top of the water as well as unbroken chains of garbage floating by on currents that are meant to bring plankton and seaweed to sea creatures to feed on.

This flotsam is regularly tossed up onto beaches that dot the Inland Sea. Take a look yourself:

Where is this? Shiraishi Island. And believe it or not, that video was taken on a pretty good day for that beach. I’ve seen it much worse.

▼Same beach, different day


These “angry beaches” as I call them, are all over the Seto Inland Sea. I’ve seen plastic car bumpers, old TVs, even a dead cat that have washed up here. But the majority of the plastic is P.E.T. bottles, something people know they can recycle.

Remember I told you Shiraishi Island has clean beaches? Well, we do. But we also have dirty ones. Our public beach is clean only because it faces West, and the sea’s current carries the dreck past it. With just a little effort, we can keep the beach garbage-free. But the East side of the island is different. Junk is deposited on that side of the island daily.

Japanese people who live in this area say most of the Inland Sea garbage comes from rivers on the mainland. When heavy rains, storms or typhoons fill the rivers, the water rushes down to the mouth at the Inland Sea. With it comes refuse that has been dumped into the rivers.

Who knows how long this plastic floats around the Inland Sea, or how many beaches it washes up on and off of, before it eventually empties out into the Pacific Ocean or the Japan Sea via one of three narrow straits that takes water in and out of the Inland Sea with the tides.

▼Even tiny pieces of plastic get hung up in the natural debris that washes up on shore.

tiny bits of garbage

Isn’t it illegal to dump into the rivers? Yes. It’s called fuhou touki (illegal dumping) and is subject to punishment.

In fact, water pollution control laws have been around since 1970. In 1973, the Environmental Agency implemented a Special Law for the Conservation of the Environment of the Seto Inland Sea, an area of Japan undergoing industrialization and thus degradation as a result of good economic times. The law was meant to improve water quality and the sea areas around reclaimed land used to build factories. The destruction of the marine environment had brought on “red tides,” (algae blooms) which resulted in a depletion of oxygen in the sea, which killed off much of the fish population. Wow! Right?

But most laws against water pollution in Japan are aimed at industrial waste. The problem these days is household waste and little is being done to address this.

Beach clean-ups are common in Japan. We even have them on our island.

▼Students from a local school come to clean up Shiraishi Island’s beaches.

Beach Clean-up

▼After the beach clean up. Natural rubbish is a part of nature’s ecosystem and will decay on its own.

Beach Clean-up

The fishermen clean the beaches on the island every year on Sea Day, the third Monday of July. But the sad thing is, these cleaned beaches will only last a day, because more junk will be washed up almost immediately. So, no matter how often the beach is cleaned, it’s never clean.

While beach cleaning activities increase awareness, it ignores the cause of the problem: people. People are illegally dumping garbage into the sea!

▼A full moon rises over Shiraishi Island. It is a bitter-sweet reminder that the full moon tides bring the most debris to our beaches.

Full moon

The tides are highest at a full moon.

▼The high tide mark on the beach after a full moon.

high tide mark

It was this beach in the video that made me go off plastic. I’m happy to say I’ve been plastic-free for two years now. This is not to say that I don’t occasionally have to use it. But I don’t choose it. I’ve also curbed my addictions to Styrofoam, cheap products and cheap energy. And you can too.

The dilemma with plastics is that even when properly disposed of, they are not biodegradable. And no one really knows what happens to their garbage after it has been disposed of. After all, there would have to be tens of thousands of households dumping their waste into rivers to fill up the Inland Sea with the amount of rubbish it has. I don’t believe for a moment that it’s the fault of just a few individuals.

▼Plastics and other non-biodegradables just lie there, then go to a different beach and lie there, forever on a permanent beach vacation.

regular tide mark

While I commend our RocketNews24 reader on bringing up the point that Japan’s beaches are full of garbage, and for prompting me to write an article about it, I disagree with the commenter about one thing. It’s not just beer cans, cigarette butts and plastic that is littering the beach. It’s all kinds of everything! We are all to blame.

Beer drinkers,

beer can

coffee drinkers,

coffee can

tea drinkers

tea drinkers

and 7-11 patrons.

plastic cup

Those who eat candy,

Snickers wrapper


popsicle stick

and the instant food brigade.

instant ramen cup

Those who wash their hair,

shampoo bottlewalk,


or plant flowers.


People with fresh breath,


people who wash their clothes,

detergent scoop

and people who tie up their boxes for shipping.


Those who use plastic containers,

plastic container

Those who eat fast food,

fast food wrapper, milk carton

even those who (gasp!) drink milk.

In other words, it’s everybody. And only we can take responsibility for the garbage we produce. Remember, this is just one of the many beaches on one of over 700 hundred islands in Japan’s Seto Inland Sea.

Since Japan seems to be doing little towards remedying water pollution, I thought I’d introduce at least one idea that could help. Here is a device I saw recently in Australia, invented to help combat river flotsam. And it seems to work.

▼Melbourne’s “litter traps” collect floating garbage before it becomes a menace.

litter trap

The litter doesn’t come from people tossing it into the river–it comes from street litter getting diverted into the river through storm drains (yep, during heavy rains, storms, and cyclones).

▼Signs near each trap explain: “This litter trap is one of 17 [placed] at the most effective collection points.”

litter trap

Why isn’t anything being done in Japan? Good question!

Most people don’t realize the problem is as big as it is, or they’ve come to think it is normal. When people’s reaction to garbage in the sea is: “It comes from the rivers,” or “It’s because of the rain,” you know there is a problem. That’s just twisted thinking! The garbage problem comes from people (not the rivers) and it’s because of people (not the rain).

Or maybe, they just don’t know what to do about it. Perhaps Japan needs suggestions from people like you. After all, this is a world-wide issue being tackled by other countries as well. How does your country deal with the sea pollution?

My second guess at the reason nothing is being done is that people have yet to demand change. And this is where you can help.

If you love Japan like I do, you won’t allow this to continue. Let’s show Japan that we care about her rivers and seas. Demand change by taking the first step: share this article with your friends and on social media. Give your opinions on the subject.

Be proactive! Japan will thank you for it.

Feature Image: Wikimedia (Noctiluca in Nagasaki)
All other images Amy Chavez/RocketNews24 (unless specified)