Why aren’t Japanese locals more bothered about this common complaint from overseas visitors?

Our Japanese-language reporter Seiji Nakazawa is always keen to hear what overseas visitors to Japan think of his home country, and so even when he doesn’t have a chance to talk with them directly, he like to look online to see what they have to say. Recently, he came across a common complaint from the international travel community: Japanese cities don’t have enough trash cans.

This isn’t something that exclusively irks tourists. Though you’ll see very few trash cans while out and about in Japan, they used to be more common. Though receptacles on street corners have never been all that prevalent, when Seiji was still a kid in Osaka you used to be able to reliably find trash cans throughout Japanese train and subway stations, and even he sometimes finds himself missing that convenience.

So when, and why, did station trash cans start becoming hard to find? Seiji has heard theories that many were removed in reaction to the sarin gas attacks on the Tokyo subway in 1995, which would mesh with his timeline of them becoming less common sometime between his childhood and when he became a young adult However, trash cans still weren’t all that hard to find on station platforms in Tokyo even in the early 2000s, but a new round of removals in Japan’s capital followed the Madrid train terrorist bombings in 2004.

Even this wasn’t a clean sweep, though. Instead, it’s been a sustained but gradual disappearance of station trash cans, with the same happening for on-the-street containers, bringing us to the current conditions where they’ve become rarities.

Seiji can see how this might feel like a tremendous inconvenience. He’s seen online comments from overseas travelers calling the relative lack of public trash cans in Japan “a stupid decision” and “a reason for people to litter,” and he can sympathize how it can feel like a hassle to get off an international flight and suddenly have to transition from your home country where trash cans are common to a society where they’re definitely not.

And yet, as someone living in Japan, he doesn’t feel like the lack of trash cans really causes him, or most residents, all that many problems. The major reason why is that while it can be hard to find trash cans in Japan, you usually can find them in places that are likely to generate trash.

Convenience stores and supermarkets pretty much always have trash cans. If you buy a cup of instant ramen, pack of melon bread, or some other item and consume it either in front of the store of inside its eat-in area, the store sees it as its responsibility to give you a place to throw away your trash. Likewise, at sports venues, concerts, outdoor festivals, and other events where vendors are selling food and drinks from stalls, the organizers set up trash cans too. No one is expecting you to haul your trash all the way home from the Tokyo Game Show food court, for example.

Adding in my own observations, the no-trash-cans, no-problem attitude of many Japanese people is also tied into Japanese eating etiquette. It’s generally considered poor manners to eat while walking or riding the train, so the vast majority of Japanese people will wait until they’re back at their home, office, or hotel to eat any takeout food they’ve picked up, and once they’re at one of those places, they don’t need a public trash can.

Drinking a beverage while on the move is usually acceptable, but in this case Japan’s ubiquitous vending machines come to the rescue. Similar to convenience stores, vending machines are trash generators, so most operators also set up a can/bottle recycling box next to their machine, and you’re never all that far from a vending machine in a Japanese city. The general attitude is that it’s OK to throw away a container from a drink you bought at one machine in another machine’s recycling box. Dumping in a bunch of empty cans you brought from home is a no-no, but for a single incidental can here and there, the logic seems to be that the deposits will all more or less balance out.

Another factor that can’t be ignored is the fact that pretty much everyone in Japan, men and women, young and old, carries a bag of some sort when they go out, whether a purse, backpack, messenger bag, or some other style. Since they’re carrying these as part of their daily routine, most people pick a bag that’s large enough to carry their essentials without being stuffed to bursting, which leaves them with enough space to put a candy wrapper, empty drink bottle, or whatever other incidental trash they’ve accumulated until either they do eventually come across a trash can or they’re back home for the day. That does still leave the potential problem of what to do with sticky or otherwise dirty trash that you don’t want soiling the inside of your bag. For most Japanese people, though, this isn’t an issue, going back to the idea that you shouldn’t be walking around eating messy foodstuffs in the first place.

All that said, if you’re not adhering 100-percent to local customs, you might find yourself with something like a sauce-stained takoyaki tray or sweet bean paste-smeared taiyaki wrapper from a snacking-while-walking session. Having succumbed to such temptations myself, I’ve gotten in the habit of always keeping a few plastic sandwich bags inside my bag when I’m going out. They weigh practically nothing and take up a negligible amount of space, and if you’re visiting from overseas and forgot to pack some, you can buy them, cheaply, in just about any convenience store or 100 yen shop. Any dirty trash I end up with when there’s no trash can around gets put into a sandwich bag, tied shut, and tossed into my bag to take home.

I’ll admit it’s a hassle, but it’s a very, very tiny hassle, and totally worth it to solve one of the most common complaints about traveling in Japan.

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