Saturday, February 11, 2006

Stupid Foreigner, part 10: A lot of garbage

Happy Saturday, everybody. Hope you all had a wonderful time last night, whatever it was you ended up doing. As I recover from a whole lot of nothingness, I present to you something I wrote on November 11, 1998, while living in Japan.

Japan has a reputation for being a clean country. I suppose this is true, for the most part.

If you walk around my town of Shizuoka, for example, you don't see a lot of garbage on the streets, and graffiti is almost non-existent. You don't see garbage cans, either, so it makes you wonder where people put their candy bar wrappers. Well, maybe it makes you wonder, but not me. I now know that people don't have candy bar wrappers to throw away because they don't eat while walking. It's true, eating and drinking while on the go is a big no-no. There are tons of vending machines all over with a huge selection of drinks, but technically you're supposed to stand next to the machine and drink, or else take the drink home with you.

So, anyway, there isn't much litter here. It's so rare that, when people actually see some, they don't know what to do with it. For example ...

I was on the train the other day. There was an empty Coke can on the floor. When the train started, the can rolled across the floor until it hit somebody's shoe. When the train stopped, the can rolled in the other direction, until once again coming to a rest at somebody's feet. This went on for a few stops. When I got off the train, the can was still rolling around, hitting random people. In each case, the person glanced down and then quickly looked away. As if startled. As if they didn't know what to do with an empty can. Or maybe as if they just didn't recognize what it was. Not that you'd recognize it either.

I said that it was a Coke can, but it wasn't any kind of can of Coke I'd ever seen before (before coming to Japan, that is). It was a special "Japan train" kind of can, which is much smaller than your average beverage. Basically it's about six ounces, if that much, and the can sort of looks like a test tube. Very small.

This leads to the question, why do they sell such small cans on the station platform for the same price they sell a full-sized can across the street? The easy answer is that the Coca-Cola company is trying to make more money. This, in fact, might be the reason. Just a few months ago, Coke raised its prices from 110 yen to 120 yen a can, which is about a buck. The company justified this by saying that it just wasn't making a profit at 110 yen. So, of course all the other drink companies raised their prices. But, anyway, that's not the true reason for such small cans, I don't think. It has to do with the fact that the average Japanese can't drink more than six ounces of soda. Remember, they are supposed to drink it next to the vending machine, before the train shows up. Hence, tiny cans.

Anyway, someone (probably a foreigner) wasn't able to finish the drink on the platform, so s/he brought it on the train, drank it, and left the can on the floor, where it rolled around. This was one of the first times I'd seen litter on a train, and obviously nobody else knew what it was, so they left it there. I take that last sentence back. I often see these thick comic books that businessmen read on the train. These are comics that feature, among other adult themes, rape and mutilation of high school girls. Anyway, at least the comics don't roll around on the floor.

I think my original point was that Japan appears to be a cleanly country. At least on the surface. But, for such a small country, it sure generates a lot of garbage. Following are some examples that environmentalists (not me) might consider a gross waste of natural resources.

At every restaurant you go to, you use a fresh set of wooden chopsticks that go straight into the trash when you're done eating. Other Asian countries, like Korea, use metal chopsticks that get washed and reused. Why do Japanese insist on throwing away so many chopsticks? Well, I haven't received an answer, but I've been told many times not to stick my chopsticks straight up in rice.

First off, I have to tell you that Japan is the rainiest country I've ever been to. Second, I have to tell you that Japan is only the fifth country I've ever been to. But that's besides the point. It rains a lot. Mainly, on my days off. So Japanese people carry around umbrellas. They also lose a lot of umbrellas. According to one guidebook, something like 2 million umbrellas are lost on Tokyo's trains every single day. I think there was a misprint somewhere. But they do lose a lot, and they steal a lot of umbrellas. Supposedly, Japanese people are very law-abiding, but they'll steal your umbrella and your bicycle without thinking twice.

Anyway, not only do Japanese people carry and lose a lot of umbrellas, they also shop a lot. But department stores don't like wet floors. So, upon entering a store, you are supposed to slip a plastic covering over your umbrella so that water doesn't drip onto the floor. As you leave, you throw away this plastic condom. That's a lot of plastic!

Another thing about restaurants. When you sit at your table, the wait staff brings you a hot towel for some reason. This towel, which surprisingly isn't disposable, comes wrapped in a plastic covering, which is disposable.

Japanese people love to use English words and names. They just don't pronounce them correctly because of Katakana, one of their three ways of writing. So, the American burger chain is called Mac-oh-doh-nal-doh. Or something like that. Basically, what I'm trying to say is that even if the Japanese word if the same as the English word, you still won't be understood. I once tried finding a bar called JAM. Easy enough. But three Japanese people, who seriously wanted to help me, couldn't understand me, no matter how many different ways I tried to say the word. Finally, I saw the bar, pointed to it, and the three guys said, "Oh, GEM-OO!" Oh well.

So, there's MAC-OH-DOH-NAL-DOH, which generates quite a bit of trash in every country it invades, but in Japan it goes beyond the call of deforestation. Let's say you order a Big Mac Value Meal, which here is called a BIGGO-MACCO SETTO. They throw your burger and fries (FRY POTATO) into one paper bag, then they throw your drink into another bag and then both bags into a plastic bag. Christ almighty! If you try to stop them and tell then that one bag is plenty, that you can carry your drink, they get really confused. Not that they can't understand your pathetic Japanese and hand gestures. It's just that they don't know what to do with the straw. It seems that the only thing that's left unwrapped in Japan is straws. Usually they just toss the straw into the bag with your drink. But now they have a dilemma. Where do they put it?


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