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Tokyo

An Ant in Tokyo: The recycling sort

Feeling brave in Tokyo? Perhaps you want to try chowing down on fugu? Or standing toe-to-toe with a sumo? Or maybe just doing a spot of recycling.

It should be no surprise that the place that spawned a New York Times best-seller dedicated to the art of tidying up should have an astonishingly elaborate system for sorting its garbage. Not content with broad categories of recycling, Japan asks people to sift categories of waste into an elaborate dichotomy that requires a diligent household to have up to a dozen piles, lest the juice cartons contaminate the miso boxes, or the plastic bento trays interfere with the empty drink bottles.

Sorting through garbage has become part of the Japanese experience. Where many other parts of the world cluster recyclable things together when they leave the home, and only sort things downstream, Japan has opted to put the burden firmly on the shoulders of individuals.

Embassy recycling bins
It’s enough to trigger OCD.

The information sheet issued by the ward administration in our part of Tokyo does a heroic job of explaining the different categories into which trash must be sorted.

So what are the Dirty Dozen? There’s glass, cans, plastic bottles, other plastic, newspaper, cardboard, drink cartons, books and magazines, batteries, rags – and then whatever doesn’t fit into these categories is separated into burnable or non-burnable. Got all that?

Recycling instructions
Apparently avoiding garbage duty is why some Japanese become ascetic.

Adding to the complexity is the schedule of garbage collection, in which different categories are collected on different days, sometimes with differing frequency. It is little wonder that one of the objections some locals have to Airbnb leases in their neighbourhood is that non-locals will not follow the garbage disposal rules properly.

And things don’t get much easier when you leave the house. Public bins are scarce in parks and at railway stations, so people are expected to carry their garbage until they find a suitable spot to dispose it, or a sufficiently discreet enough spot that they can leave it without fear of discovery.

When you do finally find a recycling station, they look a bit like this:

School recycling bins
Would you risk the humiliation of getting this one wrong?

Self-serve restaurants expect patrons to sort out their leftovers in garbage at elaborate disposal stations, prompting each patron to form a snap judgement about the combustibility of each item on their tray, haunted by the social opprobrium that may be directed their way should they make a bad call.

The success of the Japanese system relies on a strong popular willingness to comply. Sorting garbage is tricky, messy and time-consuming. It relies not only on most people knowing the rules – which itself depends on good communications and high rates of literacy – but also on caring about the rules.

An ingrained commitment to rules and confidence in the fairness of the system is needed to achieve such a high rate of compliance, all the more so when the act of sorting garbage is basically private, involving only the sacred bond between trash-chucker and garbo.

In public places, people in many parts of the world have come to expect an abundance of easily accessible bins. Take those bins away, or make them complex to use, and some people believe they have been relieved of their obligation to clean up after themselves.

And yet, in Japan it works: the streets are spotlessly clean, non-compliance is rare and recycled materials are commonplace. In fact, it has helped turn Japan into a global leader in recycling strategy, prompting others around the world to consider if they can take a leaf from Japan’s book.

It is tricky to find good data on how countries compare in their trash habits, but some World Bank numbers look pretty good for Japan. Japan generates 1.71 kilos of municipal solid waste per person per day, less than most other developed countries including Australia (2.23 kilos), Germany (2.11 kilos) and the United States (2.58 kilos). And in sending just 3 per cent of its total waste to landfills, it is one of the lowest the world.

Curiously, 74 per cent of its total waste is reportedly used in energy production. There’s an excellent explainer on that – and more – over at Tofugu:

If you hear the words “fluidized bed” in relation to Japan, you might think you’re reading an article about Love Hotels. Sorry to disappoint, but at least fluidized bed combustion is pretty exciting. It is a very efficient way of burning materials that don’t normally burn easily. Your carefully sorted rubbish will be suspended in a hot, bubbling bed of ash and other particulates as jets of air are blown through it. Apparently the “fast and intimate mixing of gas and solids promotes rapid heat transfer and chemical reactions within the bed.” Who ever said garbage disposal wasn’t sexy?

All joking aside, this thermal treatment of municipal solid waste does have some advantages over other forms of incineration. It is cheaper, takes up less space, and produces fewer nitrogen oxides and less sulphur dioxide. One of them was even built near Shibuya station in 2001. It can also be used as part of a Waste to Energy system, using the resultant heat to create power.

What has promoted Japan to take such a zealous approach to recycling? As the saying goes, necessity is the mother of recycling – or something like that. A report from the Institution of Environmental Sciences pinpointed three reasons why Japan has become a leader:

  • High population density and limited landfill space;
  • Very limited domestic metal and mineral resources, making remanufacturing and recycling attractive;
  • A business culture emphasising collaboration, leading to a comprehensive approach, both to measurement and to action.

There is one piece of the puzzle, though, that Japan has largely ignored: reducing consumption.

Japan has fetishised packaging on consumer products to such an extent that even the simplest of products has an elaborate unboxing process that would make the most narcissistic YouTuber salivate.

Take these two apples, for sale recently at a Tokyo supermarket. The apples themselves – robust fruit that could probably fend for themselves pretty well – were resting in pink beanies, sitting on a paper tray, surrounded in a plastic wrap and then labelled, as if their apple-ness was not immediately apparent.

Japan apples
Exhibit A in the case for overpackaging.

It seems that the packaging here serves far more of a symbolic, rather than practical, function: the packaging is connoting the pristineness of the product, its separation from the wild, untamed (and, yes, dirty) natural world from which it is sourced. In other contexts, the packaging acts as a symbol of thoughtfulness, of a gift or of effortless affluence.

Take these well-packaged items to the cash register and you will almost always be offered a plastic bag in which to place them. Bring your own bag to the counter, or seek to go bag-free, and you will get the same quizzical look from the attendant as if you had just rocked up with a parrot perched upon your shoulder, a look that says “That’s not how we do things around here.”

At first glance it seems odd for a culture that takes such pride in its recycling to have so few qualms about superfluous consumption and packaging. But perhaps the recycling is used to excuse the wasteful packaging, allowing people to continue to accept layer upon layer by giving them the psychological comfort that the waste will eventually be recycled. In that way, the elaborate recycling rituals may act as an enabler for wasteful behaviour among people who just cannot bear to give it up.

This is not to say that winding back the recycling effort would force a rethink of packaging habits. It seems these excessive packaging habits are largely ingrained and will not change easily. An interesting parallel can be seen in the efforts to reduce electricity consumption in the wake of the Great East Japan Earthquake of March 2011, which put Japan’s nuclear power industry offline. For the summer that followed, offices switched off their air conditioning, shopping malls switched off their escalators and izakayas switched off their neon, cutting demand by up to 20 per cent in some places. Did this newfound austerity last? By the time I visited in the summer of 2012, things had pretty much returned to normal and have stayed that way. Some habits are too hard to break.

Japan’s commitment to recycling is impressive, and sets a benchmark for the rest of the world. Couple that with reduced consumption, though, and the results could be even better.

Keen for more trivia on trash in Japan? Check out this excellent collection.

Parenting

An Ant in Tokyo: Playgrounds aplenty

It’s nearly a month now since Kawaii, The Diplomat and I arrived in Tokyo, and so far the experience has been a sensory explosion – the hearty aroma of deep-fried tempura, the soothing five-o’clock chimes that remind us of the prospect of a cataclysmic natural disaster and the garish neon that makes even the classiest restaurant feel like a greasy diner.

I’m spending a large part of each day out at about with Kawaii exploring a different neighbourhood. In spite of – or perhaps because of – Japan’s very low fertility rate, Tokyo is a remarkably kid-friendly city. It is easy to get most places with a pram, although peak-hour trains and buses are best avoided unless you’re keen to get up-close and personal with a salaryman’s armpit.

The abundance of public parks, with lots of kid-friendly equipment, make it easy to wander around confident in the knowledge that there will be somewhere fun to play. Because of the high density of apartments in Tokyo, kids often don’t have much room to play at home, so communal outdoor spaces are pretty much essential. The lack of alternate open space means the playgrounds are also where office workers go with their lunch, or smokers loiter with a sly dart, or trysting couples plan a visit to a love hotel.

Still, the playgrounds are safe places for kids and prams. We’ll often leave our pram, complete with bags, valuables and vending machine detritus, sitting near a bench while we wander. Out of habit I occasionally glance toward it from elsewhere in the park, but such is the security of Tokyo I’m more likely the find an origami crane deposited on the top than I am have anything go missing. In spite of a lack of rubbish bins, the playgrounds are near spotless – pockets and prams get crammed with the flotsam of the day.

Fun slide
Slide? Check. Swings? Check. Dirt on the ground? Check. No bins? Check. Looks like we’ve got ourselves a Tokyo playground.

Each playground has its own unique design, but a slide and a set of swings is a near-certainty. Oddly, getting up the steps in order to go down the swing is not as easy as it should be. We’ve found sets of steps that are too high, are oddly shaped, feature gaps, are at an odd angle or are too narrow, but barely a set that offer an easy climb up for a new walker. Perhaps it is designed to introduce kids early to the Japanese habit of disciplined self-denial.

Octopus slide
This slide, from Tako Park in Ebisu, is styled on an octopus and offers three ramps down. Unfortunately there’s no easy climb to the apex for a young ‘un, so it is best admired from the side rather than actually used.

Unusually, from an Australian perspective, grass is rarely a feature of the playgrounds. Instead the play equipment is often situated in dirt, meaning kids are adept at dusting themselves off whenever they tumble into it. Given the sunshine and rain that Tokyo receives, it seems that grass would grow well in many playground sites, but alas it remains absent. Even the “sand” pits seem filled with black dirt, which means it can be a bit confronting when a little one starts running their hands through it and putting it through their hair or that of a playmate. That’s one way to toughen them up.

When we visit playgrounds during the day there’s a high probability that there will be other kids there as well. Kawaii is getting the hang of interacting with other kids, taking turns to sit on the swing, head down the slide or complain about the difficult steps. As a gaijin, Kawaii is occasionally an object of curiosity for Japanese kids, but the interaction is always friendly.

Often our playmates at the playgrounds are kids from a local kindergarten or primary school, who come to play as a group, usually donning matching hats or T-shirts in order to stand out from the crowd. It is an impressive show of discipline that kids as young as four can be walked to the playground alongside main road, linked hand in hand, without wandering off or otherwise causing heart palpitations for those nearby.

Day care child mover
Kudos to the teachers who keep their young ones happy and safe. Photo via Facts and Details

Once they get there the kids are usually happy to play on the equipment, but often the kids play games in the open space. One common one is janken (known elsewhere as rock-paper-scissors), a game Japanese kids seem to have turned into a competitive sport. (Basically, the kids line up as two teams in single file facing each other head on, with the front two in combat and the winner of each bout progressing down the line to take on the next challenger. Mesmerising to watch.)

Pick the right park and there can be a few twists (sometimes literally) on the conventional playground setup. The Ajiro public park in Azabu Juban has an enormous slide that is comprised of small rolling cylinders, so the child (or drunken adult) slides down like a box of ramen noodles at the Nissin factory. That same park features a wide slope leading to a sandpit, which is best used by sitting on cardboard or something else to reduce bum-on-cement friction.

Long slide
Sliding down like a box of ramen noodles at the Nissin factory, at Ajiro public park.

Sadly dads are a pretty rare sight at the playgrounds. Beyond the aforementioned kindergarten educators, mostly it is mums taking their charges to the park to burn some energy, and in affluent neighbourhoods it seems it is the nanny doing the duty. While some mums are admirably hands-on, others seem to have fallen into the national (possibly global) obsession of staring at their phones while with their kids, only occasionally raising their head up to ensure their offspring hasn’t gashed their head.

Now that we’ve had a taste of the kid-friendly things to do in Tokyo – parks and beyond – it’s time to get a bit methodical in sharing our experiences. Over coming months (and possibly years) I’m keen to share my reviews of some of the more interesting places for kids to go, so that others can seek them out or avoid them, if that’s how they roll.

So, Tokyo-ites – what is your favourite park?

Parenting

An Ant in Tokyo: Baby on board

It was late in the afternoon when Kawaii finally lost it. She was sobbing inconsolably, struggling to take in the requisite breaths in order to continue her cycle of woe-is-me cries. Neither the offering of a teddy bear nor the whispered singing of AFL club songs was able to stem the tide of tears.

Who could blame her? Here we were, in a van heading from Haneda, the more central of Tokyo’s two airports, to the digs that will be our new home for the next few years. Our day had started 18 hours earlier several seas away, and Kawaii was simply vocalising what The Diplomat and I were feeling.

We were lucky that it was in that small van that fatigue finally got the better of her. After all, our only company in that space was our world-weary driver and a colleague of The Diplomat who had greeted us at the airport. Had she have lost her composure an hour earlier, our company would have been a planeful of well-heeled commuters towards the pointy end of an A350.

As it happens, our flights were about as good as we possibly could have hoped for with an 18-month-old. She was in a good mood, slept a few hours, paged through some books and ate enough to develop a healthy distrust of airline food. By the end she was even asked for selfies by hosties enamoured with her curly locks and cheeky smile.

Before the flight I had asked a few people for advice on long-haul travel with a toddler. Two themes came up repeatedly: make generous use of Phenergan, and queue up plenty of videos.

For some parents those two had clearly worked well, but I wasn’t sure it was right for us. After all, using a sedative for the first time could be a risky move and does seem a little like using a performance-enhancing drug in the Parenting Olympics. And encouraging Kawaii to zone out in front of a screen would take her a step closer to being the screen zombie I fear.

Flying long-haul with a toddler is a test of character: how far are you willing to compromise your parenting principles for the sake of peace and quiet? It is easy to have all sorts of family rules when you’re in the comfort of your own living room and the only people who need to hear the wails of dissent are you. But when you’re fraying with tiredness, stressed by logistical complications and trying to stay nice with a bunch of strangers, it’s tempting to bend the rules.

In the end we held firm against using a sedative, or even making liberal use of the free-flow chardy on board (for any of us). But we did yield a little on screen time.

Desperate for some quiet and sick of looking for that fucking green sheep, I sat Kawaii in my lap and turned on the screen in front of us. I sifted through countless menus until I finally got to the kids section and scrolled through. The options were high-energy cartoons, epilepsy-inducing action and happy-clappy song-and-dance numbers.

But among them were a couple of gems: Wallace & Grommit in The Wrong Trousers and a Bugs Bunny special featuring the usual suspects in all their politically incorrect glory. Gold. If I was going to let my daughter gawk at a screen for an hour, I was going to expose her to the best bits of television of my own childhood.

Being mid-flight adds an extra degree of difficulty to feeding a toddler. Normally we’re pretty adventurous in what we feed Kawaii, knowing that if she doesn’t like what we offer her that she’s got a pretty effective way of letting us know. Then we sponge it out of our hair and move on.

But try that same strategy in the air, and we could find ourselves wearing some unloved morsels for the rest of the journey, or worse still trying to identify a mysterious squelch each time we adjusted our seat. A safety-first (and dignity-first) strategy demanded that we only offered things we knew she’d like. That left us poking and prodding at our tray, debating the merits of each forkful before we offered it up, like heathens offering sacrifices to appease a vengeful god. Dangerous business, that.

Apart from a few tense moments, Kawaii remained the good kid she always is. We made it through the flights intact, then passed through border control and jumped in the van that would take us to our new home. Then she cracked.

Japan's future

An Ant in Tokyo: Nine big questions about Japan’s future

With three-plus years ahead of me in Japan, I’m starting to think about the big questions that are likely to be asked (and perhaps answered) in my time there. Here are a few that come to mind.

  1. Will Japan allow itself to establish a military? Japan’s post-war constitution puts a military off-limits, but ahead of last week’s election Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was proposing a change to the constitution to legitimise a Self-Defence Force. I gather there’s still a fair bit of resistance to the idea within Japan, but it’s hard to see the question going away any time soon. Nearly three-quarters of a century have passed since the horrors of World War II, and Japan’s reliance on the United States for security is not as certain as it once was. Perhaps recognition of the Self-Defence Force will emerge as the least-worst option.
  2. Will North Korea launch an attack on Japan? Lil’ Kim has already sent a missile flying over Japan, but if tensions escalate he may go a step further. The North Koreans have historical enmity towards Japan (as does most of Asia that was once under its colonial rule) and the close links between the Japanese and the Americans have made Japan a target for Pyongyang’s ire. It’s hard to see the strategic logic of North Korea actually launching an attack given it would galvanise world opinion against it, but stranger things have happened. The Rising Sun vs the Rising Son, perhaps?
  3. How will Japan cope with its shrinking population? A low birth rate (1.43) coupled with a barely existent migration program (less than 2 per cent of the population was born overseas) means that Japan’s population peaked at 127 million in 2010 and is now declining. Those in the know forecast the shrinkage to hit 30 per cent by 2060. Japan might need to make some tough choices, like bringing more women into the work force or upping the intake of migration, despite cultural resistance to both. Easier said than done.
  4. Will Japan finally have to accept low economic growth as the new normal? A while ago it was fashionable to talk about Japan’s lost decade, from 1991, and now we are mid-way through a third “lost” decade. But despite sluggish growth, Japan’s quality of life has remained high, so perhaps low growth is not so bad after all. During his first term Shinzo Abe tried to spark things with his William Tell-inspired Abenomics, but the results were only modest – growth has barely eclipsed 1 per cent over the previous seven quarters. So perhaps this is just the way things will stay.
  5. How far are the Japanese willing to go in accepting robots in their lives? We know Japan has long been at the forefront of robotics, and I suspect the reason is cultural as well as technological – the Japanese have the mechanical knowhow and seem far more at ease with close contact with robots than are others. Robots in caring roles are becoming more common, and robots as sexual partners are a possibility too. With an acceptance of both physical and emotional proximity to robots, many possibilities emerge.
  6. How will Japan use major events to position itself in the world? The spotlight will be on Japan over the next few years (Rugby World Cup in 2019, G20 in 2019 and Olympic Games in 2020), and the country may use it to define its identity. After a decade of being eclipsed by China as an economic and geostrategic player, this will be a chance for Japan to reassert its influence. With anti-Japan hostilities still simmering in countries that have long memories, the nation won’t want to be too strident in asserting its greatness.
  7. Will Japan become a Singapore-style one party state? For most of its post-war history Japan has been led by the conservative Liberal Democratic Party. Last week’s election demonstrates that the opposition forces are more ineffectual than ever, winning just a third of the seats in the Diet between them. The Party of Hope, only weeks into its existence, is now a major opposition party and progressive parties have just about vacated the field. Such an unrivalled grip on power could be troubling for dynamism, accountability and the contest of ideas.
  8. What role will the incoming emperor play in public life? After nearly three decades on the throne Emperor Akihito is expected to abdicate his role in March 2019, making way for his eldest son, Crown Prince Naruhito, to assume the Chrysanthemum Throne. It will be interesting to see how Naruhito grows into the role, and whether he moves beyond the largely ceremonial place of the Emperor in public life.
  9. Will Japan ever again embrace nuclear energy? The Fukushima disaster of 2011 may be receding into the historical distance for people around the world, but the legacy remains potent for many in Japan. The country shut down its nuclear power industry in the wake of the disaster, and has taken only tentative steps to reopen suspended nuclear plants. With reduced energy demand due to a shrinking population and the emergence of alternative energy sources, Japan may find its nuclear industry remains on the margins.

Just how will these things play out? Let’s wait and see.

What are the big questions about Japan’s future you want to explore?

Pic credit: Flickr/np&djjewell

Tokyo

An Ant in Tokyo

One week from now I’ll be wandering amid the dappled sunlight of cherry blossoms, resting elegantly on a tatami as I sip green tea, watching a bead of sweat trickle down the thigh of a sumo and admiring the floral outfits of a geisha as she wanders past.

Who am I kidding? I’ll be more likely dodging Typhoon Lan, getting my ribs crushed on a peak-hour subway train and poking my chopsticks suspiciously at a glutinous grey mass in a cardboard box.

Or perhaps it will be a bit of both.

Anyhow, the point is that next Sunday I am moving to Japan with my wife, a diplomat henceforth known as The Diplomat, and my one-and-a-half-year-old daughter, henceforth known as Kawaii. Japan has always held plenty of mystique for me, thanks to the swirling mix of exotic Orientalism coupled with the familiar comforts of the developed world. And also Astro Boy.

My primary mission in Japan is to be a Hands-On Dad to Kawaii while The Diplomat makes her mark professionally in a country she has admired since she lived there as a high school exchange student more than two decades ago.

Along the way I am hoping to discover the delights of Tokyo, and the rest of Japan, with my family. Fathers taking a major role in parenting are often described as Stay-at-Home Dads, however I plan to be anything but. Kawaii and I are going to be out and about so much checking out all that the city has to offer that home will be just one of many places we will visit. I’ll be a bit like Bill Murray in Lost in Translation – a tall white guy hanging around Tokyo with a female a generation younger than himself.

Not so long ago we bought Kawaii a book to introduce her to Japanese. My First Book of Japanese Words uses each letter of the alphabet to teach kids a new word.

What’s up first? A. Ari means ant, it says. So now I know that every time a Japanese person hears my name, their mental image will be of the smallest and most insignificant creature in the animal kingdom. The one that lives its life in the shadows of everything else. The one whose fate is to be either trodden on or ignored. Perhaps there’s a message in that.

Anyhow, while I have plenty of enthusiasm for life in Tokyo, I know I am beginning at something of a disadvantage.

For starters, my Japanese language skills are minimal. For decades my Japanese has been limited to tamago, teppanyaki and agedashi tofu, and even then I think I was screwing up the pronunciation. Knowing that our departure was looming, a few months back I started online learning via Rosetta Stone, a fine website and app that seeks to marinate your brain in language and hoping some of it sticks like terriyaki.

Rosetta Stone is a great tool, and I do intend to persist, but it does present some rather odd phrases (“the man is under the car”) ahead of the essentials (“where is the toilet?”). Many Japanese words, I have discovered, sound like the English version uttered by someone who got distracted part way through (“terebi” for “television”). Rosetta Stone has also left me with an exceedingly enthusiastic pronunciation, such is the excitement with which each word is presented. My pronunciations of the words for “dining room” and the number 26 have been known turn heads.

So it might be a while before I’m saying much useful in Japanese. Instead I’ll be making the most of my (rather brilliant) charade skills to make myself understood and seeking to read the body language of those around me to understand what the hell is going on. Along the way, though, I hope to learn a lot more of the language, and the sponge-like brain of Kawaii should pick up plenty as well. She might even learn more than I do, in which case she can be my pocket translator.

Then there’s my diet: I’m a vegetarian, and have been for 21 years, so it’s probably not just a phase. But the Japanese diet is very heavy with seafood, and my barely-there language skills (see above) might make it tricky for me to eat well, unless I stick to the safe options of Western-style chains and enormous mounds of rice. It may be that I’ll need to relax my vegetarianism, perhaps by getting some fish in my bowl, if only to ward off starvation. As for the culinary tastes of Kawaii, I am fortunate she’s the adventurous type willing to trying anything once. Though probably not this.

And finally there’s my health situation. Two years ago I was diagnosed with cancer, specifically a non-Hodgkin lymphoma that required four months of chemotherapy that left me tired and weak. I’ve been in remission for more than a year, and am feeling fantastic, but just as the onset of my initial disease was out of the blue (read all about it here), a recurrence might happen that way as well. Still, the medical care in Japan is excellent, and I gather you can get yourself some free radiotherapy just by sunbaking in certain parts of Fukushima.

But those problems are minor quibbles compared to the amazing opportunity that has come our way. There is so much to see, so much to do and so many social taboos to accidentally transgress. I can’t wait.

So please, join me on this adventure through Tokyo via this blog. Along the way you’ll hear stories about life as a Hands-On Dad in the bustling city that is home to about 38 million, including the good, the bad and the thoroughly confusing. I’ll also be writing about non-parenty stuff that catches my attention along the way, like politics, economics and why the hell Japanese people seem keen on getting frisky with robots.

No promises about what lies ahead, but it’s probably going to be a lot of fun.

Any last-minute advice on being a Hands-On Dad, life in Japan or dodging typhoons? Send it my way.

Pic credit: Time Out