As a previous post mentioned, I recently visited Japan and noticed  what most people notice when they go to Japan:  it’s an incredibly clean place, even by Canadian standards.  And the strange part is that there are almost no garbage cans to be found.  That’s probably where most people stop thinking about it.  But one should wonder how they can possibly keep the place so clean with the total lack of garbage cans.  That answer I came to is simpler than you may think.

Firstly, they do not have armies of people picking up trash.  I would estimate they probably have as many people picking up trash as we do in Canada.  So that doesn’t explain the large difference in cleanliness.  Second, one might come to the incorrect conclusion that they have significantly less trash than us living in North America.  This is far from the truth.  In fact, I would argue that they have even more waste than us.  Take a simple chocolate bar for example.  In Canada, we may have one box containing many pieces of little chocolates.  Sounds reasonable.  In Japan, they still have the one box but it contains individually wrapped pieces of chocolates wrapped up in an appealing foil exterior.  On top of that, they have another transparent plastic wrap for the entire box adding to the amount of packaging.  Sounds like more waste to me.  So it seems that having less garbage definitely is not a contributor to their cleanliness.  So what could possibly be the reason?  The answer to that is simple: culture.

Japanese people (in general) do not litter.  Even when it inconveniences them, they still do not.  For example, had they bought that same chocolate bar and wanted to throw away the excess packaging, they would carry around the garbage until they reached their home to throw it away.  This may not be too surprising because I know I do that sometimes even in Canada.  However, Japanese people take it to an extreme.  Even for cigarettes, they do not litter.  They have a special little bag to carry around their used cigarettes so they can dispose of it at home.  I don’t know anybody in Canada who would even consider doing this.  And I’ve also heard anecdotally, that after outdoor concerts in a public place, there is no need for cleanup.  It’s just clean because no one litters.  Amazing!

The paradoxical point about this phenomenon is that even though it’s incredibly inconvenient to do, they still do it.  They’re not forced to hold on to their garbage; they don’t really get any individual benefit from doing so; they just do it.  Culture is a powerful force that can lead to many amazing, non-obvious results.  And it’s easy to see it in full effect in Japan because how else can you keep a country with 100 million people clean so cheaply?  Culture is the only way I know how.