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The following articles were originally published in The Shelbyville News in the column “Letters Home:  A Hoosier in Japan.”



Send questions and comments to me at toddjayleonard@yahoo.com.

Book Description

Letters Home

What types of holidays do Japanese people celebrate? What is the educational system like in Japan? What are Japanese festivals like? What are some of the customs and traditions of the Japanese people? Professor Todd Jay Leonard, writing from the perspective of living and working in Japan, provides in this fascinating book the answers to these and many other questions.
Letters Home: Musings of an American Expatriate Living in Japan delivers a firsthand account of daily Japanese life through the eyes and personal experiences of Professor Leonard who has enjoyed an ongoing relationship with Japan and the Japanese people for nearly twenty-five years. 

This anecdotal book of essays, written in the style of personal letters, offers commentary on a wide range of topics and issues including culture, history, education, language, society, and religion of modern Japan from the point-of-view of an American expatriate who has made Japan his home. 

The author’s friendly, down-to-earth, yet authoritative, style of writing will transport you to modern Japan, where you will learn about the customs and traditions of this most fascinating country. This book can be enjoyed by anyone who has an interest in learning about Japan and its people.http://www.amazon.com/Letters-Home-Musings-American-Expatriate/dp/0595283098/ref=sr_1_2?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1299907225&sr=1-2

Trash laws here are nothing compared to Japan


When friends and family from Indiana come to visit me here in Japan, I have to watch them like a hawk when it comes to the disposing of unwanted items in the wastebasket.

My city, Hirosaki, has one of the most stringent recycling programs in the country. People from home are so used to tossing everything into one container that it is hard for them to break the habit of disposing unwanted items directly into the wastebasket without thought.

Admittedly, I even have to pay special attention to Japanese friends visiting from other areas, because they have a difficult time in knowing “what trash goes where.” They are often surprised at how strict my city’s recycling regulations are in comparison to where they live.

Generally, all over Japan, people are required to sort their garbage into four basic categories: burnable, plastics, metals and glass.

My city has taken this one step further by subdividing these into even more groupings, within the main categories. We are expected to divide our garbage into 12 different categories, which is quite a problem for people who live in a one or two room apartment.

When this system first went into effect, the city distributed videos among all of the neighborhood associations (chonaikai). As I explained in my last column, neighborhoods in Japan are grouped together into small alliances; residents living in a particular area form an association and pay a nominal monthly stipend to be a part of this organization.

In return, each household receives weekly announcements on a clipboard that is passed from neighbor to neighbor with bulletins about upcoming festivals, city ordinances, etc. Once the resident sees the information on the clipboard, it is passed to the next neighbor.

One month, instead of the usual papers being circulated around the neighborhood, a video was included to be watched by everyone in each household. The video was semi-professionally made, featuring a middle-aged housewife cheerfully separating her garbage into various containers while consulting a prescribed poster that outlines exactly how it is to be done.

She even went as far as to wash out cans, bottles and the plastic food pouches found in instant-types of meals. She had rigged a small clothesline above her sink that she used to dry the plastic bags before disposing of them into the proper receptacle.

Most people I know back home couldn’t be bothered with such detail, but the vast majority of people here separate their garbage and are quite dedicated to doing it properly. I certainly don’t fudge on the prescribed manner of separating garbage for fear of being caught by a nosey neighbor or by one of the roving patrols of volunteer “garbage police” who occasionally make surprise visits at the collection points to make sure people aren’t improperly disposing their trash on the wrong day.

The city issued (in Japanese and English) a detailed poster to assist residents in the correct way to sort their trash. Toward the bottom of this poster, the phrase “Let’s reduce our garbage” screams out to the reader to make it seem fun; next to it, however, is an ominous warning: Never illegally dispose of your garbage. This is STRICTLY PROHIBITED by law. I for one certainly don’t want to go to prison for not separating my trash.

Basically, garbage is divided into “recyclable” and “non-recyclable” categories. Twice a month, we are allowed to put out “cans” and “bottles.” The cans must be divided between aluminum, steel and regular metal cans.

Spray cans must be pierced with something to release the gas. The picture shows a man using a hammer and nail to puncture the can, which scares the dickens out of me, so I usually forego this little step.

The bottles must be separated by colors: colorless, brown and “other” colors. These should only be food and drink bottles (other types are disposed on another day in a totally different category). The caps on the bottles are placed in the category called “miscellaneous” plastics.

Once a month, cartons and cardboard boxes are picked up. Milk and juice cartons must be washed, dried and cut so that they lay flat. Cardboard boxes must be flattened and bundled using “paper-based” cord.

Twice a month, we are allowed to dispose of “miscellaneous paper” (paper bags, gift and/or tissue boxes — the plastic strip must be removed from the top of the tissue box, however, and placed in “miscellaneous plastics”). Also, “clear recyclable plastic bottles” are picked up twice a month, and these include water, soft drink, juice and tea containers that can be recycled.

Because Japan over-packages most everything that is food-related, “miscellaneous plastics” are picked up once a week. It is amazing how much trash is generated by a typical family of four in Japan.

These plastics include anything other than the recyclable bottles, like instant noodle cups, potato chip bags, shampoo bottles, egg cartons, and even the childproof medication packages where the medicine is punched through the cellophane backing. These do not include, however, toothpaste tubes, which must be disposed with “non-burnable refuse.”

Twice a month, items such as pots, pans, plastic toys, light bulbs, shoes, batteries, ceramics and buckets are picked up. Once a month, really big items are picked up, including wooden furniture, small heaters, bicycles, old carpets, spring mattresses, and steel items like bookshelves, beds and desks.

Thankfully, twice a week, the city picks up burnable refuse which is the “wet” garbage from cooking; also, old clothes, stuffed animals, twigs and garden clippings, and anything that can be burned cleanly and that which is not included in any of the other categories.

I have developed quite a system of sorting all of these items into small bags that are placed in larger trash cans outside. In my neighborhood, trash days occur from Tuesday through Friday, and the garbage must be put out on the day, not before 6 a.m. and not after 9 a.m.

In the early morning, I stumble down to the trash collection site at the crack of dawn, bags in hand, to do my nearly daily trash ritual. It is a good time to greet neighbors, though, who are doing the same. Sometimes several of us have an impromptu “idobatakaigi” (literally “meeting around the well”) which is basically a “gossip session.”

This catches me up on what’s going on in the neighborhood, and ensures that they aren’t talking about me. A recent topic was how “someone” wasn’t using the required “clear” trash bags for the recyclable and the “green” trash bags for the burnable trash.

Of course, I feigned shock at this revelation (knowing that I have been known to mix bag colors from time to time when in a pinch). It worked. Everyone was satisfied with my seeming surprise at such atrocious behavior.

So, the next time you carelessly dispose of a juice carton in your kitchen trash can, think of me on the other side of the world first rinsing it out, drying it, and then cutting it with scissors in order to place it in a clear trash bag to be taken away, making my small contribution to keeping the world clean.



Monday, November 21, 2005

This is a garbage collection area for one particular street. The net that is covering part of the trash pile is used to keep crows from tearing the bags open to get to the contents. The sign in the foreground is asking that people from outside the neighborhood not put their garbage on this pile. The partially hidden sign in the back details the various categories of how garbage is to be separated. Submitted photo