JAPAN. One of the great Japanese paradoxes for visitors, predominantly from Australia, the UK or the USA (though I suspect further afield too), is that there are very few rubbish bins in Japan but there isn’t a lot of litter around. This is further compounded by the fact that Japan produces a lot of rubbish. Convenience stores and drink vending machines abound in Japan, and for every purchase from the store you will be given a little plastic bag to carry your food and drinks in. Buy a bottle of Coke and get a bag big enough for a 500ml bottle. Snacks come individually wrapped to add to your trash pile. It is madness the amount of rubbish a single person could accumulate in one day in Japan without considerable effort!

Why then is Japan not overflowing with rubbish? There are rubbish bins around the place, but they aren’t as frequently encountered as in many other metropolises. Usually, there is a bin on the train platform (often near the bathrooms), and in/outside a convenience store. Inside a shopping mall, there will be a bin almost exclusively for plastic umbrella sleeves (when it rains), but usually used for all types of rubbish (or “dust”).

Japan, convenience store, trash, Tokyo

A typical Family Mart convenience store | Yasu


One theory is that after the 1995 Sarin Gas attacks in Tokyo, Japan did away with public facility rubbish bins. This is similar to how bins were removed across London after IRA bombs were placed in public litter bins. Another theory is that Japanese society is so homogenous and everyone is so proud of their country that to litter would be a burden to the rest of society. I think it comes down to something a bit more close to home. As the old adage goes; when in Rome, do as the Romans do. When in Japan, do what everyone else is doing. Everyone else carries their rubbish around with them and doesn’t complain, so why should I? If you are faced with carrying your rubbish home with you, or to the nearest bin at the train station or outside a convenience store, or toss it on the ground, I think most decent people anywhere would carry their trash with them. Furthermore, in Japan, they make life easier by giving you a bag to tie it all up in!

Drink vending machines abound in Japan; they are almost literally on every corner and train platform. Snack and cigarette machines are harder to come by. Beside every drink vending machine, you are guaranteed 95% of the time that there will be a recycle bin next to it. It might be overflowing (quite often), but it’s there. So you’re problem lies with food rubbish. If the majority of people are taking away food from the convenience stores to their home, office, school, or on the train -where there are bins – then you don’t need to provide so many public facilities.

vending machine, Kokura station, Japan, Tokyo

A vending machine on Kokura station platform | Natasha Bissett

I contrast this to Manchester, which is a bustling metropolis well worth comparing to Japan’s cities in terms of business and size. There are bins everywhere, and yet at first glance there is also a lot of rubbish on the ground. But in thinking about it, rubbish seems to be dependent on location. There will obviously be a lot of litter on the ground in the nearby vicinity of a convenience store, or fast food store, or an overflowing bin.

rubbish bin, Manchester, trash, Japan

A busy rubbish bin in Manchester CBD | Natasha Bissett

Manchester is often windy, so it makes sense that rubbish gets blown out of bins and around the area. Similarly, rubbish can be washed away after it fell out of a bin, or perhaps was not put securely in a bin. A quick walk around areas of the Manchester CBD shows that rubbish tends to build up around bins, or in areas where it was blown and trapped (like under plants). Rubbish like cigarette butts builds up in popular smoking spots. Even though there are rules about where people can smoke in relation to buildings, the smokers who occupy those sites tend not to stray far from their workplace or home.

It also depends on how frequently these bins are maintained by local establishments or the local city council.

The answer to Western metropolis’ litter problem is to perhaps look less to cultural reasons for less litter in Japan and instead to logistical solutions. Maybe Manchester (for example) needs better bins in these high-(rubbish) traffic areas? Regardless of the rules, if you know smokers congregate somewhere, provide an ash bin for them to ditch their butts. Maybe the majority of people actually are decent and don’t litter, they just need better facilities provided for them.