The trial of finding the trash


(October 2000)

Tokyo, like many metropolitan areas around the globe, has not one trash day, but many. In fact, we have four--two for burnable trash, one for non-burnable and a final one for recyclable metals and glass.

Everyone in the neighborhood puts their trash at the same place. Tokyo’s streets are so narrow that event the miniature trash trucks—they are about the size of a pickup but shaped like a normal garbage truck—can’t squeeze through. So for their convenience, we all plop our bags at a place designated by a color-coded sign which also tells us what days belong to what type of garbage. Which is good, because I’ve always had some problems remembering what day which sort of trash was to be taken out to the collection point.

When we moved to a new neighborhood earlier this month, I ran into a problem.

Our house sits in the crook of two roads that intersect to form a Y. One branch of the Y goes uphill; the other goes down. The downslope side is bound by a wall where lots of people park their cars during the day and the street leads to the main street, Hakusan Dori. The upslope side leads into a residential neighborhood.

Across the street on the downslope side there is a printing company, very small, that churns out lots of A1 sized sheets that are cut and folded into A4 sized booklets. I enjoy hearing the ke-chunk of the presses all day and the triplet beep of their forklift backing up the hill with it’s palettes of paper. They seem to be the only industry in my neighborhood (zoning in Tokyo is nothing like zoning in American cities—homes and businesses, even manufacturing plants—sit side by side.

But back to the trash trouble.

The day we moved in, I looked for the place to put our trash. There was no sign designating a spot on the downslope side, so I walked uphill. Nothing up there either. I turned around and walked down the trunk of the Y. No sign anywhere!

There’s construction going on all over the neighborhood right now. Two brand new buildings are going up—one outside my bedroom and one outside my office. I guessed that the signs had been removed during the construction.

So I planned to keep watch and see where people put their trash and examine it to sort out match type of trash and days of the week.

Two days went by and I didn’t see any trash. I was starting to wonder if maybe our neighbors had some special high-tech Japanese gadget that vaporized their waste. But I was busy unpacking and really didn’t worry too much. We have a two car garage and no cars, so there’s plenty of room for a few trash bags if I didn’t find the collection point for a little while.

But as I was unpacking the books in my office one afternoon, I heard a knock on the door. I ran downstairs to answer it.

“Sumimasen,” began a woman in her 50s. She was wearing a casual housedress and wanted to chat. In Japanese of course.

“My name is Shimizu. I am a friend of Matsuno-san, who used to live here. I wanted to welcome you to the neighborhood,” she said. “How long have you been living in here?”

I wasn’t sure whether she meant this house or Japan. I fumbled my way through a sort of an answer.

“Ah, I see. I live over there,” she pointed up the hill. “If I can help you in any way, please ask.”

Aha! A neighbor. Surely, she would know where the trash goes. I asked her about the collection point.

“Hmmm,” she started. She didn’t really know where, since her house is distant enough to have a closer collection point. But she gamely looked around for the color-coded sign. Of course, it wasn’t there.

As we stood in the middle of the intersection, discussing the possibilities—maybe the trash was collected down there, around the corner, or perhaps it was at the apartment building up the hill—a woman on a bicycle in front of the print shop asked if she could help.

She and Shimizu-san completely ignored me as they discussed my predicament in rapid Japanese. I just stood there, trying to look grateful.

After a few moments of explanation, the bicycle woman suggested that trash was collected next to the utility pole just past my garage door. Wow, very convenient!

But Shimizu-san was not convinced. After all, there was no city sign there. How could it be a collection point with no sign? She decided that we would go ask at the apartment building.

So we walked up the hill and climbed the stairs to the entry. The reception window, where the caretaker or guard normally sits, was curtained off. He was gone for the day. But Shimizu-san was determined to find me an answer, and she rapped on the window.

A moment later, a man peeked out. Shimizu-san asked to speak to him and he waved us into the lobby, gesturing to us to come around the corner.

He greeted us at the door, his wife coming out of the kitchen wiping her hands on a towel. Shimizu-san, once again, took the lead and explained why we were there. I did interject with a polite introduction in Japanese.

“Do you speak Japanese?” the caretaker asked me. I explained that I speak a little bit and still study the language.

“Gambatte!” his wife said to him. She meant for him to try hard to speak English to me. Inwardly I sighed. I really do want my Japanese to improve and if people insist on speaking English to me, it never will. But, then maybe my neighbor-caretaker wanted to improve his English.

I don’t know whether Matsuno-san, the previous resident of my house, had put her trash at this apartment building, but Caretaker-san was happy to show me where the trash belonged, what days it was collected and even what time it was to be placed.

“Nama gomi on Monday and Thursday,” he explained in halting but comprehensible English before switching back to Japanese for the more details explanation. “But it must be at 8:30 exactly. I bring the building’s trash out here then and the truck comes right after that. Don’t be late, and please don’t come early.”

I parroted back to him what he had said to show that I understood. Eventually, after a few more careful iterations, it seemed that we truly did understand one another and all was well. I was welcome to put my trash in his building’s pile as long as I made sure to follow his rules.

No problem.

Shimizu-san and I stood at the edge of the sidewalk and thanked him, bowing over and over with every more humble and sincere thank yous. Once Caretaker-san had gone back inside. I did the same for Shimizu-san. She certainly pout herself out to help me and I was very grateful for her aid.

Ironically, we left town the next day for a two week holiday, so I didn’t get to put out the trash until we returned.

And even more ironically, it turns out that the utility pole next to the garage is a collection point. It has no sign, but every Monday, Thursday and Saturday, there are bags of garbage there. And no time restrictions…


I'm pretty sure I didn't follow proper gomi protocol when I was staying in a friend's apartment (ha! "apato") in Japan some years ago. I put it in the right place, but I erred in using a transparent plastic bag. Thus I forced the neighbors to look at my garbage, apparently. They knew it was me because mine was the only transparent bag... however, one of the neighbors set me straight.

It bothered me, though, that everybody's garbage was in a huge untidy pile, rather than in a dumpster or corral. The street wasn't that narrow.

We are lucky as we live near the border of the next Ku which has different gomi days. If we forget to put the gomi out, we can cross the road and put the gomi there the next day allowing us to throw out gomi almost any day. I hope the gomi-nazis don't catch us!

Speaking of gomi-nazis, an American friend complained that someone had gone through her gomi and returned it to her doorstep when she had put it out on the wrong day. She thought that someone in the neighbourhood was picking on her but I have also seen a sign in Japanese elsewhere which said "We know who puts the gomi out on the wrong day" next to a hugely enlarged photocopy of a discarded train pass which contained the name of the (Japanese) offender for all to see.

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