Today I woke up with a mission. And I’ve accomplished it: I took out the trash! I know this looks like a goal that is far too easy to achieve to be rewarding but being the lazy, jobless bum that I am right now, getting up early is a big accomplishment in and of itself. Well, this might still not look like much, so in order to illustrate the importance of this mission, let me go back a couple of weeks:
It is July. The duck and I are sitting at the dining table, opposite the house manager, about to sign our lease. That is when the dreaded topic comes up: trash. We knew beforehand that Japan’s trash rules are strict. But somehow, we had the foolish belief that, since we are not completely new to sorting trash, it could not be that difficult, right? Boy, were we wrong!
See, every city has its own trash sorting guide. And ours uses up a solid 16 pages to explain how exactly we are supposed to sort the trash as good, reliable residents. So we just need to read and understand the guide, and everything will be plain, right? Well, technically, yes, but the understanding part turned out to be trickier than we had anticipated. The guide does come with pretty little photographs and illustrations, but what do the designers mean when they give you an image of a pan with what looks like dirty water and a white sheet of paper bathing in it? Are you supposed to build a miniature onsen (Japanese hot spring) for your paper to honor it before you throw it out? Or is this a clever test to figure out which bin to put the paper in – if it turns red, it’s too acidic to be burned (is there a pH strip built into all Japanese paper)? Not being able to read Japanese very well definitely was a hindrance to our quest to become good residents. But the duck and I do not give up easily:
Making sense of my city’s garbage rules
Let’s go back to our manager meeting: After having had a quick look at the trash guide beforehand, we are determined to get all sorts of trash information out of this meeting. So when, with my pen, a notepad, and a backup pen handy just to be sure, I ask the manager, he hands me a laminated English version of the trash guide’s cover page which tells you what days you have to take out what (today was incombustible waste, for example). He then goes over to showing us where the trash bags are stored. Great info! We don’t need to write that down. Then he hands us a printout: A self-made guide on garbage rules and manners in English, including links to a few useful websites. JACKPOT (we think)! The manager is even kind enough to go over each individual rule with us to make sure that no potential question stays unanswered (one of the most important points: taking out the trash by 8 am does not mean the night before). He then explains to us where the trash collection points are. The duck and I are happy; now we know all about the when and the where. But we are still unsure about the how. Taking the wonderfully illustrated Japanese guide as an aid, the manager gives us a few examples. And, grateful for all the time he has spent going over the rules with us, we decide to relieve him of the task of further explaining the whole sorting business. We can’t have this poor guy go over 16 pages of rules and suggestions with us. Instead, we decide to try and find out the rest by ourselves – the manager must think we are completely stupid by now because proper trash sorting just seems to be so natural in Japan that it’s almost unthinkable that someone could be as confused by it as we are (is what our worried minds are telling us)…
After the meeting, I sit down with a cup of green tea and look up the links on the rules sheet (because each city has its own sorting guide, it is pretty much useless to do a general internet search on the hows of trash sorting in Japan, or even just Tokyo). They offer some helpful information, but unfortunately, it’s mostly (familiar) pictures with Japanese explanations. We open a PDF version of the elaborate table from the last few pages of our 16-page guide. It alphabetically lists dozens of items, the waste category they belong in, and things to consider when you throw them out. It’s even color-coded! So, full of motivation (and some of that green tea buzz), I open Google Translate and start translating the table into my own little color-coded table. In fact, the table is so detailed that I decide to break down my table-translation time into several 30-minute chunks so that I won’t get too depressed by it. “Until I have finished the translation,” I think, “I’ll just ask my housemates,” as the manager suggested. And they do provide me with a few more examples (and pieces to add to the 10,000 pieces jigsaw puzzle in my head that almost has all of its edge pieces in place now).
Flash forward: A few days have passed. I am still working on translating this table and am terrified of producing trash because I still don’t fully understand how to sort it. The duck reminds me that we still need to go to the city hall sooner or later to register our new address, as the nice lady at the airport had explained to us when she gave us our residence card.
The poor city hall employee has to explain to me several times that I must indeed print my name into each of the four or five marked areas – he even gives me a hand-written example in English of how I could answer one of the questions at some point! As a reward for
his patience our having registered, he hands me an English version of the city trash guide, probably just as happy as I am that I have finally managed to fill out the form correctly.
Had I thought about registering earlier, it would have saved me a lot of time trying to translate this beautiful (but at this point pretty much useless to us) table and being terrified of trash. Oh well, at least now the duck and I know that you are supposed to soak edible oil in cloth or paper before throwing it out (no tiny hot springs or color tests).
Okay, if you’ll excuse me now – I’ll make myself another cup of celebration tea, and then I’ll throw the used tea bag in the “burnable waste” bin!
(Duck, how about some oats?)