Friday, August 04, 2006

Fish gotta swim and birds gotta fly / But they don't last long if they try

I was in the middle of writing a vaguely coherent post about the similarities and differences in Japanese culture, but I went to go see An Inconvenient Truth this evening so I'm going to talk about Japanese environmental policy instead. Thrilling, no?

Actually, yes, primarily because it's so darn comprehensive there. Japan is an interesting nation in that it's about the same or even worse than other developed countries in most standards of living, but has these little niches where it jumps head, shoulders and stovepipe hat above the rest. I used to refer to these as the Three Ts of Japanese Advancement--toilets, technology and transportation--but I may have to add 'trash' to the list as well. Though I am by no means a world traveler, it still says something that Japan is the only nation I have been to where there are more recycling bins than trash cans. Where there *are* trash cans, actually, they tend to be unmarked and out of the way, while the bins for (aluminum) cans, (glass) bottles, and (paper and plastic) 'combustibles' are brightly marked in multiple languages. Paper, actually, doesn't seem to be recycled that often, which I feel is unusual for such a forest-lacking nation like Japan.

Anyway, it works. If you read my presentation on vending machines, it said that something like 65% of plastic bottles and 70% of aluminum cans, on average, get recycled. This is probably a bit higher than the overall recycling rate, though, for some interesting reasons.

One of Japan's more interesting cultural taboos is that it's considered fairly rude to walk down the street while eating or drinking anything. Although this is relaxed at outdoor festivals and in youthy districts like Harajuku, it's still very common to see a Japanese buy a drink at a vending machine, stand there drinking it, and drop it in the attached recycling bin once he's finished. This means that vending-machine cans are a lot more likely to get recycled than most other goods, though they're clearly not the only recyclables getting tossed into the bins. (This taboo also explains why vending machine cans in Japan are so darn tiny--maybe 8, 10 fluid oz. on average--something which drove me positively batty while I was there.)

And environmental awareness doesn't end there. Automobiles, the bane of American environmentalists, are virtually no problem in the land of Toyota and Mitsubishi. Your car, first of all, must pass ridiculously strict emissions standards each year. It's actually very rare to see a car that's more than five or so years old in Japan, simply because they start failing emissions tests that quickly. Now you know where all the used cars in East and South Asia come from.

Once you get your car and get used to driving on the left side of the road, you'll probably have to take it out on the interstate--um, interprefecture? Let's just say motorway. Anyway, driving your car for any significant distance on a major road is going to cost a bundle in tolls. You can get a pass, of course, that automatically pays for you instead of making you have to scrounge for change, but it'll still knock you back $20 or so for a one-way trip across Tokyo. Once you get there, you'll probably have to refuel, and gas will put you back about $5.50 a gallon. Not as bad as, say, Europe, but it doesn't help. No wonder mass transit is so popular--after all, they didn't call it the Kyoto Protocol for nothing. [I'm in Chapel Hill right now, but I'll try and put up a few pictures of Japanese cars when I get home tomorrow.]

This isn't even going into the lack of air conditioning, preferences for hanging clothes instead of drying them, the multitude of public parks, and so forth, but this should give you a general idea about just how environment-conscious the Japanese nation is as a whole. The obvious question, then, is "Why?" I only have speculation, but I'm going to draw on a theme I'll be returning to a few times: the disasters, both natural and man-made, that the Japanese have withstood and recovered from in its two millenia of existence have helped them appreciate the fragility of their home and the land around them. If this is the case, they should probably consider themselves thankful that they were warned before it was too late.

To come: top-5 lists, sestinas. (And thanks to Tom Lehrer's "Pollution" for the title.)


At 12:31 PM, Anonymous Hadley said...

I think the un-edited version of this particular post was more exciting...



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