Why the Japanese don’t litter

Japanese cheerleaders asking you to take your garbage with you. Yurtec Stadium Sendai, Home of the Vegalta Sendai J-League Professional soccer team.
Japanese cheerleaders asking you to take your garbage with you. Yurtec Stadium Sendai, Home of the Vegalta Sendai J-League professional soccer team.


1998 FIFA World Cup logoI will begin this post about Japanese garbage, trash, and litter with a soccer story. It was the 1998 World Cup in France. The Japanese national soccer team had qualified for their first World Cup ever. Their fans had arrived in numbers never before seen by the international soccer community. They were not treated well. Over 12,000 Japanese fans fell victim to a French ticket scam. Leaving them ticket-less and halfway around the world.

Many ended up repaying for scalped tickets that were outrageously over priced. The Japanese soccer team played their first World Cup match against Argentina on June 14th. The 33,000 plus game attendance was 70% Japanese, with an additional ticket-less 10,000 outside the Toulouse France stadium watching on a large screen. Despite their 1-0 loss, the Japanese players had said that it had felt as if they were in the National Stadium in Tokyo.

Photo of the Japanese fans. Japan’s first World Cup soccer game on June 14 1998 in Toulouse France.

It was after the game that the Japanese showed their true colors. Dealing with the frustrating ticket scam and first-game loss, the Japanese fans still gave the world a lesson in courtesy, respect, and class by actually cleaning the soccer stadium seats. That’s right. They picked up all the trash around them whether it was theirs or not. To the point that some people were observed picking up the small pieces of confetti thrown after the game. They then walked out and deposited the trash in the garbage cans before exiting.

Finding the Japanese supporter areas cleaner after the game then it had been before astonished the stadium authorities. This in turn astonished the French media. Which in turn astonished the FIFA World Cup Organization.

And now that you’ve heard the story… you may also be astonished, as I am. This was not a group act of protest. There was no group message to pick up the trash. There were no signs telling them to do so. This is just the Japanese simply doing what they always do; picking up after themselves and not putting the burden on someone else.

The all-around cleanliness of Japanese mega cities comes as culture shock to people coming from other big cities in the world. This tidiness is not due to millions of tax dollars spent on street cleaners and “Let’s-cleanup-our-city” campaigns. It’s not due to effective public works or community service. It’s due to one simple thing: They don’t throw their garbage on the floor. This unique and rare concept to westerners allows for both huge cities, and rural areas to stay neat and tidy.

The pack-it-in, pack-it-out garbage mentality that the Japanese follow as a matter of common courtesy is a message that the U.S. finds virtually impossible to get across. America is a country where surveys consistently point to the fact that 80% of the litter that you see has been thrown on the ground with “notable intent”.  Which is a governmental phrase meaning: people don’t give a shit. Ironically these same people then pay 11 billion dollars a year to have it cleaned up via taxes.

take garbage with you sign.
A sign saying “Please take your garbage with you”. Machida area of Tokyo Japan.

The public signs in America threaten, beg, and fine people to just put their garbage in a can. Surveys also point to the top 3 reasons why Americans litter. 1) Laziness. 2.) There is already garbage on the ground. 3.) Somebody will pick it up. These are reasons that never even occur to the Japanese. In Japan, they want you to “not litter”, but they also want you to keep your garbage and take it home with you.

To reinforce this behavior, the common signs in Japan ask people to take their garbage with them. Then, to reinforce the sign, they usually have no garbage cans in the parks. So when faced with the choice of throwing their garbage on the ground or keeping it with them, they keep it. They don’t need a “Don’t Litter, Keep Japan Beautiful” sign. They have been doing it their whole lives and are used to taking their garbage with them.


Garbage cans lined up at the Mt Gaozaishou highway service area.
Garbage cans lined up at the Mt Gaozaishou highway service area.

On the other hand, when Japan does decide to have garbage cans, they go crazy. Putting in literally dozens of cans in certain key locations. Not only allowing you to get rid of you garbage collection but also allowing you to separate your garbage into its respective types. (Key locations being when you get off trains, or out of cars.)

The garbage cans at the 2005 World’s Fair in Aichi Japan. “The environment” was the theme with 8 different classifications of garbage. But you can see it is not much different from the photo above at a regular stop along a highway in Japan.

There are other cultural elements that help make a clean Japan. Most Japanese carry a handkerchief with them at all times. Thus eliminating the need for tissues and napkins.  As the girl at McDonald’s carefully packages your lunch and places it in your to-go bag, the last thing she puts in is a napkin. Even then, she does it as an afterthought. As if I’m not sure why I’m putting this napkin in your bag, but the American management has told me to do so, so that’s what I’m doing. The quality of the napkins themselves seems like they are made as an afterthought. They feel like slices of wax paper with no absorbing qualities to them whatsoever. Filling napkin dispensers in Japan seems like a task that’s done once a year.

When I need a napkin or towel and don’t have one. Japanese people are quick to offer their handkerchief to a hapless gaijin. Many times they insist on giving it to you, worried that you will not last the day without it. The Japanese seem keenly aware of the differences in international napkin and tissues culture.

Another key factor is that in Japan it is considered rude to eat while you are walking. This seemed to be rooted in a cultural behavior form the old days when food was scarce. To walk by poor people while you were eating was very inconsiderate. Many of those old customs still apply today. In Japanese cities where everyone is constantly moving like they are about to miss their train, everything is set up to stop, eat, and quickly move on. So there is no trash to throw out if you don’t have any with you.

Karatsu Vending Machine
Vending Machines in the middle of the Karatsu forest. The large container to its left is a big recycling bin. Near Nijinomasurabara Station. Kyushu Japan

How about the popular vending machines? There are more vending machines in Japan than there are people in Los Angeles and Chicago combined. This would seem like a perfect source for bottles and cans to litter the streets with. But most vending machines in Japan have a recycling bin right next to the machine. Again, the Japanese don’t eat or drink while they walk so many people drink the beverage right there and throw out the empty bottle. If they keep it, they will keep it until they find a garbage can.

The Japanese don’t litter or throw their garbage on the floor for several reasons. The most important being it’s just common courtesy. They make it look easy because it is.


Photo Credits:  Vegalta Sendai Cheerleaders – Vegalta Sendai Official Blog, Machida garbage sign – Machida signboard, 98 World Cup – Dddeco via Japanese wikipedia, Expo 2005 – Gnsin Wikipedia