You can count on a number of things happening during holiday season in Japan, and after all these years here, none of it even budges the needle on my WTFometer anymore. Once Mariah stops screeching about what she wants for Xmas, once those Xmas illumination extravaganzas no longer draw prohibitive numbers, and once all the kampai and bonenkai are done, Japan settles in for the actual holidays (that is, actual days off from work – Xmas day itself not being one of them) where people either rest, catch up with friends or make the obligatory trip back to one’s hometown to reunite with family.
During this time, as you’d expect, most shops and businesses are closed, and many services that generally run like clockwork are modified or suspended…including garbage collection.
Now, for the uninformed, garbage collection, in at least every place I’ve lived in Japan, is fairly serious business.
Particularly residentially, because unlike with a public receptacle, only at home can you be held fully accountable.
I remember when I first moved to Yokohama, I was living in a mansion tucked in the hills of Kikuna, 10 minutes by bike from planet earth. Even the nearest convenience store was a hike, so there were almost as many vending machines as there were mansions. It was in this residential desolation that I had my first (and last) run-in with a Gomi-Nazi for not separating my trash properly.
She was a neighbor (one who managed to be taking her garbage out the same time, or soon after I did, on a number of occasions when I first moved in). I was living with my GF then, but she’d never noticed any neighborly stalking. So I figured it was a gaijin thing (behavior reserved for non-Japanese) or maybe I was just more cognizant of such behaviors than she was. Still, I imagined her sitting at her window on gomi-days, waiting on me to emerge trash bags in hand.
The neighbor, a woman of 70 or so, petite with purplish-silver wispy hair and veiny age-spotted skin, was never without a kind smile and a formal greeting. Even small talk from time to time, on the weather and such.
And that morning when she pulled up behind me as I plopped my bag amid the bags piled these, she was very cordial.
“Good morning,” she said.
“Good morning,” I replied, feeling the warm embrace of Japan. “A little cold today.”
“That it is,” she said, glancing around me at the bag I’d just deposited in the area.
“You know, that there, kind sir, is NOT burnable,” she said in the simplest Japanese she could muster, her finger jabbing at the plastic bento plate that had made its way into the trash bag with the burnables. “And neither is that.” Her finger was now aimed at a plastic egg carton.
“Well I’ll be damned,” I said in English, nodding. Then, in Japanese. “Sorry, next time I’ll be more careful.”
She smiled, but did not budge, certain that I was not getting the message that there was simply no tolerance in her neck of the woods for my gaijin slackness.
I was fitting to leave the gomi area and make the 50 yard trek back to my crib, when she smiled and pointed again. I looked to see where the offensive object was this time, but it seemed she was pointing at the same objects.
Oh HELL No!
Her smile said Oh HELL yes. There’ll be no plastics in with the burnables on my watch.
I began to walk away, saying, “Gomen nasai” over my shoulder.
“Excuse me, dear sir, but this, this here, is a no-go,” she said.
I could feel the chill in the air more sharply then and I froze in my tracks, literally (I was under-dressed for an extended stay outdoors). There was something in her tone that had a finality to it that was reminiscent of my own mother’s finality, the one she’d conjure up when my unflappable force met her immovable objection. A tone that spoke of repercussions of a regretful nature. And I wasn’t about to get into an altercation with my new elderly neighbor over something of which, by her estimation – and I imagined by expansion would be the community’s estimation – I was clearly in the wrong.
“I’m not sure how things are done in your home country, but this is Japan,” she said with gravity. “Here, this is a very important matter.”
“I see,” I said. “Sorry.”
So, I backtracked, unknotted the knot I’d fastidiously tied (damn near needing my teeth to do so, and trying not to glare at the woman as I did so) and reached my cold dark fingers into the bagful of shit appropriately called refuse, rummaging for the offending materials she’d pointed out. I pulled them out, praying that in doing so I wouldn’t reveal any other objects — of which I was sure there were a number.
And just in case I didn’t know who was the showrunner in these parts, she added, “And would you be so kind as to refrain from doing so in the future? I’m so sorry.”
I carried my cold ass, my grimy fingers, an empty bento plate and an egg carton back up the road to the mansion.
On another occasion, she (or another neighbor) must have come to the bin after me, seen the offending bag, and actually carried it back to my apartment where it sat until I was leaving for work. It squatted beside my door with a little pleasant-looking post-it note with a tiny kawaii anpanman stamp and some Japanese I couldn’t read written on it. A little arrow drawn on the paper actually pointed down at the offending object in the bag.
After that bullshit, I damn near became a gomi-nazi in my own right…secretly hoping to catch my Japanese neighbors, or even my Japanese GF, violating the gomi-rules.
But they never did.
I’ve long since quit my gomi-nazi ways. It was fruitless, anyway. People, at least in my neighborhood, sort their garbage and take it out on designated days like it’s as integral a part of being Japanese as bowing and shoe-removal. I’ve learned that, at least in these parts, Japanese will invariably follow the rules.
But I do still check shit out from time to time, especially when a crisis occurs.
Like annually, when the city of Yokohama informs us residents that, due to the New Year’s holiday, the gomi collection schedule will be altered slightly. The result being that instead of the usual bi-weekly pickup of burnable garbage, all that funky burnable and increased holiday refuse will have to be retained in your home for an extra couple of days.
And, yes, that qualifies as a crisis in these parts.
I wasn’t planning on doing any nazi-ing but the rarity of rule-breaking caught my eye as I ventured outside to make my way to the convenience store. As I passed by the garbage bin reserved for people living in my mansion, I saw something disturbing.
Now, Wednesday (today) IS designated for boxes and bottles, so those are there as they should be, but you might be able to discern in that pic above that there are some burnable trash bags in there, as well.
Oh HELL No!
I’m the only gaijin in this mansion!
That means, unfortunately, if any of my other neighbors notice (or the garbage collectors themselves, who have been known to leave offending bags in the bin with terse notes attached to them, sometimes even in broken English!!) I’d be blamed.
…and the fucker who did it knows that!
Of course no one will directly confront me about it after the fact. Oh no, that would be unseemingly, being that it is, ultimately, circumstantial evidence. (A rule was broken, Japanese don’t break rules, one gaijin lives here. A+B+C=Gaijin). But, I’d have to endure the repercussions, nonetheless. The silent incriminations, the notices slid beneath my door (in poorly syntax’d English) reminding me of the rules I’d been following for going on three years, perhaps a resumption of vigilance from the mansion’s gomi-nazi party on the contents of my refuse.
I wish I’d caught that gaijin-ing nihonjin in the act, cuz I’d read his (or her) ass the riot act, politely, of course. Something like: すみません! あの, このゴミの日じゃないですよね–
They probably did it in the middle of the night.
Shit, that’s how I’d do it!