The Garbage Incident

This post is going to be pretty dirty. ごめんね

This post is going to be pretty dirty. ごめんね


If you haven’t experienced a problem with trash sorting in Japan… I’m not going to finish that sentence. There’s no reality where that’s possible.

Dead on Arrival

I remember arriving here. Just the clothes on my back and hope for the future. And a suitcase and apartment and paycheck and a couple other things. But the important part was the hope. I had it. This idea that the future would be bright.

Then I saw the sheet that listed all the categories of trash. Suddenly, I was surrounded by the warm embrace of despair. Despair and kanji.

Yeah... nope. Pictures can't make this much easier.

Yeah… nope. Pictures can’t make this much easier.

All these categories. Garbage sorting. It was a new kind of hell. In Boston, we could just throw everything into trash or recycling. Or, if you didn’t like recycling or the environment, just trash was fine. On top of the needing to carefully sort, there were also specific trash bags we needed to use, coming in two varieties and specific to this area. Even traveling to the next town over and purchasing trash bags would be fruitless. They’d be the wrong kinds.

I considered all this and decided, “eh”. I put what looked to be the right bag into my trash bin and began throwing away, haphazardly. When I had soft food, I’d flush it down the toilet. Bottles all went in a bag. All the plastics were friends.

Four months pass. Summer becomes fall becomes winter. As people come into my house, they notice that I’m doing things a little wrong.

“Is that the right bag for that?” they ask, knowing I’ve done wrong.
“Uh… sure it is.”

And I was fine with this exchange. Things had been going on this way for a couple months now and I was finally setting this nice rhythm in stone. Then my predecessor came to visit.

“That’s not the right bag for that kind of trash.”
“I think it’s fine,” I respond.
“You should probably learn to do it the right way.”
“You’re not my mom!” I shouted with all the angst of a soap opera adolescent.
“Well, yeah, but that’s hardly related to garbage sorting.”
“Too shay.” I don’t know what ‘shay’ means, but she definitely had too much of it.

So nothing changed. Months passed. Winter became spring became summer became fall. And the whole time, I’d been making mistakes. Some of them were forgivable. Some of them were sacrilegious. A year of mistakes.

That kind of thing won’t bite me in the ass. Right?


Trash day came. It was a Thursday. Can day. Of all the days, I knew I did can day correctly. How could you mess up cans? I’d been living with some guilt under my skin for some time now, some sense of worry that things could go wrong. The trash was causing me stress, to put it simply. Hairs were falling out in clumps and going into the burnable garbage. I wasn’t even sure if that was the right place for them.

That Thursday, I put out my bag of cans and went to school. Midday came, and one of the teachers sends me a text: “Did you make a mistake with your garbage?”

I began to sweat but then collected myself. “No, no, no way. Today is can day. I definitely didn’t mess up today.”


Phew, cut and dry. Later that day, the same conversation happens in person at a teacher volleyball game. “I think maybe there’s a problem with the garbage.”

“Oh yeah? What’s up?”
“You sure you didn’t mess up?”
“Um… Pretty sure.”

Finally, with the game done, I headed back home…to discover a bag right outside of the doorway. With a lot of empty glass bottles of Blue Moon, a drink everyone knows I enjoy (and every other teacher hates because it tastes like “tomato juice”, I kid you not, since they don’t know what real beer tastes like, but I disgress in a run-on sentence).

I really can't fathom why anyone who likes beer wouldn't like Blue Moon.

I really can’t fathom why anyone who likes beer wouldn’t like Blue Moon.

“Okay…” I concede. “…I messed up.”

The Pile

I called my teachers and apologized, letting them know that I was the one responsible. They were right, after all. I just didn’t realize that the trash they were talking about was weeks old. At that moment, my spidey-senses kicked in and I remembered the bunch of bags sitting outside the communal trash bin. In the past, I’d wondered why people were leaving their trash outside of the bin instead of inside it. Maybe because they wanted to put it out early, not on the correct day. Only now I realized.

All those trash bags had been my past failures.

I went over and picked them up. Suddenly, the 2 pound bag of plastic bottles felt like 200 pounds. And the 10 pound bag of glass bottles felt like 1000 pounds. I lifted the bunches of bags back to my apartment, shaking my head at my stupidity, and marveling at my ability to carry a half ton of trash. By the time I was done, my kitchen was filled with a massive pile of trash.



I remember staring at those bags, taking up space, and going numb. I just looked at them. And looked. And I wanted to cry. I think this went on for five or ten minutes. In the middle, I realized how privileged I was, to have my biggest complication in my life be the fact that I had to re-sort a bunch of trash. It still didn’t stop me from doing nothing but stare.

Thankfully, my girlfriend was already heading over to spend the evening with me. When she got to my kitchen, she laughed at my idiocy. I grew sheepish. “You mind helping?” She rolled her eyes and gave in, helping open the bags to re-sort everything.

It didn’t actually take that long, with both of us sorting. Couldn’t have been more than thirty minutes. I learned that glass bottles needed to be sorted into three different bags, depending on their color (clear, brown, and everything else).

The diagram could be clearer that bottles need to be in separate bags. Right now, the image shows them all in the same bag, hanging out.

The diagram could be clearer that bottles need to be in separate bags. Right now, the image shows them all in the same bag, hanging out.


Also, PET bottles needed to have their caps removed, with those caps going with the plastics.

Doesn't it look like they have their caps on? Yes, I know it says below to take the cap off and put it with the plastics. But doesn't a picture supercede words?

Doesn’t it look like they have their caps on? Yes, I know it says below to take the cap off and put it with the plastics. But doesn’t a picture supercede words?

But the one I definitely didn’t understand prior was the whole deal with the plastics.

Can't put everything in here.

Can’t put everything in here.

Plastics had been my go-to garbage, stupidly enough. Dirty napkins. Plastic bags full of other types of garbage. Everything could go into the plastics, I thought. Turns out, burnable was the correct place for most of those things.

Can put anything in here.

Can put anything in here.

With the piles correctly sorted, I put the bags next to the doorway and out of my kitchen. I felt relieved. Just knowing the correct way to do things put my mind at peace. Why didn’t I just ask for help before, I wondered. But then, things like this happen when you live in a foreign country.

And on that thought, my phone rang.


Another one of my teachers called. Apparently, he’d also made some garbage mistakes. He explained that we needed to go over and apologize. Going with him, I knew it would be easier. As his Japanese was better (he was Japanese, after all), I could just agree and look sorry for myself.

We went over to the house but learned that the mother, to whom we’d have to apologize to, wasn’t yet back from work. The teacher decided he’d go back to the school and I foolishly decided to have some fun with my lady friend.

In the middle of our fun, the teacher gave me another call. I ignored it, being all 裸, but as he persisted, I felt myself being more terrible every moment. Finally, he stopped, and we finished up. And then I gave him a call back, saying that I accidentally slept through his call, which wasn’t far from the truth. He said he’d already gone over and apologized though, so I’d have to go solo.

Solo. Apology. Instant karma’s gonna get you.

I cleaned up and made my way over to the house. Thankfully, the family I was apologizing to was one of my favorite families, in that I adored their kids. The mother came to the door and I apologized, and she laughed, saying that it wasn’t a problem. After all, a Japanese teacher messed up too. I said that it wouldn’t happen again, and she just said that if I was ever unsure, to come to her.

Cut and dry. Simple. I left the house, happy. What had just hours before been perhaps a low point in my entire Japanese life until this point, was now a distant memory. I was feeling good.

It Never Ends

Something about that previous paragraph should have caught you by surprise. Yep. “Cut and dry.” That phrase almost never applies to Japan. If it does, you’re doing it wrong.

Saturday came, and I went to see my school’s play. One character’s life later, including a part where he’s a ghost and helps some new schmuck save the town again, and the play’s over. Awesome, I thought. But lo-and-behold, the person sitting behind me is the mother from the apology.

“Hey, I was just thinking,” she said, “How about you and I go through your trash and make sure everything checks out? Just in case.” Well, it’s impossible to turn anything down in Japan, so I agreed and we decided to meet in a few hours.

At two, the family came over with one of their kids (my favorite one :P) in tow. In addition, they brought someone over who could speak English. True, she only had a rudimentary understanding of English and proved to be much weaker in English than I was in Japanese, but it was nice to make her acquaintance too. Her daughter is at the preschool now and I teach her, so BAM! Connections.

Actually, because I’d done a pretty thorough job by myself, they lauded my efforts. But seeing as how this was actually a way to become closer with them, I pointed out the half-year-old trash bags that one of the previous tenants had left in the doorway of our apartment building. So we got to those and started sorting them. This time, however, because it wasn’t in my house and I had help, it was… dare I say it… fun.

After sorting trash for another twenty minutes, we all said our あいさつ and parted ways. A new bond was formed from all that. And from darkness, light.

Not Alone

I commented about the experience at a friend’s house while we made eggnog and chicken for Christmas. He had four or five separate trash bins and another few bags for the rarer types. I told him my story as if it were a fresh experience. It wasn’t. He had the same experience. In fact, most of the other room had as well.

It’s strange to think of our common difficulties with sorting trash as the kind of experience that a room of people can bond over. But that’s the kind of place Japan is.

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