Aug 282007

The WSJ tells about controversy in Japan over new trash rules:

Talking Trash: Tokyo residents feud over controversial garbage rules

It’s about how Tokyo will run out of landfill space in 30 years. The city is trying to extend that time by changing the rules about what trash can be incinerated in the city incinerators. Rules are changing for residents about how they should sort their trash. For example, things such as styrofoam food containers were in the past supposed to go in the bags destined for the landfill; now residents are increasingly encouraged to put them in the bags to be incinerated.

The above headline misses the really interesting point though. Of course there is controversy over this. There are environmental issues, and there is the fact that old customs die hard. But what was interesting to me was the method of social control:

There are no fines to punish offenders. That’s because Tokyo can rely on neighbors’ ire to keep everyone in check. Sanitation workers can refuse to collect garbage that is improperly separated or taken out on the wrong day or left in the wrong place. This adds to the shame of the culprit, since neighbors will see that the bag wasn’t collected that day.

According to Ryouichi Sawachi, a 62-year-old maintenance man in charge of trash at a Tokyo apartment complex, a messy communal area sends a message that residents don’t obey the rules, which can lead to crime and property devaluation. “A person’s morality is really tested when it comes to disposal of trash,” Mr. Sawachi says.

Punishment takes various forms. When 27-year-old apparel maker Asami Sakurai moved to Tokyo from Yokohama in 2004, she didn’t know which days to take out her burnable and nonburnable trash. So a neighbor showed her, laying a bag full of banana peels, toilet-paper rolls and soggy rice cakes out neatly…on Ms. Sakurai’s front doorstep.

This is different. Traditionally people have left small towns and villages to go to the city to get away from the neighbors. Where it takes a village to raise a child, the adult children want to go someplace where they don’t have the whole village playing parent. So they go off to the city at the first opportunity.

But here, one of the most densely crowded cities in the world is a place where the neighbors are expected to mind each other’s business. Have the rules about village vs city always been different in Japan than in the west? Or is it more the case that when population density increases beyond a certain point, the city needs to become a village again?