Noilly Prattle: ゴミ袋じいさん - The Garbage Bag Man

Saturday, April 11, 2015

ゴミ袋じいさん - The Garbage Bag Man

     There are many foibles and peculiarities about living in Japan. Some people of a certain age might remember a book entitled The Organization Man by William Whyte (1956) in which the herd instinct is thought to be stronger than the mythos of rugged individualism. We can think of Japan as The Over-organization Society where conformity trumps individuality unless you are an individual who appoints him/herself the enforcer of conformity.

        Just about every aspect of communal life in Japan is organized to the point (in the eyes of an “outside person”) of absurdity—and, I might add, profit. Take garbage, for example. In the sacrosanct name of re-cycling, there are endless lists of the correct way of the disposing of garbage. Here is a quote from a 2005 New York Times article:

"What should we do?"
(garbage reduction cycle guide)
The city of YOKOHAMA, Japan . . . “handed residents a 27-page booklet on how to sort their trash. Highlights included detailed instructions on 518 items. Lipstick goes into burnables; lipstick tubes, "after the contents have been used up," into "small metals" or plastics. Take out your tape measure before tossing a kettle: under 12 inches, it goes into small metals, but over that it goes into bulky refuse.
Socks? If only one, it is burnable; a pair goes into used cloth, though only if the socks "are not torn, and the left and right sock match." Throw neckties into used cloth, but only after they have been "washed and dried."

        Got your head spinning yet?

        Which brings me to a story I heard recently about the garbage bag man. The Yokohama story is an extreme example, granted. You might think it's a joke. But it isn't as exaggerated as you might think. We take our garbage disposal seriously in these here parts. Not only do you have to separate your trash, but it has to go in a specially designated colored (yellow) bag that has to be purchased at the supermarket. (Some municipalities, in order to increase revenues, are encouraging businesses to advertise on the garbage bags--for a fee, of course.) You can't just put your trash in the free plastic (clear white) grocery bag supplied by the check out cashier. If you do, your bag will be glaringly obvious from the approved yellow bags and it WILL NOT be picked up, but left in plain sight until you feel embarrassed enough to go and pick it up. I kid you not, I've seen this with mine own eyes.

         Listen. The story I heard recently on local TV news is about a city that has introduced several color-coded bags for specific types of trash and garbage: red, yellow and blue. The specific content of each color bag is not the point of the story, however, silly as it may seem. No, the twist in the story is the 80-something-year-old man who has appointed himself the garbage policeman of his neighborhood. This gentleman has made it his mission in life to supervise the proper use of the color-coded bags for the correct disposal of the neighborhood garbage.

"Today is RED BAG day!
Does this look like a red bag to you?"
          Naturally he must be properly uniformed (this IS Japan, after all) to be a garbage policeman. Since a different color bag is used on different days, he has to have color coordinated attire. This old dude is very creative. He designed his own uniforms. He went to a department store and picked out three sets of trousers, baseball caps and wind breakers in, yep, you guessed it, red, yellow and blue. On red bag day he wears his red outfit and patrols the trash dumping sites. If he sees a miscreant using the improper colored bag, he scolds the individual, embarrassing and shaming him into going home and re-bagging his trash in the correct colored bag--red, in this case. On blue bag day, the blue outfit, on yellow bag day the yellow outfit and so on. When the neighbors were interviewed on TV, they praised the garbage bag man for his community spirit and zeal in making sure the rules were being followed. But one elderly lady, something of an individualist no doubt, said, with a wry smile, of garbage bag man: “Yes, he has fine community spirit, doesn't he; and we won't dare cheat, will we?”

Ha-ha. If you read this far,
bet you were expecting this picture!
        When there is no longer one miscreant left, garbage bag man says he will consider his “Mission Accomplished” and retire, presumably to go on to his eternal reward in that big dump in the sky.

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