The title of this article is stolen from a concurrently running Exhibition of ancient Japanese masterpieces depicting the Land of the Rising Sun in an infallible way and, what’s more, via these centuries old scrolls, kimono and woodblocks, implies that Japan is still this same country of beauty. Long having rested on their laurels stemming from remnants of a once-great culture, the time is ripe for a true exposition of what works of art this country truly offers. Don’t get me wrong: I like Japan. Mostly. Sumo is good. Hanabi is good. Mt. Fuji is good. What I don’t like is the trash that comes as a result of vast numbers of people partaking in these events. Gomi. ゴミ。Trash. The by-product of human consumption. The leftovers of human creation. And more often than not the subconscious impetus behind creation as well. Oft times we unconsciously endeavor to create merely to have something remaining, something leftover, though for what? In the name of commerce? These leftovers which fill a niche we will never fully consume nor comprehend, yet which were dredged from the giving earth regardless, are caught up in our own egotistical march-to-death-obsession: bake, process and bury, repeat.
This useless, shiny dross which will only see the likes of the trashheap, possibly processed into a landfill mass only serving to bankrupt the next megatroplis more (like the Osaka International Airport, Kobe’s Rokko and Tokyo’s Odaiba islands have so efficiently done), merely perpetuates the cycle of waste.
Yes, Tokyo, Osaka, and Kobe, as well as 45 of the 47 prefectures in Japan, are bankrupt, relying upon never-ending federal subsidies to continue feeding the monster: pre-existing construction plans for bigger, better, and yes, trashier community centers, national landmarks and, of course, more pachinko parlors – all in the middle of nowhere – have to be carried out. Japan is a 土建国家 (doken kokka), that is to say a “construction state”, which since the plentiful 60’s, has dedicated itself and its loyal citizens to the addiction of consumerism and all its side-effects. Here’s to national goals attained. Now what’s next?
The aftermath of the economic “glory days” are what the following generations have to deal with, for good or ill. The slag from a frighteningly powerful postwar economy, largely built on faith and approaching carrying capacity (which on an island of 12% total arability is not much) is mounting. The damage done during the renaissance 60’s, the free and easy 70’s and the gluttonous 80’s is hardly reversible, but who could know that at the time, right? We’re not mind-readers, I mean, who would know that roughly 50% of the population is allergic to Japanese cedar 杉 (sugi) causing one of the worst hay fever seasons worldwide? Or that the pine/maple/bamboo clear-cutting, cedar-planting industry has been in the red since its implementation in the 60’s? All for what, わりばし (chopsticks)? Hindsight being 20/20, one might think 3 decades of denial would be sufficient to stem the tide of an obviously bad idea, but admissions of error come hard here, so we prattle along, hoping, praying really, it all doesn’t collapse beneath us.
Japan – Country of Beauty
Collapse from beneath may not be the biggest worry. Take the Wajiro tidal-flat in Hakata Bay, a wetland of internationally recognized importance. Located at a fork in major bird thoroughfare the shallows are considered an essential nursery for fish, shell beds and are critical to the process of natural purification of the Bay’s waters. The construction of an artificial island (and implementation of Tetrapods along 60% of Fukuoka’s coastline) in 1995 increased pollution in the bay and proliferated sea laver, which unnaturally covered the Wajiro tidal-flat. The numbers of waterfowl and benthos immediately decreased and dead shellfish rose dramatically, due to red tides and asphyxiation from decomposed laver and dredging from the construction site. All this is obvious to anyone with a basic knowledge of science, or common sense and yet the monitoring committee claims the construction site has had no impact whatsoever on the environment. There is currently no system of reviewing public works here, so construction companies (The numbers in 2000 were roughly 12% of the nation being employed in construction: 15 million people in a country roughly the size of Britain) getting fat upon heavy government subsidies don’t fear any sort of reprisal, and in fact, are guaranteed continued subsidies due to the deeply corrupt system of bid-rigging employed by the Ministry of Construction.
The keyword is corruption: The un-elected Zaibatsu, 15-20 of the richest corporate men behind the LDP in Japan, not-so-gently coerce decisions in the Diet “the way they should be”, by shelling money out for projects which will generally show no return, save to keep the wheels greased. The way ex-police officers receive large commissions as relatively useless figureheads in the Pachinko Industry after retirement, thus guaranteeing the Yakuza safety and enabling the monopoly of the illegal gambling industry to thrive. The extortion racket here is the largest in the world, with yakuza practicing そかいや (sokaiya), the method of legally purchasing corporate shares, attending meetings and making an ass out of yourself until the shareholders agree to pay you an outrageous sum of money. The connections are endless:
Zaibatsu, the Diet, Ministry of Construction, Yakuza, Pachinko, Uyoku, Burakumin, organ-legging, human-trafficking, soaplands, Kogyaru, snack bars, yatai, Salarymen, shareholders, you and me.
In other, less overtly legal-loophole, ways, governmental policies strengthen the economy by encouraging consumption. Japanese manufacturers of TV sets do not store parts of older models, forcing consumers to buy newer ones instead of having the old set repaired. Packaging habits are worse, but spread the wealth around more. Cookies are packed individually in cellophane, then put in a plastic box, put into a cardboard decorated box, wrapped once or twice, and then put in a carrier bag. More packaging = more trash = more industry = more spending. Containers and packages account for 60% of garbage volume. The lack of trashcans in public areas implies citizens are supposed to carry home any refuse they may generate in the city though this, of course, does not happen. So, in order to facilitate “proper” disposal and recycling of waste, Tokyo’s garbage laws require the segregation of garbage into eight categories, each into its own color-coordinated flammable bag (often from Indonesia-providing a huge profit to the importers). Rigid restrictions for a government with such liberal leanings regarding industrial waste.
Heavily dependent on industry, economic growth has always been of greater concern than environmental preservation. The number of pollution-related problems caused by industries have been increasing dangerously since the 50’s. Widespread air pollution was caused by the overuse of coal, while the furious output of the textile, paper and pulp industries contributed to horrendous water pollution. In the period of rapid growth directly following WWII the following isolated cases coalesced into a national crisis, making Japan one of the most polluted countries in the world. These instances are literally too numerous to list, but here are a few: Tokyo alone generates 10% of the 50 million tons of garbage produced in Japan (excluding the 367 million tons of industrial waste produced in 1996). Tokyo’s biggest trash dump (a floating island created in 1972) is full up.
- The mercury-dumping Chisso Corporation of Kumamoto’s Minamata Bay infamy spawning its own disease.
- Nippon Steel’s dredging of 350,000 cubic meters of contaminated silt in Dokai Bay (Kitakyushu) where propellers of ships using the bay didn’t rust away, they melted.
- The leaking of rainwater into nuclear waste storage pits in Tokai, Ibaraki Prefecture which the Power Reactor and Nuclear Fuel Development Corp. (PNC) knew about. All the fish were contaminated with organic tin, BHC and DDT.
- High levels of cancer-causing dioxin in the blood of Ibaraki Prefecture residents living near a garbage incineration plant.
- In Suginami, a Tokyo suburb housing a plastic-waste compacting plant, officials discovered more than 90 toxic substances around the site, including dioxin.
- Hinodecho, a suburban Tokyo village turned dump had garbage trucks bringing 1.2 million tons of garbage and industrial waste every day. The cancer rate jumped 400%.
While there are no future plans to stop most waste stations due to cost management, there are plans to support some Asian nations financially in order to build incinerators allowing Japan to export more garbage to places like Thailand, Laos and Vietnam. One such incinerator built by NKK is capable of dealing with 140 tons/day, though according to the Thai government, the incinerator generates about 70 tons of its own refuse a day.
Beyond 1,000,000 chopsticks and 80,000,000 newspapers a day, dioxin in the groundwater, BSE in Hokkaido, landfill islands, tetrapods, 2500 Dams and counting, concreted riverbeds, above-ground telephone lines, gas at $4.18 a gallon and the other multifarious bureaucratic disasters facing this country, what of the probably bigger problem, that of the ever-burgeoning societal refuse? The impalpable flotsam and jetsam of the biggest per-capita consumer society, the same one which once gave the world the four tenets of Shinto: Tradition and the family, Love of nature, Physical cleanliness and Matsuri, わびさび (wabisabi), the Zen aesthetic of earthy imperfection and 武士道 (bushido), the samurai code of chivalry, and now gives us the likes of ブッカケ (bukkake), the ubiquitous chikan, and what Ryu Murakami (Coin Locker Babies, Almost Transparent Blue) calls in a recent essay, the ひききのもり (hikikinomori). These “socially withdrawn people find it extremely painful to communicate with the outside world, and thus they turn to the tools that bring virtual reality into their closed rooms. Japan, on the other hand, must face reality itself. The country has to accept that World War II ended long ago-and so did the glory days of national restoration and economic growth.”
The current power base of Japan seems oblivious to the obvious state of things, that or the odd individual, always unpopular here, remains unwilling to take a very lonely stand. What it comes down to is a question of an economic mentality. The post WWII Japanese had it, because they had nothing, forced to scratch out livings on handfuls of maggoty rice, chaff and their wits, while the わがもの (wagamono) don’t have it. The majority of Japan’s youth, long engendered on a slothful consumerism, have renounced hard work for fashion, or rather the fad of now, the future be damned, choosing part-time jobs over fulltime obeisance. The education system, high schools especially, is finding it hard to keep apace with the frothing tide of apathetic teens, still employing 19th century Russian methods of uniformity while implementing codes echoing US zero-tolerance policy in vain hopes of stemming the coming tsunami of “socially withdrawn” individuals, among which number the yakuza-in-training ぼそ族 (bosozoku), the superfluous ヤンキイ (yanki) as well as other minor チンピラ (chinpira), who proliferate modern-day youth culture.
Again, don’t get me wrong, something, some kind of wa, makes me dig this country, despite its problems, be it the reverence of a still, though waning, extant Bushido culture, the easy-going affability of modern day monks or damn it, just the hot girls, but what remains is the ineffable something which makes me want to point out, Japan’s shortcomings rather than her strong points, to fight for the future, which may seem ominous, though the one thing which this nation has going for it is an abnormally strong sense of perseverance. This atypical island culture’s ability to continue on in the diffusing light of complete destruction continues to amaze and flabbergast many across the globe. While sickening in its own way, there is a strange attraction to the slick neon sex glow with its rivers of rice wine and tenuously twitching raw fish floating toward the asbestos-rich sunset. No matter the rubbish piles heaping on the periphery, nor the stench of the once freely flowing river, at the crossroads of slothful self-destruction there will always be a stool at the local ramen stand, a clearing amidst the clearly mounting rubble, where you can sit, slurp your pig bone broth down, toss your disposables and head off to the soapland for a little R&R. See you there.