A photo of police officers sealing off trash bins prior to the Tokyo Marathon in Tokyo in 2015.
Police officers seal off trash bins prior to the Tokyo Marathon in Tokyo in 2015. Shizuo Kambayashi/AP

The near-absence of public garbage bins in cities like Tokyo is both a security measure and a reflection of a cultural aversion to littering.

For two decades, it was the lament of inexperienced visitors to Japan: Where are all the trash cans? It’s a cruel trick, in a way: In a country with innumerable vending machines, there’s often nowhere to put one’s wrappers or empty bottles.

Public waste bins and garbage cans were largely removed from Japanese cities following the 1995 sarin gas attacks, forcing residents to adopt some of the world’s more disciplined waste disposal techniques.

In recent years, however, the long-absent trash cans have started to make a cautious return to public spaces such as parks and train stations. Security sensitivities still remain, however: When President Donald Trump arrives in Tokyo this weekend for trade talks with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, for example, many of those refuse bins will be locked up and sealed shut—a testament to the enduring impact that terrorist incident had on the psyche of the country.

The Aum Shinrikyo doomsday cult led a series of coordinated chemical weapon attacks on the Tokyo subway system on March 20, 1995, which left 12 people dead. More than 1,000 were injured by exposure to the toxic agent. The domestic terror attack remains deeply resonant among the Japanese public, in part because of the potent symbolism in targeting the Tokyo subway—a system that carries millions of passengers each day and serves as an emblem of the nation’s economic power and modernity. To attack trains in Japan is to attack more than just run-of-the-mill civic infrastructure.

In the immediate aftermath, waste receptacles were sealed and then removed entirely from train stations and many other public spaces throughout Japan. Such actions are not uncommon after terrorist incidents. As CityLab reported previously, trash bins were also removed in London and Paris following bombings in the 1980s and 1990s. Similarly, garbage cans temporarily disappeared from New York City’s PATH train system after the World Trade Center terror attack in 2001 and from the streets of Boston after the Boston Marathon bombing of 2013.

But in Japan, the cans mostly stayed gone. And despite fears that such a move would lead to an uptick in litter, such was not the case in Tokyo and elsewhere. Instead, Japanese residents dutifully return home from an afternoon outing with a purse or bag full of wrappers, bottles, or other trash accumulated while out on the town, to be sorted in accordance with Japan’s byzantine waste-disposal rules.

If you walk your dog in a Japanese city, it gets even more complex, as a recent Washington Post piece noted:

Dog owners have to take dog waste home and flush it down the toilet: A paper bag inside a plastic bag makes that an easier prospect. But embark on a road trip and you have a problem. For that, you need a poop bag attached to a magnet, so you can stick it on the outside of your car on the way home.

Per capita, residents of Japan produce half the amount of domestic waste of those in the U.S., and recycling rates far outstrip that of the U.K. and America. There are practical reasons for this, such as a shortage of space for landfills in the densely settled island nation. But the aversion to littering is also cultural: In a case study of Japanese littering, academics Ivy Bee Luan Ong and Benjamin K. Sovacool found that several factors contribute to the general tidiness of Japanese urban life, including strong community expectations and daily reinforcement among schoolchildren, who participate in a daily 15-minute period for cleaning one’s school.

To encourage low-waste lifestyles, Japanese authorities have employed several strategies. When trash cans were axed in public restrooms, for example, so were paper towels, to head off a potential litter problem. In their place, the use of small personal hand towels was promoted, and that remains the default practice, although air dryers have become increasingly popular in major cities in recent years. Cigarette smokers, prodded by passive-aggressive anti-litter campaigns, carry small personal ashtrays, eschewing the global practice of simply flicking their butts onto the street.

In mascot-mad Japan, there is also an anti-litter superhero yuru-chara, Mangetsu-man, patrolling the streets of Tokyo.

“Mangetsu-man” (Mr. Full Moon), a costumed mascot with a full moon for a head, cleans Tokyo’s Nihonbashi Bridge in 2014. (Issei Kato/Reuters)

But in recent years, garbage cans have slowly returned to public life in Japan. In 2006, rail operator JR East began re-introducing trash containers onboard its Narita Express airport line. Waste and recycling bins have also made long-awaited comebacks to train station platforms, public parks, and tourist attractions after testing via earlier pilot programs.

Several factors likely contribute to their return. Japan is experiencing a record-breaking tourism boom, especially in cities like Tokyo, Kyoto, and Osaka. The huge numbers of foreign visitors—a phenomenon dubbed kankō kōgai, or “tourism pollution,” in local media—has convinced authorities to re-introduce more public waste receptacles to accommodate those unfamiliar with Japanese garbage mores. And as rail officials concede, while Japan is overwhelmingly litter-free, planners cannot rely entirely on the public goodwill when it comes to disposing of trash, making waste receptacles a grudging necessity in some areas.

The legacy of the 1995 terror attacks remains evident in their design, however: Most feature clear bags inside transparent-walled receptacles, allowing for quick inspection of the contents within. Trash cans in Tokyo Metro stations are also positioned to be within eyesight of ticket gate staff. Less common are blast-proof pill-shaped waste receptacles that can be found along stylish Omotesando street in Tokyo.

When President Obama visited Japan in 2014, increased security meant no trash cans in the subway. (Allan Richarz)

Security is particularly tight around special events. In the days ahead of state visits from Presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump in 2014 and 2017, respectively, bins across the capital city were locked, taped, or otherwise sealed shut. Apologetic notes from rail and public safety officials were also attached, explaining that the move was a security precaution. In the rare instances where bins were not closed off, such as at Akihabara Station during President Obama’s visit in 2014, security was posted next to the receptacles during operating hours to provide constant watch.

Similar countermeasures are likely for the June G20 summit in Osaka. In many respects, Japan has come full-circle with the gradual return of garbage bins to public spaces. But the country’s still-tenuous relationship with trash cans shows the lasting impact of terror attacks, even decades after the event. Worrying about litter is something that Japanese authorities and residents alike aren’t entirely ready to toss out.

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