Oh, I love trash! But in Japan it's not dirty or dingy or dusty, nor is it ragged nor rotten or rusty--yes, I love trash! If Sesame Street's famed Grouch was promoting the old adage that "one man's trash is another man's treasure," I can personalize it to read, "one Tanaka san's trash is my treasure." My first stereo in Japan, a boom box loaded with an AM/FM radio and duel tape cassettes, got me from 1994 to 1997, when I finally upgraded to a store-bought 7 CD changer before moving to Urawa. That lonely stereo sat on the designated trash pile in Koshigaya next to my first apartment, and for 3 years, the find from the "treasure pile" was music to my, and thanks to paper thin walls, my neighbors' ears. That was my first experience of picking up trash and it would not be my last, and I can't promise even pushing 15 years here, that I am finished yet.
I've lived in 6 different accommodations since moving to Japan, and I've yet to meet a basement, an attic or a storage room. When I visit my parents in Ohio, I could probably also visit my first record player, complete with my old collection of 33s and 45s, my bike when the training wheels were just removed, and even book reports from the 5th grade, in a box with my name on it in their basement. As Americans, it's what we do. We get things, we use them, we no longer use them, we keep them, we store them. It's a simple process. Granted, there are garage sales, where we buy, use, keep and store other people's memories, but that requires a key component missing from the process in Japan: A garage.
It is said that the Japanese like new things. They like small things. They like new, small things. That is true, and once they get a new small thing, the less new, less small thing goes out to the trash pile. That's where those that are hungry for electronics crawling the neighborhoods come in. There are more sophisticated ways to dig for trash, and I have classed up my act over the years, but I am proud of that first fundamental find. After my stint in Urawa, I married (my husband is not to be confused with things I find in the trash), and we moved to work at a college in Kawasaki in '98. In our new zip code, we found a way to apply for trash. Progressing from picking to applying seemed to me like a formal transformation from Miss to Mrs. It entailed going to a city-run upscale dump that had items from the once monthly over-sized trash collection day on display in a showroom tagged with numbers. On a slip of recycled paper, you filled in your name and contact information, along with the number of the item you desired, and dropped it in a box slot for lottery. We were looking for a desk, and ended up also being wooed by a natural wood entertainment center (I had more than a silly 7-CD changer to shelve by then), as well a dining set (table and 4 antique chairs).
There was a run on the desks, but we hit the lottery on the entertainment center and dining set. There was no charge, although the city encouraged "donations." We donated, and accepted the volunteer city truck delivery to get the loot to our place. This service is all in the name of saving the earth, and I was doing my part. The doorbell rang, and 2 energetic, elderly men of slight build were at the entrance with our big, heavy furniture. They removed their shoes on entry, balancing the over-sized load with grace, and brought the items inside one at a time. The entertainment center could be transported in 2 pieces, which was the only way it could make it through the narrow entrance into the even narrower living room. They made 4 trips, each time without saying a word other than excusing themselves upon every entry into our quarters. More impressively, they slipped shoes on, shoes off, shoes on, shoes off, each time, without looking down or losing balance once. At the end of what looked like a different type of reality show, they bowed to make their exit. I asked if they would accept a cash donation, and they gracefully declined. Is this one of those Japanese things where you have to ask 3 times to get to a yes? No, after 3 times, they were still declining. I went to the fridge (university property, not personally purchased nor born again trash) and came back with 2 cans of Kirin beer. They gracefully accepted the lager donations and went on their way.
Sweetened by the victory of being first time lottery winners, and inspired by watching the male duo half our size and 3 times our age balance furniture above their heads like a circus act, we relished in our finds. I wished that furniture could talk, not out of some kind of loneliness or language practice, but I'm sure it had stories to tell of the homes it shared and the disposal routes it traversed until it reached us. It's not easy to dispose of trash here. Yet, on a winter break back to Columbus, I can drive through the streets and see Christmas trees out for the trash at the curb, along with stacks of empty toy boxes and wrapping paper proving there is a Santa Claus, and he came that week. However, if I wanted to dispose of a dead evergreen in Japan, it would require consulting a 28 page detailed guide on what measurements to cut it down to, how many branches per bundle, and what material the strings to tie the bundles must be, and if it goes in a bag, it's a designated, labeled bag. The bi-weekly trash pick-up requires being in physical shape, as well as having at least 1 higher degree to interpret and stick to the rules. Indeed, disposing is a challenge, and in a land without garbage disposals, missing the prompt 8 AM pick up, or having your trash rejected based on its contents (big rubbish brother is watching), can create such a big smelly mess that you are forced to question if there really is a Santa Claus. However, when trash works in your favor in the form of "gently used furniture," or outdated stereos, it makes you a believer all over again.
I was gradually working my way up the class levels of garbage picking. I went from direct from the pile, to direct from the lottery site, to an actual "recycle shop," where people pawn off no longer useful items to them for re-sale. The items carried vary, and one road side stand provided me with my first microwave and washing machine. The only challenge about the microwave was strapping it with a bungee cord to the basket of my bike to transport it home. The ride through heavy traffic with a weighty object made me realize that actually bungee jumping would have been the safer move. The washing machine was never used, yet rejected by the original owner because it was dented when brought into his, I imagine Willy Wonka extreme narrow, apartment. For the equivalent of $50, the owner sold me the washer, put a hand written "back in 10 minutes" sign up, drove it to my place, and installed it. He made sure it worked before he left. If the sign said, "be back in an hour," I may have bargained for him to help me hang a load or two, but I didn't want to look a gift Mitsubishi in the mouth.
I started in economy, got bumped up to business, and now was ready to cash in frequent files for a seat in first class trash digging. There is a franchise worth mentioning, if at least just for the giggle it invokes every time I say it, called Hard Off. Hard Off has standards on what they accept when people dump stuff "Off" on them, and it starts with electronics and hardware, which is where I hope they're getting the name. Unused, still in the box or wrapped items dominate the shelves. Think of it as Re-gift Heaven. Gift set towels, dishware or toasting glasses that are standard favors for wedding guests, make their way to be sold as shiny, new trash. They also have a Junk Off branch for used clothing, kids toys, furniture, and anything else you could find in a posh, gated neighborhood's trash site. Rounding out the family, there is Book Off, which is self-explanatory. I found myself on the giving end of these places. It started with justifying if I ever bought anything there, but soon was trumped by the simple need of getting "Hard Junk" Off of my floor and out of the house. I've created my own, non-city regulated "one in, one out" policy on the amount of items I can handle in limited quarters. Fondly, I replay the I Love Trash song in my mind every time I drive by a trash pile loaded with goodies for the picking, or enter the automated doors to an "Off" store, and the soloist singing in my mind is always an Oscar but never a Grouch.