Plastic Japan

In Kenya, you get jail time for plastic bags. In the U.S.,  straw-shaming’s all the rage. Ah, Americans, how quickly you forget.  Cue balloon disaster.

Anyway, I can only imagine what a mind-fuck it is for Kenyans to arrive in Japan and find themselves surrounded, sometimes literally, by a sea of plastic. Because when it comes to being proudly able replicate everything on earth with its plastic counterpart, Japan rules the world. In front of the ramen shop, there’s a plastic bowl of plastic ramen. The curry shop has plastic plates so real you’ll be tempted to smell your fingers after you dip them in. I can’t always remember where my fingers have been, but anyway they don’t smell like curry, that’s for sure. And where else can you go to the checkout counter with six pieces of sushi in a plastic tray, complete with a little plastic shiso leaf, a small plastic bottle of soy sauce, two plastic packs of ginger and wasabi, the whole thing shrink wrapped in plastic, and have the store clerk put it into a plastic bag, and then another plastic bag? Not too many countries, one would hope.

Japan, Nation of Harmony

Somehow before I lived here, I had this image of Japan as a country in harmony with nature. This was reinforced on my first visit by a cute girl with crooked teeth who took me to a wooden tea house in the middle of a bamboo forest. We sat cross-legged under a thatched roof and drank cool green macha from ceramic bowls. It was like dying and going to Shinto heaven. As opposed to real Heaven where actual God lives, of course. Whatever, after that we went to a wonderful beer garden in the basement of some horrible concrete Ginza high rise and had a powerful bunch of booze, but somehow the image of the bamboo forest is what persisted.

The takeaway is that the human brain is entirely composed of stuff, fluff, and cotton candy, all lubricated with copious amounts of alcohol. Few people outside the scientific community know this, but for reliability you’re better off consulting Winnie the Pooh.

Plastic Japan

But I digress. ’s all the polyethylene in my bloodstream. Anyway, if you’re worried you might miss strolling on a Shizuoka beach without seeing a shoreline strewn with plastic bottles and fishing nets, or that you might cut open a fresh tuna and not find a plastic bag…hey, Japan to the rescue. This great nation is doing everything in its power to ensure no sea turtle goes without ski boots and a Tupperware set.

I didn’t really consider the scope of the problem until I showed my new apartment to my mother via Skype.

“Wow, that’s a lot of wood,” she said.

Words Ken Seeroi loves to hear, although coming from one’s mother, rather unsettling.

But she was right: the floors, doors, windowsills, and countertops were all perfect, solid wood.

“Must be expensive,” she said.

“Yeah…,” I mused, “kinda funny about that, actually.”

I have this great talent for ignoring the obvious. Probably a lot of malt liquor helps, but suddenly something didn’t add up. The floors were smooth as glass. The wall trimmings showed no signs of warping despite Japan’s fishbowl humidity. I put on the plastic glasses I got at the 100-yen shop and examined the flawless floors of apparent spruce, which turned out to be an unholy laminate of sawdust and glue, printed to look like wood and set to biodegrade ten years after the sun explodes.

Is Nothing Real Anymore?

Then, other things. Metal doorknobs, the shower head, the shiny kitchen spout—-they weren’t metal at all. The slate and ceramic bathroom tiles. The entire one-piece bathtub/shower unit, not even trying to pretend it wasn’t molded plastic. I live in an apartment constructed of space-age, prefab components where George Jetson would feel comfortably at home.

What happened to my image of a Japan of wood, bamboo, and rice paper? Which Kill Bill did I get that from? Plastic Japan is a dystopian present of concrete, fluorescent lighting, and mountains of plastic, with David Carradine flying around like Blade Runner vainly trying to dispose of Hefty bags full of hair dryers, DVD players, and Coleman coolers.

Worship the Plastic Japan

While tourists line up for shrines and temples, the citizens of the nation spend Sundays at the 100-yen shop, lost in aisles of colorful buckets, clothes hangers, plates, and non-stick spatulas. Clean, economical, and disposable, plastic speaks to something deep within the Japanese psyche. We absolutely worship the stuff. If there’s a country that uses more Saran Wrap, Marco Polo has yet to find it. At festivals throughout Japan, tens of thousands of families spread out massive blue plastic tarps, then sit eating plastic-wrapped onigiri from plastic bento boxes while sipping from plastic bottles disarmingly referred to as PETs. At the end of the night they’ll blithely toss everything into Buddha-sized piles, before it’s carted off to the incinerator. Japan’s real zen like that.

One Very Soggy Japanese Festival

Last month, I went to a festival with three Japanese girls, despite the impending rain. Ken Seeroi never lets a little weather come between him and an imaginary foursome. So we dropped by the 7-Eleven and had a debate. Plastic raincoats for the day, or vinyl umbrellas for one-time use? Fuck it, why not both? Then we went to get cans of coffee, but they’d all been recently replaced by plastic PET bottles. Not sure why, since they still taste like something you’d grab at a roadside Texaco stand. But anyway beer still comes in cans, so we got a few of those too, plus plastic packs of edamame and others of pickled daikon. Then some shrink-wrapped eclairs and a couple plastic sheets to sit on and we were set for the evening. Everything into plastic bags.

And as we rode to the festival, I couldn’t help noticing how much of the taxi was made of plastic. The doors, the dash, even the seats. Apparently, oak-trimmed autos are a thing of the past. Who knew? Plus maybe pleather doesn’t count, I don’t even know. Whatever, I’m sure it’ll all work out great for the earth once armies of cute, white plastic Asimo robots take over. No matter what, they’d be hard-pressed to do worse than humans. So might as well relax, drink a beer, and leave everything to the robots. Someday they’ll find a way to turn it all back into trees and grass, I’m pretty sure.

62 Replies to “Plastic Japan”

    1. Thanks, good to be back. I’d been writing this one for a while, and then just lost steam. I really gotta drink more bottles of coffee.

      1. Which coffee is the best? Or is it all swill?

        I’ve only really tried the Suntory ones as erm… yeah, I’ve been playing far too many Yakuza / 龍が如く games which always have the protagonist drinking Suntory Rainbow blend… which to me seems fine but yeah, I’m not really a coffee drinker AND*** I have low standards

        *** Maybe the biggest point here, lol

        1. I wouldn’t say “swill,” but they’re all rather, eh, average.

          If you want an alternative, all of our convenience stores started offering grind-and-brew cups of coffee a few years ago, ostensibly to compete with outfits like Starbucks. A cup isn’t quite as portable as a can, but it tastes marginally better.

          As for Suntory Rainbow Blend, I have to wonder if it’s not featured simply because its can is more colorful than the rest…

  1. Funny timing, I recently found this video of the “House of the Future” on Youtube.

    Funny how times change. What was once novel is taken for granted, and then disliked. I think it would actually be impossible to go plastic-free now, unless you went full hermit, and even then it would be pretty tricky. I think the one that gets me the most is the plastic “wooden” posts and benches in parks. On the other hand, can you imagine life without toothbrushes?

    1. Serendipity’s my middle name. Not a lot of people know that.

      The line from that article I really like is “Japan’s reasons [for not signing the agreement] were not as clear.”

      Guess “’cause we just really like plastic” wouldn’t be a very popular reason.

  2. That’s the thing that has surprised me in my first weeks of Japan: the amount of waste they produce here. For all their OCD when it comes to separating their trash, they don’t actually seem to be doing much in the way of reducing the amount of trash that consumers produce. I suppose if they did that, then they wouldn’t need the complicated system of trash disposal they have and some bureaucrats would be out of a job. But that’s probably just my American ignorance speaking.

    1. to me it seems like public displays of virtue signaling occupy a large part of peoples behavior in japan. perhaps the OCD thing with the garbage while ignoring the elephant in the room (the heedless use of plastic) is an example of that…

  3. A big part of the plastic dumped into the oceans by Asian countries is actually plastic produced by wealthy countries (i.e. US, EU, Japan) and sent to Asia for cheap “waste removal”.

        1. Yeah, over 2 links and it kicks it up to me for approval. Of course, I only do that to stay drunk with power, but I find it really saves on booze.

    1. If you look at the table it’s based on the estimated creation rate of waste in the country and their mismanagement and this is from the Earthday foundation so I doubt if they’re giving the US a pass. China creates almost 9 megatons a year and the US only .28 so even if China took in all our waste it would be a small fraction of what they’re spewing out.

  4. “As opposed to real Heaven where actual God lives, of course.”
    Begone Christ! The power of Atheism compels you!

    Funny little thing that Amazon / Google offered me in connection with your article:
    “R Noble Thank You Reusable Grocery Plastic Bags 300 Count”
    “8.3 mm Durique Laminate Maple Natural Flooring (6 x 7-3/4 inch Sample)”
    “Party Bargains 10″ X 15″ Plastic Unprinted Produce Bag on a Roll, Bread and Grocery Clear Bag, 450 Bags”

    “And as we rode to the festival, I couldn’t help noticing how much of the taxi was made of plastic. The doors, the dash, even the seats.”

    I bought a new car last year (transportation for the wife, me and the kids was absolutely necessary). I was mildly annoyed / surprised about how cars nowadays are made out of plastic. You have to remember that a car is basically an engine (that’s the expensive part) and a chassis around it. Everything else is just fluff. And that stuff costs 25.000 USD (in my case).

    P.S. I am increasingly becoming militant concerning plastic wrappings and shit. Just yesterday I told my wife that plastic straws are now prohibited in our home. We already use wood / linen boxes / bags to carry stuff around and buy vegetables and stuff without any wrapping putting them directly into our trusty box.

    P.P.S.: Any US citizen mocking plastic consumption in Japan should tread very carefully given that US environmental impact by person is abysmal.

    1. Yeah, gotta love those Amazon ads. I’m like “So they’re reusable plastic bags, and somehow I need 300 of ’em?” Maybe as Christmas gifts for my extended family. Three hundred Seeroi cousins and aunts gonna be mighty happy.

    2. Funny – also just bought a new car and the other day I was sitting in it and thought “Why does this smell remind me of Japan?” I guess now I know!

  5. I always take my cotton carry bag to the supermarket and the staff know that I don’t want carry bags, but they still place some things individually into smaller bags, like meat which is already wrapped. So instead of getting n+1 plastic bags, where n is the number of items I’ve bought I only get n plastic bags. As n < n+1 I'm helping the environment.

    1. Well, n’s a start.

      For me, one of the big epiphanies was that in Japan we typically shop every day. So on Monday, Japanese mom buys one carrot, one eggplant, one onion, and one potato and puts them all in separate plastic bags. Then on Tuesday, one carrot, one eggplant…you get the idea. In a week, that’s 28 plastic bags.

      Which is to say that I guess I’d add frequency to your formula.

      1. I’ve been told that people shop this way because kitchens are so small – this is also the reason I’ve been given for not being able to find a green banana in Tokyo for love or money – that no one has the room to buy bananas before they are ripe and store them for a few days. So that’s an environmental plus – at least people are not building bigger and bigger houses for smaller and smaller families like in the US. Still, there is no reason to put everything in a separate bag. I mean come on – an onion already comes in its own wrapper.

        1. I’m trying to think of a fruit or vegetable that doesn’t come in its own wrapper…maybe ketchup?

          There are lots of reasons we shop every day. For one, it’s just not that hard to drop by the market. Sometimes it’s literally under the train station, or on a shopping street you’re passing anyway, so buying groceries only takes ten minutes on the way home.

          I also think a big reason is the lack of reliance on packaged products. Let’s say for example I’ve got a can of pasta sauce or a box of curry in my cupboard. In that case, pretty much anything left over in the fridge can got into one of those dishes. But what if you don’t have any packaged food? That’s often the case here (at least in my household), where we tend to make everything from scratch. Then you need to be more diligent with your shopping.

          As for green bananas, it’s likely more of a marketing issue. I once lived in a place totaling 5.5 tatami mats in size, and there was still room for heaps of bananas. I suspect nobody sells green bananas because, uh, nobody buys green bananas.

          1. *I* buy green bananas! the really ripe ones are gross!

            Those additional reasons for shopping every day are also associated with factors that mean you’re having less environmental impact – like not using a car to drive to a big supermarket. Still it would be super easy not to use so many damn bags. I just remembered though that while you’d think a banana was also one of the last things that needs an individual wrapper, when I complained about this, a Japanese friend said that the packaging they come in (even SINGLE bananas, which was driving me nuts) is specially designed to keep them from getting ripe too fast. He sent me a link to a published study and everything. So that’s ONE case where there is maybe some justification.

                  1. If American is going to keep up with Japan, I wish we’d pick something more useful like onigiri at the 7-11

        2. My supermarket is 50 meters from my apartment and I walk past it on the way from the station. My parents in Australia can’t even park that close to the supermarket door.

  6. I always feel cheated on when buying a box of candy in Japan. The box has space for 50 but due to everything being wrapped in plastic I get a maximum of 6. They also come in a plastic tray inside the box because… well, because Japan I guess.

  7. I’m currently studying in Yokohama, and we made a parody advert on exactly this problem…my tiny room is basically full of plastic bags of plastic bags, since I don’t just wanna chuck ’em.
    In the uk plastic bags cost like 8yen a piece, so all of us cheap bastards have now adopted reusable bags. What do they think all the extra tiny bags are achieving anyway?

    1. All those tiny bags have a prophylactic effect, protecting the tomato from inadvertently coming in contact with the cucumber before the appointed time, thus preventing unplanned salad.

  8. Here in Australia we’re going through the painful process of having the major supermarket chains stop giving away ‘single use’ plastic bags (great as bin liners and for picking up dog poo) and start selling reusable plastic bags (much sturdier but not great as bin liners).

    Sales growth slowed immediately and one chain decided to give away the reusable bags indefinitely to try and counteract this. The Twitterati got upset and ‘indefinitely’ is now ‘about a month’. We’ll see what happens next.

    1. Of course there’s the unintended consequence that people now go buy plastic bin liners instead of using the supermarket bags.

    2. That’s where government policy needs to play a role, instead of just letting retailers duke it out for who can give away the most plastic bags.

  9. I remember showing my Japanese girlfriend the jam pan I’d inherited from my grandmother. She had a look of amazement/horror/bewilderment that I prefered to use a 80-year-old pan instead of it being chucked away after the funeral.

    1. Oh boy, don’t get started on death in Japan, where conservation runs smack into superstition. Nobody wants a dead person’s stuff, so practically everything goes straight into the trash. Inherited, what’s that? You’re using a ghoooost paaan~~~

      1. Oh, that’s why the thrift stores are the shit. I knew they were superstition but cool stuff is cool stuff. They need to call the local expat.

        I used to live close to a cemetery. “do you see ghosts?” I wanted an apartment next or across from it so I’d have fewer neighbours. I think cemeteries are beautiful. Trees, grass, nice old stones.

  10. I saw a young woman on the Yamanote who just purchased a cotton recycling bag and it was in a plastic sales bag. It had the recycle emblem on it. It would of been a great photo but taking pics of strangers isn’t my thing. She was probably too shy to say anything or wasn’t in the habit of saying no to plastic yet. The Japanese need to get their plastic consumption under control. Fantastic amounts of plastic.

    1. Just to digress on the picture-taking theme for a moment…

      One surprising thing I learned about photography is that professionals frequently stage their shots. What looks like a random snapshot usually isn’t. Sure, you may serendipitously catch some woman with a recycling bag inside a plastic bag and be able to snap a decent pic, but it’s hard to make a living on lucky shots. (Plus you’d be wise to get a model release.) It’s much easier to take that idea then simply get a friend (or model) to recreate the scene while you take all the time in the world to adjust the angle and lighting and snap off a couple dozen saleable shots.

      Okay, sorry for geeking out over photography—just couldn’t help but go there. We can go back to talking about plastic now.

      1. Hey, the revamped photos on this site are beautiful. You must have put in a lot of extra work. (OCD much?) Now a foray into the archives has a little extra oo-factor.

  11. Ken, it looks like part of a sentence was cut off. It’s this part under the “Plastic Japan” main heading:

    “But I digress. ’s all the polyethylene in my bloodstream.”

  12. Honest question. Are there any builders using plastic waste as structural building materials like pressed block instead of wood?

    1. That’s a great, if peculiarly-specialized question. I really don’t know. Many of the “logs” used for forest stairs and railings appear to be a mix of metal, concrete, and plastic, but as for other building materials, I truly can’t say.

  13. Yo Ken!
    I’ve been reading your blogs for four years now, and I just want to tell you how much I appreciate your writing. You are by far my favorite blogger and among my favorite authors, I’ve read every blog on this web site and I’m amazed by how consistent your writing quality is, I’d go as far as saying that I consider some of your blogs to be straight out masterpieces. You’re a truly talented person.
    Anyway, I just want to tell you that I never enjoyed reading anything as much as I did reading your blogs, you have truly added something to my life. Thank you!

    1. Thank you so much. It really means a lot to me. Honesty, comments like this add a great deal to my life. I am eternally grateful to the people who read my crazy stuff.

  14. When I shop at the 100 yen shop I usually throw away all the unrequested plastic wrapping the plastic items I buy. On about 15 items, the plastic I throw there would make approximately 1/10 of my home garbage bag.
    Houses in Japan are so full of plastic material in them, that’s why they often break in pieces-the floor, the kitchen cabinets etc. I realised very late since I was living in Japan that my apartment’s inside walls were washable! I think they sell a brush just dedicated to that… Well there are brushes dedicated to every single brushing item existing in Japan, have you noticed that?! I still didn’t try to wash the room ceiling but I can see it is washable plastic too.

    1. “there are brushes dedicated to every single brushing item existing in Japan”

      Heh, so true. There’s wide, fat brushes…thin, soft brushes…brushes for your shoes, brushes for your sink…Japan’s like the Bubba Gump Shrimp of brushes.

  15. I just saw a youtube video about Japan taking all of its ‘recycled’ plastic that’s thrown away and selling it to China, because they can’t do anything with it. It made me angry, cause I used to have to wash my plastic garbage to throw it away when I lived in Japan–and I always believed me cleaning up all this plastic crap would help the environment somehow. All my hard work—wasted!

    I didn’t fact-check the youtube video, but the Japanese garbage guy said something about how everyday-use-plastic is hard to recycle so they can’t do anything with it and it just gets put in a land-fill anyway. Wahh.

  16. I’m not sure if the URL will show up here, but this technology is a few years old: recapturing oil from plastic, developed in Japan.
    (If the link is invisible please search science alert + plastic back into oil.)

  17. As a long time reader and first time commenter, let me start by saying hello! This was something that drove me nuts when living there, specifically at supermarkets. Gotta put that cellophane sealed air-tight package of whatever into a little clear bag before we put it in a bag!

    As someone who almost always cooked for themself (vegan – in possibly the worst country in the world for it), most of what I bought was produce. Eventually I would just start every checkout by saying I didn’t need a bag, and the clerk would STILL often try to put my produce into those vynil bags. When I specified I didn’t want those either, they would not rarely go deer in the headlights and ask me if I was sure because of its delicateness.

    I also hated that damn proof of purchase tape; if I will immediately leave the store and have a receipt, to me that should be good enough (though this is not a Japan-specific phenomenon; see Malaysia). I once had to demand a clerk not put it on my paper yaki-imo bag cause it’d contaminate the damn thing. Going back to the vynil bags, I once bought a single avocado and the old lady at the cash absolutely would not yield to not using one. She straight up told me to deal with it, and my bewilderment made my only intermediate language skills fail me completely. Japan’s legendary customer service for you!

    1. Yeah, flexibility’s not really our strong point. You’re gonna get it stuck with tape or wrapped in layers of cling wrap and bagged at the register, like it or not. But don’t worry; somewhere there’s a dolphin who needs a plastic bag.

    2. Somewhat related, but I went into a Baskin Robbins once and asked for a shake with Cookies and Cream instead of one of the Vanilla, Chocolate, and Strawberry listed choices. After convincing them that they could override their shake recipes (instead of two scoops of Vanilla, make it two scoops of Cookies and Cream), they made the shake for me…after, I kid you not, signing something to the effect that I was responsible for this aberration.

  18. Ken,
    Your blog sucks.
    I can’t get a signal when going through an excessively long tunnel.
    It is also hard to read when walking in public. Causing me to bump into sneering strangers.
    Is this blog the real Heaven where actual God lives.
    Who is this actual god?
    What is this actual gods ethnicity and
    Is this actual God a Male?
    More importantly is there beer in heaven?
    Did you ever stop to think that The actual God needs plastic and we are producing it?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *