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Garbage in Japan

The house we live in has a bad reputation in the neighborhood. The former resident was an ice hockey player for the Japanese Olympic team during the last games here in Japan. Although he played for the Japanese team, he was a Canadian given hasty citizenship so that the Japanese could field a competitive team (to no avail). He and his 3 boys would play hockey in the street with pucks careening off the neighbor's walls. This did not go over well.

Having been apprised of this situation by a friend who was brought in to mediate the dispute and explain the rules of Japanese etiquette to the family (don't whack your pucks around!), I've spent six months trying to be a good neighbor and reassure those around us that not all foreigners are crazy. We were doing pretty well until today.

Garbage. I've always hated garbage in Japan. As with most things Japanese, you follow the rules or risk the silent (but palpable) wrath of the community. You must separate trash into burnable, unburnable and recyclable, take each out on the correct day (not too early so as not to attract the crows) and, to keep citizens honest, place the garbage in semi-transparent bags so everyone can verify you aren't cheating.

I remember years ago sneaking out in the middle of the night to put out my bags with their illicit mix of burnable and unburnable contraband. These days I'm married and more socially/environmentally conscious – or at least more aware of the neighbors suspiciously eyeing me whenever I step out the door. With that in mind I do generally follow the rules although I confess that the occasional plastic item still gets mixed in with the burnable. I'm a wild and crazy guy.

So, today I was about to take my bags out to the curb when Christine suddenly yells out, "Garbage truck!" I bolt outside in time to see the truck already halfway down the street. I gave fleeting thought to chasing it down but couldn't quite bring myself to provide the neighbors with an image of the crazy American running madly down the street, garbage bags in tow. I sheepishly return to the house and Christine says, "Put it out anyway. Sometimes they come around twice." Already flustered, I did so without thinking through the potential implications. I think she was trying to get back at me for the parking ticket incident. Garbage trucks don't come around twice. We're lucky they come around at all.

I went upstairs to a room that looks out over the street in time to notice our neighbor come out to the curb. He looks at our garbage, shakes his head and stands there thoughtfully with a frown. Then he gets down on his knees, opens up the bags and examines the contents carefully. I am dying a thousand deaths and cursing the day I moved to Japan. As I am being torn between going out to explain myself or chickening out and bolting out the back door, the door bell rings. With fear and trembling I open the door and there he is with our 3 bags. Busted! He looks at me for an eternity, hands me the bags and explains, as one would explain to a child, that garbage goes out BEFORE the truck comes and I should probably wait until next time to set out my garbage. Then he gives me a knowing look as if to say he will be keeping a closer eye on me in the future. I thank him for his wisdom.

Sigh. I might as well break out those hockey sticks.