Japan’s Plastic Conundrum

Article: Is Japan eco-friendly or eco-hostile? (https://asia.nikkei.com/Business/Is-Japan-eco-friendly-or-eco-hostile)

With Japan’s notable way of recycling waste, where waste is sorted systematically and diligently, Japan gives off an impression of an eco-friendly nation. This article serves to debunk this myth by highlighting the overt use of plastic in this consumption-driven society. Retailers’ excessive use of plastic to package items in Japan, for instance, demonstrates this negligence towards the environment.  

As such, in an attempt to address the issue of excessive plastic usage, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government has aimed to have retailers across the prefecture impose a fee on plastic shopping bags by 2020. Not all retailers, however, are supportive of this movement. Nevertheless, despite the mixed reactions from retailers, this movement is still strongly supported by governor Yuriko Koike. Mottainai Furoshiki, for instance, is a project by Koike that seeks to reduce the amount of waste generated.

The recycling of plastic waste is no easy task and plastic waste could pose a danger to marine creatures. Moreover, producing of plastic is becoming increasingly expensive and the use of plastic bags would give Japan an image of a wasteful nation. Hence, given these reasons, it is of utmost importance for Japan to reduce its plastic usage.

As mentioned, Japan is a nation that is both friendly and hostile towards the environment, in the ways they deal with plastic. The article refers to Japan’s dedication and strong efforts to recycle waste as “green”, which reinforces the protective stance Japan has towards the environment. More than 90% of PET bottles, for instance, were recycled in 2014 and they were so clean that they were used to make soccer uniforms (Nikkei Asian Review, 2017). The efficient waste system portrays a clean and sustainable green Japan. Yet, on the flipped side, Japan’s rapport with the environment is concurrently under threat as they assume the role of the destructor, producing and using too much plastic.

Implicit in this article is the scrutiny of the relationship between the Japanese and nature. Relating back to Kalland’s and Asquith’s (1997) proposition, he argued that the Japanese society has an ambivalent relationship with nature. On one hand, the Japanese society claims to love and appreciate nature through their eco-friendly front, by adhering to traditional value of mottainai that discourages waste and thereby lessen their environmental footprint. On the other hand, the contradictory nature of this relationship is called into question, as their excessive plastic usage imposes long-term damage on the environment. The looming problem of plastic pollution is especially pertinent as China recently announced that it will stop accepting plastic waste imports (The Japan Times, 2018). This implies that Japan will have to seek disposable for 72% of its plastic waste elsewhere, possibly in landfills or worse, the accumulated surplus will end up in natural landscapes like the ocean. Evidently, it is difficult to consider the threat of environmental degradation as Japan’s love for nature. Rather than the claims of pure, unadulterated love, they are in love with the idea that they love nature.

In addition, the element of “gaiatsu” (Kirby, 2011, p. 164) is also particularly relevant here. According to Kirby (2011), the pressure from the Western societies in the past few decades, particularly with regards to environmental concerns, has prompted Japan to take a more active role in environmental conservation. With stricter standards put forth by the European Union and China’s rejection for plastic waste imports (The Japan Times, 2018), it is highly likely that Japan was nudged into imposing a fee on plastic bags. It is also interesting to note that the Tokyo Metropolitan Government plans to fulfill the imposition by 2020 (the year of the Olympics), arguably due to pressure to live up to international expectations of Tokyo as an eco-conscious metropolitan.

Lastly, traditional values and symbolic meanings invested by the Japanese can help to account for Japan’s plastic conundrum. As discussed briefly in class, symbolism and social meanings are prevalent in Japan’s perception of nature. The importance of traditional values like the abovementioned mottainai, or omotenashi explains the multi-faceted relationship between Japan and its environment. Omotenashi refers to Japanese hospitality, which may be embodied in a piece of plastic. For instance, wrapping paper bags with a clear film of plastic on a rainy day conveys deep consideration and the thorough attention to details. This accounts for the prevalent plastic waste in Japan, despite conscious efforts to avoid unnecessary waste.

In sum, while Japan has done a great job in managing its plastic waste thus far, the current system is clearly not sustainable given the changing global political landscapes and the rise of eco-centric attitudes. Rather than simply maximising landfill or recycling more waste, perhaps it is time Japan got down to the root of the problem – cutting down on the unnecessary use of plastic.  

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Brasor, P. (2018, June 2). Market forces in Japan failing to tackle growing plastics problem. The Japan Times. Retrieved from https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2018/06/02/national/media-national/market-forces-japan-failing-tackle-growing-plastics-problem/#.W63zgC2p0dU

Hornyak, T. (2017, February 18). Wasteland: Tokyo grows on its own trash. The Japan Times. Retrieved from https://www.japantimes.co.jp/life/2017/02/18/environment/wasteland-tokyo-grows-trash/#.W634nS2p0dU

Kalland, A., & Asquith, P. J. (1997). Japanese Perception of Nature: Ideas and Illusions. In Kalland, A. & Asquith, P. J (Ed.), Japanese Images of Nature (pp. 1 – 35). Richmond, UK: Curzon.

Kirby, P. W. (2011). Troubled natures: waste, environment, Japan. Honolulu, University of Hawai’i Press.

Nikkei Asian Review (2017, August 29). Is Japan eco-friendly or eco-hostile? Retrieved from https://asia.nikkei.com/Business/Is-Japan-eco-friendly-or-eco-hostile


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