One of the things that struck me on my first visit to Tokyo was the surprising lack of public trash cans.  I’m not saying there aren’t that many around.  I’m saying there are absolutely none to be found.  If you’re looking for somewhere to toss that chocolate wrapper, apple core, or used tissue, you can expect to be holding until you get back to your hotel. (Also, shame on you.  Eating and blowing your nose in public are frowned upon in Japan).

Why is this?  Why is this major metropolis devoid of public receptacles?

The answer lies in the 1995 sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway, an act of domestic terrorism by a doomsday cult that killed 12, seriously injured 50, and left thousands of others with temporary vision problems.  The government’s immediate response was to remove all public trash receptacles that could be used as drop-off points for future attacks.  These future attacks never manifested, but the no trash receptacle policy was never reversed.  And it has remained in place ever since.

And yet, for all this, Tokyo is an exceptionally clean city.  Why?  Because Japanese citizens are socially conscious.  They see the logic in making small sacrifices (ie. holding on to your trash until you get home) for the greater good.

Can you imagine what would happen if public trash cans were removed in North American cities?  The sidewalks and parks would be deluged with garbage.  I mean, many North Americans can’t even be bothered to wear a mask to save a stranger’s life.  Do you think these same people would give two shits about keeping their city clean?

In Japan, social responsibility has kept garbage off the streets AND the coronavirus in check.  Mask-wearing was adopted way before this pandemic started because it was naturally assumed that  taking small precautionary measures – like, say, wearing a mask to protect other people from catching YOUR cold or flu – would be a good thing.

Excuse me, Doctor.

It became part of the national psyche.  So when the coronavirus hit, the widespread adoption of mask occurred with little fanfare.  There was no need to cite articles establishing their efficacy.  It wasn’t necessary to convince people that mask requirements weren’t an assault on their inalienable rights as freedom-loving citizens.  They just did it because it was the right thing to do.

And how’d that work out?  Well, let’s check the stats (as of June 26, 2020)


Total cases: 18,110

Total deaths: 980


Total cases: 2,547,093

Total deaths: 127,361

How does a country with less than a third the population of the U.S. see 130 times fewer deaths?  Is it their well-marbled wagyu?  Their automated toilets? Or maybe…

If 80% of Americans wore masks, Covid-19 infections would plummet.

Could it be…

Face masks may reduce Covid-19 spread by 85%.

Something else…

Face mask wearing rate predicts Covid-19 death rate.

We hadn’t thought of?

The faster a country required masks, the fewer coronavirus deaths it had.

Or is it that the Japanese actually give a damn about others?

18 thoughts on “Tokyo’s lack of public trash cans is directly related to their low Covid-19 death rate. Let me explain.

  1. Sadly, you are so right. I’m gratified that in my part of the US at least, Massachusetts, we seem to have taken this seriously enough to be curbing the virus. Personally, I and every member of my family wears masks when we go out and we limit our trips out as much as possible.

  2. Don’t know if it has become political north of the border, but here not wearing a mask has become a political statement to many on the right. I’ve seen online posts who keep insisting that we are turning into a Communist state because some places require them, (even when a private enterprise like an airline requires them despite the fact that it is a capitalist society that give airlines the right to enforce their own rules). Sadly, it’s more than not giving a crap about others, many are taking a militant stand.

  3. Victoria, BC here. We are all doing our part to keep Covid off the island. We were Covid free for over a month. We have one case now that tourism is starting up. Many are wearing masks and the good thing is that there is no shaming going on.

  4. I suppose in some ways I’ve always wonder about what you are saying here with respect to Japanese vs US or some other western cultures. My question: Is it fundamentally true that the Japanese for example actually intrinsically ‘give a damn’ (to use your words) about others more than (at least some) Westerners do or is it that the social forces within Japanese culture converge on those who don’t display the ‘proper’ behavior with greater pressure than in the west thus causing this ostensibly more responsible public behaviour? In other words, does the Japanese culture in this case create a larger inhibitory effect on the people who are part of it from deviating from what is expected? I’m genuinely curious about it. As someone who started wearing masks in public in the US in January as soon as the first hints of this thing hit the media I felt the opposite pressure – it was basically just me and the occasional East Asian lady on the train wearing masks at first.

  5. Good.
    But I’m also quite impressed with Vietnam, population of more than 97 million, just about 350 cases so far, still zero deaths.

  6. I think some of the people who aren’t wearing masks genuinely believe there is something nefarious behind the recommendation, like wearing a symbol of your compliance on your face, and no real benefit. Empathy interacts with our other values and people who are genuinely concerned about the negative effects of tyranny getting a foothold may be more empathetic than someone wearing the mask to fit in. The need to get more people to wear them is just the same of course.

    I once read something about the rape of Nanking. A soldier who had stood in line for his “turn” described how his biggest concern was to be fast so that the people behind him wouldn’t have to wait as long. This was very socially conscious of him, but not a good an example of caring about other people.

  7. At the very start, I watched a very informative investigative report by a Japanese news station. Leading Japanese scientists conducted high speed filming of a person sneezing and coughing in an effort to explain how people were becoming infected despite using good hygiene and social distancing. The outcome: microdroplets. These tiny particles go beyond the normal coughing/sneezing projection of 1.5 – 2m and hang in the air for at least 30 minutes! The solution: have good ventilation in place and turn over the air in your office/home every hour. Anyway, after watching the footage, you will never get on a crowded train again. Of course, I could talk about other shows that have tackled such things re hygiene in the past e.g, Mythbusters and Dirty Jobs,

    For me Joe, the underlying principle is being united in purpose, or as one, to tackle such issues. For us, in Australia, this has been the case re all three levels of government and the populace, in general. So, our stats re 26M people are:

    Total Cases: 7,595

    Total Deaths: 104

    Our great neighbour New Zealand, has a similar comparison, percentage wise.

    So, given that our population is 1/13 of that re the US, I guess at this point we have put stock in that lives matter. The strategy: to slow down the rate of infection to ensure there has been enough time to put sufficient hospital beds and ventilators in place to handle the worst day possible re COVID-19. This has, all but, been achieved.

    We are far from perfect over here, and there were some poor handling of key instances initially. However, unity in purpose has made the biggest difference along with acting quickly on the Chief Medical Officer’s (CMO) advice. Our National Cabinet promptly implemented every recommendation put forward by the CMO (and the main advisory body) – something you know who has been loathe to do in their own country and we have also seen the other outcome where some leaders have not acted quickly enough. We do have one state that is struggling right now with outbreaks here and there. We also keep debating the issue re masks (but we now have 100s millions in stock), and they may come into being yet. We even have the COVID Safety App for contact tracing.

    The other outcome in all this re Aus is that at the height of the flu season right now, there has been a total of 209 cases instead of the usual 30,000 we would normally expect. So, another side benefit of much better hygiene and social distancing.

    1. Don’t get me started on the COVID safety App – absolute useless crap. You’re smarter to just keep a diary, or do a QR based app like NZ did.

      Japan is one country I’d really like to go to. I remember in NZ where we had the earthquake, we had some Japanese young women stuck underground, their bravery, stoicism and dignity in the face of death was heart breaking. It always felt such a stain on our country we couldn’t rescue them in time. And their Rugby team, (of course I always support the All Blacks) but I think in NZ our second favorite team is the Japanese team; the Cherry Blossoms, they have such heart, grit and humility.
      And they just seem to have common sense and similar values to the All Blacks (i.e. don’t be dickhead).
      I think in America they profoundly dumbed down their education system. It’s not a place that I enjoyed going to. It was very, very dirty (went to Chicago, California and LA). First time I flew into America the sky was brown, I’m not talking brownish, I’m talking BROWN we flew into brown sky before we landed, it was very unsettling. It also felt a really repressive country.

      Flying over the country was depressing, it was unnatural, city after city after city. When you’re down on the country there’s poverty everywhere, people living in huge numbers on the street. The food was awful – they seem to fry everything. Or add heaps of sugar, salt and fat. And the air – bad.
      But no one seems to notice how really bad it is. – Still, I met some lovely people, which I would have liked to take home, so they could have a better life.

  8. @CORVINUS – I totally get what you mean about the negative pressure. And there were hardly any masks anywhere then to be bought so we didn’t have much hope that anyone would join us soon.

    Since then, I’ve felt negative pressure to NOT to wear the N95 out, even though I am high risk. I didn’t feel that early on, when people were just surprised to see any mask and didn’t know the N95’s were for high risk people and spares should all be donated (I donated some save one). I look healthy, but you can’t tell from looking at me in the store that that’s as much physical activity as I’ll manage that week.

  9. The U.S. had so many deaths because a few governors forced covid positive patients into nursing homes. Solved that for you.

    As for Japan, could it be that islands have an easier time of isolating itself? Just a thought.

    Did you hear about this?
    I’m not watching it.

  10. I didn’t meant o sound so brusque. I hope everyone has a great Saturday!

    We were planning on doing yard work at my son’s but it’s raining. So….it may be a play day here.

  11. At first the no trash cans confused me, I could remember them… duh, I left Japan right before the Sarin thing, But yes, the Japanese are quite good about things like trash. Sorting the recyclables comes to mind in our neighborhood. Whenever we would get a new American renter in the one other house on the hill, inevitably their unsorted trash bags would be placed by our gate. Most of the neighbors knew it wasn’t us, but expected us to educate the newbies.

    In Japan, the nail which sticks up gets hammered down; in America the squeaky wheel gets the grease. That sums it up for me.

    I mask. I went for a massage last night, my friend and I have been going together as we both have memberships. First one since February. They’re very strict on masks, distancing in the common areas, and cleaning protocols. Even the appointments are staggered now so people are not cluttering up the lobby and Zen room. (They don’t call it the zen room, that’s a RHPS reference. I am strange). I feel okay about it, but having a mask for 90 minutes, and the face down thing, took a bit of adjusting, literally.

  12. I wear a mask when I go shopping… and I’m so disappointed in seeing how many people do not. At my local store there is a sign outside that says “Please do not enter without a mask” and yet, half the customers don’t wear one.

    American’s are idiots.

    I know I’m stating the obvious here (I mean, they did elect tRump)…

    And, now for something completely different:

    Joe, you need to get in on this…

    1. Did they really elect Trump though, you look at the Gerrymandering they do, the removal of polling stations etc. I think they’re system is rigged.

  13. Americans are more narcissistic than people from other countries, only worrying about themselves, not others. I worked in healthcare most of my life, and even hospital employees (who know the facts) had this attitude that personal protective equipment was only meant to protect them, not others. I used to get so upset when other nurses would blindly go about touching things in the patient’s rooms with their contaminated gloves on, with no worry, since THEY had their gloves on and were protected – but all I could see & worry about was people coming into the room later on, who did NOT have gloves on, who touched those same surfaces/objects, and being exposed. That has always been one of my pet peeves. Also, hospitals used to never wash the curtains between beds in semi-private rooms, and healthcare workers constantly touched the curtains with contaminated gloved hands while they were working with patients, so I avoided touching those curtains as much as possible!

  14. trash cans are an interesting marker of social behaviour. I’m British and remember the first time i went abroad, in the 80s (in my mid-teens) and realising i felt really uneasy in public spaces such as train stations. Finally I identified why..trash cans. In the UK they’d been removed due to IRA bombs. Even now, in many places, they tend to be just plastic bags or made out of stuff that won’t become shrapnel.

    But now, during Covid, we have the problem of trash cans not being used, or not being emptied enough and rubbish just piling up. we have tonnes of rubbish being left in public spaces as the people are just uncaring.

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