Taking out the Trash

Garbage disposal may seem like something that has nothing to do with anthropology. In fact, it seems downright boring. Really, trash is trash is trash. Nothing to see here, move it along. However, interestingly enough, rubbish can tell us something about cultures, nations and people. In short, it is in fact relevant to anthropology. One good example of how garbage is relevant to anthropology is the usage of very old, even ancient refuse to learn about civilizations long since dead and gone. However, today’s photo and story isn’t about ancient trash heaps, as interesting as those may be. Maybe today’s topic of trash does seem a little domestic, but it is still interesting nonetheless.

The photo you see here is a photo of  one of the many garbage collection points in my neighborhood in Tokorozawa City in Saitama Prefecture Japan. Trash collection is of course, not the same in every place in Japan. However, much of it is similar in many regards. These cages, where everyone brings their garbage, are quite common. Some places encourage much more recycling than others, and some places make it very easy to not care about recycling. One way they promote recycling in some places I have lived in Japan is by making recycling free, that is the bags or containers you put out the recycling in (in the cage area of course) are free, while normal, throw away honest to goodness trash bags are costly. Here in Saitama it seems a bit cheaper, as you don’t have to buy the special taxed garbage bags. I think the way this is done in Japan would seem a bit out of the norm for most Americans who expect the garbage man to come by once a week and pick up their individual garbage from in front of their house. Another interesting thing about collective garbage disposal in Japan is that you don’t want to mess up the garbage. You will annoy someone greatly, and they will make sure that you are aware of their annoyance. Perhaps the first thing they should tell newcomers to Japan when they step off the plane is “Here’s a chart on how garbage works in Japan” because to be honest, the Japanese way of doing garbage does really take some getting used to.

It's all empty...for now

It’s all empty…for now

Swastika?

The Swastika for many people in the world conjures up horrible images of death camps, fascism and total war. After all, it was the emblem of the Nazis, who tried to take over the world and killed millions upon millions in the process. So why is this a post about swastikas? This is a post about swastikas because-you may find this a bit surprising-you will seem them quite often in Japan. Is Japan a bastion of Nazism? Of course Japan isn’t a bastion of Nazism, however, the swastika is quite prominent in certain places in Japan. What is the explanation then? A simple one I’m afraid, but one that tells us a little something about Japanese culture and religion, as well as a new side to a symbol much of the world has come to hate.

The swastika is a very ancient symbol that can mean a wide variety of things, depending on the one using it. It is used in many religious traditions, such as Hinduism, and  Jainism to name two. Another religion it is used in is in Buddhism, where is represents “Man”
or 10,000, symbolizing everything or eternity. This particular swastika in my picture is on what I believe is a small Shinto shrine in Minato ward Tokyo. In fact, this is another good example of why and how Shintoism is often mixed with Buddhism in Japan. So the swastika is all over Japan, but not to celebrate Nazism, but instead a symbol that goes back thousands of years rooted in Eastern religion and tradition.

A swasitka adorns a shrine in Tokyo

A swasitka adorns a shrine in Tokyo

Stop, Cover, Hold

A poster shows what to do in case of an earthquakeJapan has a long and tumultuous affair with geological activity. Japan sits on many fault lines that meet under the country, meaning that Japan is one of the most geologically active places on earth. This may seem like more of a topic for geologists and other associated scientists, but the fact is that the history of earthquakes and tsunamis has become a part of Japanese culture. From the woodblock prints, to paintings, movies, and even the fact that the most commonly used word in English for tsunami is, well, tsunami, the presence of the geologic activity has interwoven itself into the Japanese psyche. It is an issue that has to be dealt with by the government, with building codes, and engineering feats that help mitigate the danger of earthquakes to buildings and people. One of the most interesting looks into the way it affects Japanese people, is of course not only the recent disaster, with thousands dead and missing, and destruction of whole towns, but also in literary works such as those by famed author Haruki Murakami. He even wrote a compilation of short stories dealing with the psychological impact of the Kobe earthquake in 1996. One of my favorite stories of his is one where a man meets a frog who convinces him to help prevent an impending earthquake by traveling deep into the earth to battle a giant worm who causes earthquakes. When different countries have to deal with certain aspects of where they sit in the world, writers tell us what that means to ordinary people. What is undeniable is that this geological activity has become interwoven into Japanese culture and society, as of course you just can’t ignore it.

Temples and Shrines

This photo is from a trip to Asakusa my family and I took a few weeks ago. Temples and shrines abound in  Japan, perhaps just as much if not more so than churches in the West. Obviously, like any country, religion is a big part of the history and culture of Japan. What is interesting is that many Japanese people aren’t at all religious, or rather they don’t consider themselves to be. However, religion, even if not devoutly observed, becomes part of culture, in ways that aren’t really obvious at first. The two major religions in Japan are Buddhism (of which there are many, many sects) and Shintoism, which is an animist religion. These religions are largely intertwined in Japan, both being syncretic religions. The temple in this picture is located behind the famous “kaminarimon”, or thunder gate, and is called “Sensoji temple”. Like many Buddhist temples in Japan, there is a Shinto shrine right next to it. My family isn’t religious, however, like many non-religious people in Japan, we still had a great time looking at the beautiful buildings at the temple, including the huge pagoda. If you go to one, be sure to put 100 yen into the box and pull out a good fortune, because, hey, why not.asakusatemple

Politics in Japan

A Komeito Poster hangs on a gate in Saitama Prefecture.

A Komeito Poster hangs on a gate in Saitama Prefecture.

This is a photo I took in my neighborhood. These posters are for the Komeito party, a center-right political party in Japan. The party is allied with the ruling Liberal Democratic Party. It is common to see political party posters around Japan during election season, which it is not, currently in Japan. However, even outside of election season it is not uncommon to see these posters. Unlike in the US, where candidates flood the airwaves with political ads on TV and on radio, campaigning in Japan is still about face, and name recognition. Another common sight is that of political party vans that go through neighborhoods during election season blaring their names and parties very loudly. Many foreigners complain about the noise during the election season, but thankfully election seasons in Japan are mercifully short compared to those in the US, or in other countries. It seems to me to be a much fairer system than the US however, since driving a van around with loudspeakers is a lot more inexpensive than television ads, which in the US run up advertising costs into the millions of dollars. Perhaps the vans are a better way to ensure that smaller parties get to have their voices heard, even if they can’t afford expensive ads on TV and radio.