Oh my Gomi! – Part 1

When I first came to Japan, rubbish disposal was as simple as dumping everything in a bag and putting in the street to be collected later in the week. Now, I’m not just talking about kitchen scraps here, I mean anything that people didn’t want, including TVs, refrigerators and all sorts.

The bubble economy had burst but people were in the habit of buying the latest technology and throwing out older models simply because they weren’t top-of-the-line. My friend Kazu and I would drive around the city looking for useful rubbish, or gomi. I was saddled with debt in my first year and lived on noodles, so it was great to find a TV, video recorder, coffee maker, bedding, kettle, and best of all, a washing machine lying in the streets around my apartment. This was gomi hunting at its best.

Kazu got his own apartment soon after I did, so he would regularly bring his dirty laundry round to my place so he could use the washing machine. Back in those days, Japan was so safe that I never felt I had to lock my door – very few people did, and Kazu was welcome to come in anytime.

Just one year later, after I had moved into my second of now six apartments(!), the laws changed dramatically. Separating rubbish was now essential, and many cities in Japan took this to extremes. Here’s a picture of gomi sorting instructions:

Japanese rubbish sorting requirements

You can see how many categories there are. You’ve got burnable, unburnable, paper, plastic, polystyrene, glass, metal, cans, bottles and ‘big’ gomi.

So how do you go about sorting your gomi in a one-room apartment? Well, I would hang all the different bags from the kitchen cupboards, and when they were full I’d dump them on the balcony until collection day.

Oh yes, collection day. No longer could you just dump everything in the street but you had to put out your gomi between six and eight o’clock in the morning on the day that corresponded to the type of gomi you were throwing out!

As an ESL teacher I would usually work evenings, generally from 4-9:30pm. So getting up early was not my strong point, and since I was in my early twenties I would often go out to the bars and clubs until the early hours of the morning. This meant that I would bend the rules a bit by throwing out my gomi when I got home, always hoping the neighborhood gomi patrol wouldn’t see me. I’m serious, people from each neighborhood were chosen to oversee the gomi, making sure that it was of the right type and that it was all done between six and eight… not before!

One night I was chucking out cans for the morning can and bottle collection, when I figured I should empty an aerosol can which was among my rubbish. Since I didn’t have anything to make a hole in it, I just sprayed the remaining contents into the air. Then I saw a cat which was sniffing about the rubbish, and it started breakdancing and running around me in dazed circles. Then suddenly a car flew round the corner and hit it! The run-over cat looked at me with a pained expression, shook it’s leg in the air and then collapsed! Not knowing what to do I yelled at the driver to stop, which he did, and then he helped me…. put the cat with the gomi. Sorry cat lovers!

To be continued… Read Part 2.

If you like, you can find me on Twitter at @nick_ramsay. I'd love to hear from you!

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