Tokyo’s street cleanliness is a natural object of admiration among foreign visitors. “Japanese people don’t litter” has become one of the most famous misconceptions about Japan, along with “Japanese trains are always on time.” Tokyo is indeed cleaner than most big cities anywhere else in the world, and Japanese people tend to be extra careful about cleanliness. Still, reality is not perfect.
Like anywhere else on this planet, regardless of their nationality, some people are careless, and some places and situations are more subject to littering. Anybody who has walked the streets around Shinjuku station on the very early morning on Saturday or Sunday before the pandemic will understand what I mean. At the time when the partygoers headed home, it was common to find cigarette butts, papers, and empty cans all over the place.
However, at sunrise, the very efficient Tokyo streets cleaning staff appears (mostly composed of retired people wanting to earn some extra money). Any littering disappears before the shop opens as by magic. Still, this is insufficient in some parts of Tokyo, for example, Shibuya.
My colleague Ayane reported seeing some cleaning volunteers around Shibuya station early in the morning. After further research, several groups of that kind exist, such as green bird. Similarly, the Isseiichidai group has gained some attention worldwide for being dressed as samurai and turning street cleaning into a show. After Halloween festivities, volunteers were also seen cleaning the streets dressed in costumes. As support to these activities, Shibuya City itself provides street cleaning equipment free of charge to such volunteer groups. However, most groups have put their activities on hold due to the pandemic and the risks of infection as face masks litter increases.
I asked Ayane what she thought about it as a young Tokyoite. “I was moved by their dedication to making the streets a better place for all without most people, even knowing about it. Japanese people in general like cleanliness, but there are still many people who don’t care and litter. What these volunteer groups do is really important.”
Indeed, it’s good to see that it’s the younger generations that are involved, and who find energetic and imaginative ways to inspire others to imitate them. So, while Tokyo’s cleanliness may not be as perfect as it may seem at first, the thoughtfulness of keeping the public space clean for everyone is very well alive. And in a modern city of about 14 million inhabitants, that is quite something.