The Purpose of Inconvenience

After my friend returned from his two-week trip to Japan, I asked him about his experience. “What was the best thing? What was the worst thing?” As often in life, the pros and cons he mentioned went hand in hand: “Tokyo is one of the top three cleanest places I’ve ever been, but there are no trash cans anywhere, and that’s annoying.”

It’s true. While most big cities reduce trash cans at some point — usually after terrorist attacks where bombs and the like are hidden in them — most also eventually bring them back. But not Tokyo. After a 1995 gas attack that hurt at least 1,000 people, the Eastern metropolis binned bins, and they haven’t returned in numbers since.

Surprisingly, the lack of trash disposal opportunities never turned into a big problem. Over a quarter century later, Tokyo is still bin-less, yet also still clean. Why? Culture. In Japan, cleanliness is more than a duty. It’s a value. From school children having to clean up the classroom to store workers partaking in monthly cleaning initiatives to the elderly volunteering to keep the streets tidy, the Japanese learn self-reliance around cleaning early on and then embody it throughout their entire lives — and that’s not something that ends when a few trash cans disappear.

After the change, people simply started disposing of their litter where trash cans were available, like in restaurants, convenience stores, and near vending machines. And if none are to be found? Then they just pocket their trash and recycle it at home. By placing a slightly bigger responsibility on every individual, the country distributes the weighty task of trash management evenly, and the result is a system that works.

Given its origins in culture, it’s easy to see why such a change would never work in America, where scrubbing toilets is synonymous with “lowest rung of the social ladder.” Cleaning is dirty work to be outsourced and handed off wherever possible, not a virtue to pursue. In fact, if something isn’t easy enough to clean, why not convert it into something that creates more trash? The amount of plastic forks, bags, cups, plates, and knives, among a million other things, is staggering. If you removed trash cans in New York City, within two weeks, the city would drown in its own filth. This isn’t to say that the US can’t get a grip on their trash another way, but a cultural shift is not something you can force overnight. It takes generations to sink in.

We have this saying in Germany that “if everyone sweeps in front of their house, the streets will be clean.” The Japanese live this philosophy even better than we do. Often, a little inconvenience now leads to a lot of larger-scale convenience later. You have to put your chocolate wrapper in your jacket, but you also get to enjoy clean streets wherever you go. The next time you feel annoyed at some social convention, ask yourself: “Where am I being rewarded for this? Is this actually silly, or is it a small tax I’ll be glad to pay in the long run?”

The purpose of inconvenience is to make large problems manageable. It doesn’t always hit its mark, but we should look for it before complaining.