I’ve been working with the Japanese now for five years. I’ve been to Japan twice, and barring any further disasters in the coming weeks, I’ll be going again with a group of high school students in early April. Every year we have some crisis that casts doubt on our trip.

It’s a whole other world over there. In past years the students quickly realize that there are real differences between the US and Japan. One of the first that they encounter is litter, or the lack thereof. On our first full day in Kyoto we walk to two nearby temples; Ryoanji and the Golden Pavilion. Just a few blocks from the high school there is a convenience store. Our students stock up on drinks, candy and other treats and stuff their backpacks for the long walk. Within about two miles a glaringly obvious fact becomes evident; there are no garbage cans on the streets of Japan.

Calls come from the pack of students walking down the street “Hey, Mr. Trevena, what do I do with my trash?” “Mr. Trevena, there aren’t any garbage cans!” The only containers for waste disposal are recycling containers next to the many vending machines for aluminum cans and bottles. I tell them they have to pack it back to the school to dispose of it. At the campus there are many different receptacles for their waste.

I really love the ‘Combustibles’ container at the school. That one usually gets them scratching their heads. In walking around Kyoto it also quickly becomes apparent that there is no graffiti anywhere on the buildings or roadways. I once had a teacher in Kyoto tell me that he could take me to a place where there was graffiti, but there wasn’t much of it, but it was there. I often think back on that statement while waiting for a train to pass here in the states while noticing that no cars are without graffiti. Over the two trips to Kyoto I’ve been most taken aback by the low crime. Simple stuff surprises me. We’ve had students leave cameras on benches, in restaurants, phones and wallets on store counters, and lunch containers in coffee shops. We go back in search of the lost items, sometimes the next day, and there they sit right where they were left or neatly stowed behind the front counter. Last year in Arashiyama I was really surprised to see a lost wallet sitting on a brick wall by the sidewalk right down among the shops. A little hand written note sitting under it “Found wallet, hope it is yours and you found it”. Why?

My theory goes something like this. The Japanese have been through a lot in the course of their history. There are a whole lot of people living on a not so huge island that is not exactly bursting at the seams with resources. They base a good part of their culture on mutual respect, personal responsibility, and privacy. Sure, there is crime in Japan. There are murders in Japan. There is violence in Japan. Every society has some percentage of its population that is not able to coexist with others. But in a much larger way, these things are very isolated and not the norm in Japan. A perfect example is that it wasn’t until we were on the plane returning to California two years ago that one of our students had their camera stolen on the plane while he slept. If one of our students took an expensive camera to school or the mall here in California, odds are pretty high that they would be distracted (either by accident or on purpose) and their camera would vanish from under their nose. I was in an airport terminal in San Diego a few years back and the handbag of the woman I was with was stolen from the floor between our seats from the row of seats behind us, while we were sitting there! Why?

So, just as our students ask “Why is there no litter if there are no garbage cans?” while walking down the streets of Kyoto, I ask “Why is there no looting in the areas hit by this earthquake and tsunami?” Compare this to scores of other disasters here in the US and elsewhere recently. How about the earthquake in Chili last year? The hurricane in New Orleans? And any number of riots.

Why is Japan different? What happens here in the US when there’s a hurricane coming, snowstorm approaching, or other storm to weather? Many (not all) stores jack up their prices and gouge the consumer. You need a sheet of plywood to protect your window from the approaching storm, that will be a 400% hurricane markup today. It’s just basic Econ 101 Supply and Demand, right? Then why, in the aftermath of this disaster are stores marking down prices in Japan and vending machine owners giving out free drinks (Telegraph UK article)? People are waiting hours in line at gas stations around Tokyo to get a rationed 5 gallons of gas. There are no fights, no shootings, and no demands for more from these drivers who wait patiently for their turn and their allocated gas.

My hopes in being involved with cultural exchanges between the US and Japan are twofold. I know from letters and emails from past students who have participated in these exchanges that they have an impact on their lives. Two of my sons have gone to Japan with me, and each came back changed (both for the better). One wants to go back when he finishes college to teach English in Japan. I also know that once exposed to some of the better parts of Japanese culture many student will bring a little bit back with them, internalizing some of the things they experienced in Japan, and just maybe starting something here in the States that will infuse new ways into our own culture. And I know that those Japanese students that visit the States take back hope and a little bit of our culture with them. This cross pollination between our different cultures will hopefully result is both of us coming away from this relationship a little bit wiser and a little bit richer in our own cultures as a result.

I am so hopeful that this crisis in Japan will ease in the next few weeks and we are still able to take our students who have been working towards this exchange for the past six month on their exchange as planned in April. It will be a shame if they are not given the chance to experience Japanese culture first hand themselves this year.


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