What Trash Says about Culture and Theology

Why Japan is the Cleanest Place on Earth

The existence of trash is a universal phenomenon. Human beings create waste and that waste needs to be disposed of in some fashion. Some societies do this better than others. No one does it better than the Japanese.

One of the frequent ways that Japan makes headlines after international sporting events is not necessarily because of their performance on the field or court, but rather in the stadium seats. This past World Cup was no exception. The Japanese national team suffered a stomach-punch loss to Belgium, but their heart-broken fans stayed late after the game to clean up trash in the stadium. On the other side of the globe, the US makes headlines for trash piling up in public areas due to a government shutdown. What does trash tell you about a culture?

When foreigners visit Japan, one of the first things they notice is how clean the streets of the cities are. There may be an occasional wrapper or cigarette butt, but the city is amazingly clean in contrast to most American cities. What is most shocking to these same foreigners is that the streets are so clean without the aid of public trash cans. There are almost no trash cans to be found, and yet the cities are some of the cleanest in the world.

So why are Japanese cities cleaner than American cities with fewer public trash cans? The answer requires cultural exegesis. Japan is a collectivist society meaning that things are done with one’s circle in mind as opposed to the dictates of one’s individual personal preferences. This collectivism is not exactly selfless, but rather it demonstrates a belief that one’s own well-being is wrapped up in the harmony of one’s circle. The greatest sin is no crime against the divine, but rather to become a burden in my circle.

America is the land of individualism and the average American views herself as an individual first who chooses to be part of various groups. It’s not simply that Americans are selfish (though the system is built around that assumption), but rather Americans believe that a flourishing society is found where one has maximum freedom to exercises one’s God-given “rights”. Thus, when an American obtains an empty bottle or wrapper when walking through a city, there must be a public trash can provided (with ample space) so she can throw it away. Without public trashcans, she will exercise her “right” to throw her trash on the ground. Americans know this isn’t best practice (hence fines for littering to curb temptation), but the inalienable liberties of autonomy and public entitlement are deeply entrenched.

It is borderline-hilarious to see Americans who have not yet acclimated to life in Japan struggle with their trash. As we walk together in the city, they eat or drink something and find themselves with waste and no place to properly dispose of it. They want to be good guests and not litter, but they have no familiarity with the weight of their own trash for more than a few moments, and before long they invent trash cans — stuffing the bottle or wrapper in some empty box or any old container (things clearly not designed for trash disposal) which they can find. There is an anxiety to be rid of one’s garbage and insufficient public infrastructure to assuage their discomfort. In these moments foreigners are most foreign in Japan.

In contrast, the Japanese person who produces the same waste believes they have made a mess for which they are responsible. They fear the potential of burdening the circle of the city’s population by dropping the trash on the ground, hiding it in a random container, or even placing it in the wrong trash container (you sort your trash meticulously in Japan). Most of my Japanese friends wash their garbage before they throw it away! I used to tease them for this, but it was like teasing friends for not peeing in the pool — the teaser becoming the teased. I now find myself washing my garbage in America almost instinctively due to the power of collectivism. On the odd occasion you see the rebellious Japanese citizen publicly litter, it feels like a scene from a movie. Some gangster walking in slow motion suddenly flicks a lit cigarette in a flood of gasoline, and everything goes up in flames behind them. The flames are a rush of now-burdened obaasan and ojiisan stooping over to clean up the mess. It doesn’t happen very often.

The differences between individualism and collectivism can be entertaining, but the implications reveal a great deal about our cultural values and how we seek to live Christianly in a place. After a thought-provoking examination of garbage in Japan, I often ask American visitors to Japan which of these two perspectives — individualism or collectivism — they believe to be more biblical. Without fail, every one of them has answered “collectivism”, which is as fascinating as it is ironic to me.

The American church is pervasively individualistic. As an individual, you choose the denomination that suits you best, and the church that best matches your preferences (be it for theology, children’s programs, or carpet color in the sanctuary). When you’re tired of that church for whatever reason, you are free to leave and expect zero spiritual repercussions. Whether one’s children go to church is often left up to the whims of prepubescent individualists who are being discipled that all spiritual practice begins with autonomous choice. The American church expects people to shop around until they find a good church of their choice. Individualism is not just highly valued, it is presupposed before one ever sits in a pew/theatre seat/couch for worship.

However, there is something we sense in the Bible and in our very beings that shows we’ve gone too far. We see the fellowship of the church in Acts and wonder why the practical beginnings of the church feels so idealistic. We read the metaphors of the church as a body of varied members working together and realize we have whole appendages missing. We drive past six churches on our way to Sunday worship and wonder what’s going on inside and why we’ve never visited. We feel alone, isolated, anxious, and afraid. We hear a message about the importance of unity in the church and we struggle to imagine what that might even look like, but are filled with longing none-the-less. My American friends are immediately compelled with the promises of collectivism when they visit Japan and see the immaculate streets.

But collectivism is far from the utopian dream it may appear at first in the cleanest place on earth. Collectivism has a dark side — an underbelly. Shame forms and dominates collectivist societies. For the Japanese Christian, the ability to live one’s faith publicly seems impossible, because it would make them a burden on their circle. The highest value in Japan is being Japanese — conforming better than anyone else. There are high stake pressures in needing to “conform better”. Shame leads to suicide or hikikomori for those who can’t keep up, who don’t fit in, or who find they seem to always burden others.

Collectivism can even express itself sinfully in the church. The Japanese Christian may find themselves in a cult of spiritual abuse, but believe they are powerless to leave. Lapsed believers feel forced to hide their sins or quietly disappear from the congregation. I once asked a Japanese Christian friend who was dismayed at how hard it is to be a Japanese Christian whether he thought individualism or collectivism was more biblical. With tears at the thought he answered, “Individualism.” One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.

The reality is that neither of these systems of living is perfectly biblical in fallen human expression. And the Bible contains elements of both for the Christian life. There are important theological implications for both systems. For the collectivist Christian, they need to know the gospel promises for the individual. They need to know that God loves them and they possess intrinsic value as a human being (John 3:16; Genesis 1:27; 9:6). They need to know that Jesus intercedes for them (Romans 8:34; Hebrews 7:25). They need to know that the Holy Spirit has given them unique spiritual gifts and talents to serve the body and reach the world (Romans 12:3–8; 1 Corinthians 12:1–14:25; . They need courage which is often crushed by collectivism, and they need hope to continue following Christ in the face of a world of resistance (Romans 5:5; 2 Timothy 1:8). They need to be willing to leave behind fathers and mothers, sisters and brothers, to follow Christ alone (Matthew 10:34–39). They need to know the importance of theological individuality free from the domineering power of fallen individualism.

For the individualist Christian, they need to know the gospel promises given to the church as a people for his own possession (Titus 2:14). They need to know that God made them to live in community and not just the ones of their personal choosing (Acts 4:32–37; Ephesians 4:1–3; 1 Timothy 5:8). They need to know that no man is an island and the sufferings of one are also their sufferings (Romans 12:15; 1 Corinthians 12:2. They need to feel the weight of another’s sin through a love that unites us to fight for one another’s holiness (Galatians 6:1–2). They need a membership that is founded in eternity and expresses itself in covenant love — a commitment to God’s kingdom in the church that trumps all other voluntary commitments (1 Corinthians 6:19; 1 Thessalonians 2:12; 2 Timothy 1:9). They need a gospel with promises for their children and their parents and for a thousand generations (Deuteronomy 7:9; Psalm 105:8; 2 Timothy 1:3). They need know what it is like to really be part of a community.

There are also important missiological implications for both systems. The church in a collectivist society benefits from individualist-background believers who will ask questions they are afraid to ask. Friends who will push the envelope even when the circle demands silence. Brothers and sisters who embody Christian courage in their evangelism and mercy. And the individualist society needs collectivist-background believers who will call out sin in its collectivist forms. Those who will push hard for better community without condemnation. Brothers and sisters who build bridges where they once seemed impossible for the glory of Christ.

Finally, an individualist seeking to share the gospel in a collectivist society might need to consider their presentation of the gospel (and perhaps their understanding of the gospel itself). A gospel addressed to the individual alone and not to every creature is unintelligible. A gospel which promises peace for the individual, but nothing for the family, the community, or the city is disturbing. A gospel which plants churches for Sunday worship, but provides no vision for God’s sovereignty over all things resulting in Christian businesses, Christian education, and Christian arts is emaciated. A missional theology of trash certainly says something about trash, but might say as much about one’s view of God and the gospel of Jesus Christ.