Japan: Land of Plenty

Even the garbage on the sidewalks is worth having

ON SODAI GOMI nights in Japan we learn what kind of people we are. Sodai gomi, which rhymes with “oh my homey,” means “bulky garbage.” It’s sometimes used colloquially to describe husbands who have retired from the salaryman life and now spend their time around the house. That sodai gomi problem may be a strain on Japanese families, but sodai gomi in its literal sense is a more serious trial for my family.

Three nights a week the residents of our neighborhood in Yokohama deposit their household trash at specified areas on the street corners. It’s wrapped in neat bundles, it looks like gifts, it disappears at dawn. For two or three nights near the end of each month they bring out the sodai gomi. These are articles no longer wanted around the house and too big for normal trash collection. Big garbage can really be big: I’ve seen sofas, refrigerators, bookcases, chairs, bed frames, vacuum cleaners, an acetylene welding tank, a motorcycle, and numerous television sets.

Sodai gomi exists for two reasons. One is the small size of the typical Japanese house, with its lack of attic, cellar, garage, or spare room. When a new TV comes in, the old one must go out. (This also applies to cars. To buy a new one, you have to prove to the government that you have a place to park it, which for most people means getting rid of the old car. I can’t figure out what happens to the old cars: they’re certainly not on the roads, and so far I haven’t seen one in a sodai gomi pile.)

The other reason is the Japanese desire for freshness and purity. No one here really enjoys using something that has passed through other people’s hands. My Japanese friends seem to feel about buying a secondhand radio, lamp, or table the way I’d feel about buying someone eise’s socks. There is a “recycle shop” in our neighborhood that sells used clothes and toys at cut rates. Presumably someone must buy there, since it’s still in business, but usually shoppers seem to scoot by in embarrassment, as if it were a Frederick’s of Hollywood shop. Whenever I’m listening to the Far East Network, the U.S. military’s radio station, and hear an ad for a garage sale, I realize that the American soldiers are unusual not just because they have garages but also because they can sell their old possessions rather than throw them out.

Our first sodai gomi night came shortly after we moved into our current house. It cut into our hearts in a way none of our neighbors could have known. For one thing, we had no furniture, silverware, or other household belongings, because everything except the clothes in our suitcases was making a five-week sea journey up from our last house, in Malaysia. We had also just come from a culture with a wholly different approach to used goods. Malaysia is a land of tropical abundance, but no one throws anything away. Just before leaving we had auctioned off every spare item in the house, from frying pans and mosquito nets to half-used rolls of Scotch tape. Several customers were enthusiastically bidding for the shirts my sons had on. It was painful to go from that world to one in which we didn’t have any household goods, couldn’t bring ourselves to buy the overpriced new ones in the store— and then saw heaps of clean, new-looking merchandise just sitting on the street.

You CAN SEE where I am leading. It was not in us to resist. We had quickly tired of eating, sitting, relaxing, studying, and performing all other indoor activities on the floor, without tables or chairs, while waiting for our ship to come in. “Set the floor, please, boys,” my wife would call at dinner time. I lay sprawled on my stomach in front of my computer keyboard, attempting to type while resting my weight on my elbows, trying to cheer myself with mental images of Abe Lincoln sprawled before the fire as a boy. Then one evening, as we trudged home at twilight from the train station, we saw two replenished-looking sodai gomi piles. In one was a perfectly nice plastic lawn chair, in the other an ordinary low Japanese tea table. You couldn’t use both of these at the same time—if you sat in the lawn chair, you’d be too high to reach down to the table comfortably. Hut if we had the table we could at least eat without bending over to reach plates of food on the floor, which made me feel like a husky eating its chow.

We were in a crowd, of course, when we first saw the sodai gomi. We were too confused and timid to grab anything from the pile just then. But that night I sat in our kitchen, peering through our window toward the sodai gomi at the end of the street. The door to a juku, or cram school, was near the piles. The last group of teenage students left there around eleven. After midnight the trains from Tokyo become much less frequent: I could depend on intervals of fifteen or twenty minutes between clumps of salarymen teetering drunkenly from the station toward home. The street looked bare at 12:30, so I made my move. The next morning we placed our breakfast dishes on our table, and I read the morning paper while luxuriating in my fulllength lawn chair.

It was two more days before the sodai gomi collectors came. In those two nights we laid in as many provisions as we decently could. A shiny new bell for one son’s bicycle, a small but attractive wooden cupboard, a complete set of wrenches and screwdrivers in a metal toolbox, a Naugahyde-covered barstool, a lacquer serving tray. If I didn’t already know English, I would probably have taken the four large boxes containing four dozen tape cassettes from the Advanced Conversational English series. My son walked in the door one day, said “Guess what?” and presented a blackand-white TV. In self-defense I should point out that everything except a few rusty wrenches looked perfectly clean, whole, and serviceable. In any other culture you’d never believe these things were being thrown out.

THAT WAS LAST summer; we’ve learned a lot since then. We realize that sodai gomi is part of a larger cycle, in which it’s important to give as well as receive. So when our household shipment arrived, we gave the lawn chair back to the pile—and later we bought a new color TV and gave back the black-andwhite one. We’ve learned that we’re not alone in our secret practice. Last month I met an American writer who lives on the outskirts of Tokyo. I admired the leather notebook he was carrying and asked him where he got it. “You’ll never believe this . . . ,” he said. We’ve learned that some Japanese, too, overcome their squeamishness about secondhand material. When I’m up late at night, I sometimes catch a glimpse of the sodai gomi area—a more disinterested glimpse, now that our house is furnished—and see a van cruising back and forth, checking it out. In the morning the choicest items are gone.

And I’ve learned where I’ll draw the line. As the only foreigners in our neighborhood, we are laughably conspicuous. People must know that we’re skimming the sodai gomi, but if we do our best to be discreet about it, operating in the dead of night, everyone can pretend not to notice and we bring no shame upon our kind. Late one night, on the way home from the train station, I saw two handsome wooden bookcases sitting by a lamppost. I thought of the books piled on our floor, I looked around me quickly, and I happily picked up one bookcase with both arms.

It was fifteen minutes before I could get back for the other—only to find that it wasn’t there. Twenty yards down the street I saw a hunched, shuffling figure. An old wino in a filthy overcoat, with a crippled left leg, was laboriously dragging the bookcase away toward his lair. Within seconds I was heading home again, looking as if I’d never dream of wrestling a bum for a bookcase. But I know what first flashed through my mind when I saw my treasure disappear: “I can take this guy!”

—James Fallows