Updated August 9, 2023

Japan's Missing Trash Cans: How Does the Country Stay So Clean?


Japan Dev Team

Japan Dev contributor

If you’ve ever been to Japan, you may have noticed just how clean the streets are.

Even if you’ve never been, there’s a good chance you’ve heard how clean the public spaces are. It honestly feels like literal sorcery when you get to see it with your own eyes.

Another reason why it’s hard to believe that Japan is able to keep its streets so clean is the lack of public trash cans that, in all honesty, is initially a bit alarming if you aren’t used to it.

Yes, it’s true that you won’t find public trash cans in most places in Japan; not that there aren’t any, but it’s significantly less compared to other countries, and you need to know where to look if you ever need one.

It’s common to see many first-time visitors be absolutely baffled by the mystery of trash cans in Japan, and you may feel the same as a new resident. Unlike the tourists, however, if you’re here to stay for a good while, not being able to find a trash can in public when you need one can get annoying quickly.

This is why it might be a good idea to learn where to find trash cans and when to hold on to that candy wrapper when you’re out and about, as well as how waste management is handled in Japan.

In this post, I’ll answer all of these questions, explain the elusive mystery of the missing trash cans in Japan, and explore why public garbage is handled the way it is. 

First, let’s unravel the mystery of the missing trash cans.

Exploring the Conundrum: Why Are There No Trash Cans in Japan?

Overflowing trash cans and public littering are common sights in almost all big cities around the globe. In fact, at this point, it’s not only accepted but expected as well. This is why most people are absolutely baffled when they first visit Japan’s big cities like Tokyo or Kyoto.

This isn’t to say that public spaces are clean only in big Japanese cities, of course — they’re just as clean, if not cleaner, in the smaller cities and the inaka (the Japanese countryside, which I elaborated on in this post). 

So, what’s the secret? You might think that it’s a cultural thing and that people in Japan are just that well-behaved and well-mannered — and you’d be partially right. However, you would instantly realize that this can’t possibly be the case if you ever get to experience the rush hour in Tokyo and see just how crowded the city truly is.

In reality, there are multiple reasons why waste management is handled the way it is in Japan, so let’s first talk about the most prominent one.

The Sarin Gas Attack: A Turning Point in Trash Management

While this isn’t the sole reason why there are almost no trash cans in Japan and certainly isn’t the only reason why the public spaces are kept so clean, perhaps the biggest factor why Japan has no trash cans can be traced back to a tragic incident back in the ‘90s.

On the morning of March 20th, 1995, a deadly terrorist attack occurred in the subway system of the city of Tokyo. The attackers utilized sarin gas, which is a very deadly type of chemical that attacks the nervous system, with death occurring within one to ten minutes after inhaling a deadly dose. Sarin has been utilized in wars as a weapon throughout history until it was banned internationally upon the agreement of multiple nations in 1993.

The attack in Tokyo was carried out by a cult group called AUM Shinrikyo by releasing Sarin gas in multiple subway stations in Tokyo. The gas shows no color, nor is it detectable by smell, which makes it very hazardous. 

As a result of this deeply saddening attack, 13 people died, and over 6,000 people sustained life-threatening injuries. In addition to those physically injured, a whole nation was left traumatized by this heartbreaking event.

The Immediate Aftermath: Changes in Public Safety Policies

After the terrorist attack in Tokyo, the Japanese government immediately made a plan to increase public safety measures. As a part of this plan, the government decided to remove trash cans from public, crowded spaces to prevent similar attacks in the future.

After all, in a country where such a traumatic incident occurred, it’s an understatement to say that public trust was absolutely broken. In this distrusting environment, trash cans were understandably a huge public threat and a valid point of concern because terrorist weapons could easily be stored and transported to public places in them.

As part of the safety measures, public trash cans have since been removed from public spaces, especially train stations. 

Still, although they’re hard to come by, you may be able to find trash cans in some stations, which I’ll explain in a bit, but these trash cans usually have see-through garbage bags that allows the contents to be visible from outside.

While the Tokyo Subway attack of 1995 is a huge reason why you don’t see as many public trash cans today, it’s not the sole reason. Along with a collective concern for public safety, another reason why public trash cans are too few and far between stems from a uniquely considerate cultural upbringing.

Lack of Public Trash Cans in Japan: The Cultural Factors


Public trash cans in Japan might be mostly gone after 1995, but a good reason why they haven’t completely returned since then has to do with Japanese culture.

In Japanese culture, societal harmony is among the most highly regarded values. In fact, as I mentioned in my post about how to say “sorry” in Japanese, inconveniencing others and disrupting societal harmony often requires an apology, even in situations that may seem minor to an outsider.

So, as an extension of this culture, Japanese people are especially sensitive toward public spaces and how they use them as an individual. They are aware that the public space belongs to others just as much as themselves, and because of this, keeping the environment clean simply becomes everyone’s personal concern.

As a result, there’s a strong cultural norm of keeping public places clean and, therefore, handling your trash properly. 

There may be no trash cans around, but most Japanese people aren’t bothered by this, as it’s already an established norm to carry the wrapper of your candy bar or the plastic bottle you finished in your bag until you get home.

In fact, even when walking their dogs, Japanese people have a nifty double-bagging strategy — a paper bag inside a plastic bag — that allows them to pick up after their dogs and then dispose of the paper bag as organic waste, separating the plastic one cleanly.

As you can see, simple solutions like these go a long way when people are culturally motivated to keep their environment clean. Besides this factor, however, another relevant talking point when solving the mystery of trash cans in Japan is the waste management system that’s in place.

Let’s take a look.

Current Practices: Waste Management in Japan Today

Recycling and separating trash is simply a part of daily life in Japan, as there are very strict rules regarding how trash is supposed to be separated and disposed of.

Unlike many countries, a big part of the waste management process in Japan is handled by local neighborhoods, and each neighborhood separates and collects the waste individually. Moreover, collection and separation rules change from city to city, and garbage-related issues cause a lot of discord among people due to some people not handling their garbage properly.

Garbage is usually collected on particular days, and there’s a schedule for each neighborhood to take out certain types of trash throughout the week. 

If you don’t know your neighborhood’s waste collection schedule, you can check your local government’s website. Alternatively, you may also come across signs around the neighborhood with the schedule.

Japan’s main method of disposing of trash is incineration, so garbage that’s not suitable for recycling is mainly separated into combustibles and non-combustibles. You’ll see that the few trash cans you’re able to find in the wild usually have separate containers for combustibles, non-combustibles, plastics, glass bottles, and cans.

Of course, depending on where you live, the separation process might be even more involved than this. So, it’s always a good idea to check your local government’s website to learn about how the waste management system works in your area.

Know Your Trash: The Rules of Trash Disposal in Japan

As I mentioned, non-recyclable garbage, such as plastics and glass, is collected separately in Japan, and this is done by sorting the trash into combustibles or non-combustibles.

However, as this is somewhat of a unique take on waste management, as a foreigner, you may not know what this exactly means. Here’s an explanation of each category of trash:

1. Combustibles 

Combustibles include food waste and old clothes that are too degraded to be donated. 

Along with these, dirty food containers, used hygiene products, such as dirty tissues, diapers, styrofoam containers, and thin plastics (plastic bottle labels and candy wrappers) belong in the combustible trash category. 

Scrap pieces of paper like receipts and small notes also can be disposed of in the combustibles category.

2. Non-combustibles 

Non-combustible material mainly refers to metal, electronics, and non-recyclable glass. This is also where you throw away used-up batteries.

You can also dispose of things like old kitchenware, as well as old home appliances. When disposing of electronic appliances, make sure that they are no longer than 30 cm on any side; otherwise, they belong in the large-sized waste category.

Lastly, ceramics and pottery can also be disposed of in this category. 


3. Recyclables 

The allowed recyclable materials can change from municipality to municipality, so it’s always a good idea to check your local government’s website. However, generally, this category is for any sort of packaging that has an indication that it’s recyclable. This includes cardboard, cans, glass bottles, newspaper, and PET bottles. 

For PET bottles, certain municipalities have special guidelines, and some may require you to clean them and take off the plastic labels before disposing of them. If this is the case, the label goes into the combustibles category.

Similarly, disposing of paper and newspaper waste may also have special rules depending on your city, and you may need to tie them up into a bundle before disposal.

4. Large-Sized Waste and Recyclable Electronic Appliances 

As I mentioned, any electronic appliance that’s longer than 30 cm on any side is considered large-sized waste and should be disposed of accordingly. Similarly, furniture, bicycles, mattresses, and large light fixtures also belong here.

Unlike the other waste categories I covered so far, these are only collected upon reservation, and a collection fee is charged per visit. So, make sure not to leave these out in the designated trash collection location without a reservation, and make a disposal plan in advance.

In a similar fashion, some electronic appliances are recyclable and are also collected separately. This includes air conditioners, TVs, refrigerators, deep freezers, and washing and drying machines. As is the case with large-sized waste, you need to make an appointment to have these items collected, upon which you’ll need to pay a collection fee. 

Alternatively, in some neighborhoods, you may see trucks slowly moving down the street, announcing that they collect recyclable appliances. If you happen to come across one, you can also dispose of your large recyclable electronic appliances for free, and the collector gets a fee elsewhere, which helps them earn a living.

Adapting to the Culture: Trash Disposal Tips for Foreigners in Japan

If you’re new to Japan, it might take you a while to completely figure out just exactly how and where to get rid of your trash correctly. In fact, most neighborhood disputes stem from trash-related issues because some people leave their trash in the wrong place or at the wrong times.

However, you can avoid all of this by sticking to the schedule you can find on your local government’s website, separating your trash correctly, and placing your trash inside the collection area correctly.

If you’re living in an apartment building or a “mansion” — more on that in my post on Japanese apartments — there may also be a trash collection room, which is a big convenience in Japan. 

In that case, all you need to do is take out your trash and put it in the collection room by separating everything correctly. You don’t even need to know the schedule, as waste management comes every day and picks up the type of trash that’s due on that specific day.

However, if you don’t have this luxury, you’ll need to dispose of your trash in the designated area like most other people. Here’s a brief guide to help you do it correctly.

How to Dispose of Trash Properly

Even though you’ve now learned about the particular trash categories, there are still things worth noting to ensure the disposal process goes as smoothly as possible.

To start with, there are designated trash bags you can buy that are color-coded, and each color represents a certain waste category. The colors change from city to city, so make sure to check what you need in advance. You can easily buy the bags at your local convenience or grocery store.

If you’re disposing of oversized trash and have already made an appointment, you need to put special stickers on it so that the waste collection will know what to pick up. You can also buy these at convenience and grocery stores near you.

If your trash is sorted correctly, you are now ready to take out each category on the designated day that’s indicated on the local schedule. 

In most cases, there will be designated areas in your neighborhood that have signs with the collection schedule. You can simply leave your trash bags here, but make sure to tie them to prevent the contents from spilling.

In some neighborhoods, garbage collection areas have a special netting you can place the trash in. These are see-through nets that are usually attached to a wire mesh structure, and you’re supposed to place the trash under the net. Don’t forget to close it so that animals won’t rummage through it and make a mess.

Practical Tips for Foreigners: Navigating the Lack of Public Trash Cans in Japan

You might know how to dispose of home waste properly, but that still doesn’t prepare you for your public outings as a foreigner. 

After all, Japan is the land of vending machines, convenience stores, and deliciously unique snacks, so you’ll eventually need a garbage can when you’re out and about.

First of all, you should know that most Japanese people are fine with carrying small trash in their bags until they get home or find a trash can. Getting used to doing this can save you in a pinch.

Alternatively, if you must dispose of the items, you can still find some trash cans in public spaces if you know where to look. Here are a few common locations:

  • For plastic bottles and cans, look for vending machines. They almost always have a waste bin next to them specifically for this type of trash.

  • Train station platforms, albeit rarely, may also have trash cans with transparent plastic bags. These are usually for items like newspapers and other recyclables or combustibles, e.g.,  plastic bottles.

  • Some convenience stores may also have bins for plastic and other recyclable materials, but they’re usually reserved for customers, so keep this in mind.

  • If you’re in or around a park, you can find larger garbage bins around pretty easily. These are placed so that people that have picnics aren’t motivated to litter and can easily dispose of their trash.

Other than these locations, your best chances of finding trash cans are at public restrooms, which have small containers where you can get rid of small trash. However, I highly recommend getting used to carrying a small plastic bag on you. It makes your life much easier, and it helps you be mindful of the waste your produce, which is great for the environment!


Basic Vocabulary for Garbage Disposal and Recycling in Japan

By this point, you know pretty much all there is to know about the waste management system in Japan. 

The vocabulary I shared below isn’t much, but it’ll definitely help you understand the trash collection schedules, locate trash cans, and separate your trash correctly according to your own neighborhood’s rules. I include both the hiragana and the kanjis (in that order) for convenience.

  • Recycling: しげんごみ or 資源ごみ (Shigengomi)

  • Garbage: ごみ or ゴミ (Gomi)

  • Sorting garbage: ごみのぶんべつ or ゴミの分別 (Gomi-no-bunbetsu)

  • Combustible garbage: もえるごみ or 燃えるゴミ (Moerugomi)

  • Non-combustible garbage: もえないごみ or 燃えないゴミ (Moenaigomi)

  • Oversized garbage: そだいごみ or 粗大ゴミ (Sodaigomi)

  • Garbage collection area: ごみしゅうしゅうばしょ ゴミ収集場所 (Gomi-shushubasho)

  • Garbage room: ごみおきば or ゴミ置場 (Gomi-okiba)

  • Plastic: ぷらすちっく or プラスチック (Purasuchikku)

  • Plastic bottle: ぺっとぼとる or ペットボトル (Pettebotoru)

  • Paper: かみ or 紙 (Kami)

  • Glass: がらす or ガラス (Garasu)

  • Cardboard: だんぼーる or 段ボール (Danbooru)

  • Newspaper: しんぶん or 新聞 (Shinbun)

Frequently Asked Questions About Trash Cans in Japan

Lastly, as I conclude this post, I’d like to answer some of the most frequently asked questions about trash cans and waste disposal in Japan so that you always know what to do. Let’s take a look.

When Should I Take Out My Trash for Collection?

You need to stick to your local municipality’s schedule. Each trash category has a designated day, and most trash is picked up every week, while the rest may be picked up every other week. 

To be safe, it’s a good idea to take the trash out the night before they pick it up. If you happen to miss the pick-up, you’ll have to take your trash back home and wait for the next pick-up date.

What Should I Do With Trash If I’m Not Sure of The Material?

If you don’t know what category your trash fits in, simply check the packaging. Chances are, there will be information about the materials used to produce the packaging. 

For instance, drinks that come in boxes clearly indicate on the back that the plastic cap goes in the plastics bin and the paper container itself goes in the combustibles bin.

Do Pizza Boxes Belong In Cardboards Category?

Used pizza boxes with leftover food in them or any other cardboard container that has food waste or oil in it need to be placed in the combustibles pile. 

Is Littering Illegal in Japan?

Yes. Littering is illegal in Japan, and if you’re caught, you risk getting fined or worse, which is getting a prison sentence. 

Small littering can be considered a violation of the Japanese Misdemeanor Law, which can result in a fine that can be anywhere between 1,000 JPY to 10,000 JPY or detention at a correctional facility for up to 30 days.

However, if you happen to dump your garbage illegally, which means dumping garbage anywhere that isn’t meant for garbage collection, you risk violating the Waste Disposal Act, which has more dire consequences.

According to the waste disposal act, illegal dumping can result in a prison sentence of up to five years or a fine of up to 10 million JPY (300 million JPY for corporations). Keep in mind that even repeated littering can be considered a violation of this act, so even disposing of cigarettes in public areas can result in large fines if you’re caught doing it repeatedly.

Lastly, keep in mind that fines can change according to the municipal ordinances, which can result in more significant or lesser fines depending on the municipality you’re in and whether the area is protected by a special law or not.


Japan Dev Team

This post was written by our Japan Dev editorial team.