If you were anything like as good as my children this year, you probably experienced a similar amount of packaging and wrapping paper this Christmas as our household.
I hope many of you agree with me that it is ridiculous how much waste is created by boxes, plastic trays and mouldings, bubble wrap etc., but thankfully in many Western households this type of excess quantity of packaging is restricted only to Christmas and to children’s birthdays.
But it feels to me that in Japan it’s Christmas 365 days a year, as Japanese shops (and probably also consumers, whose preferences drive the shops’ decisions re packaging) love their carrier bags, boxes, bows, cellophane and bubble wrap.
In fairness, in some ways it is great that you always get a beautifully wrapped, boxed and bagged product and if you are buying presents, most shops offer a free wrapping service. You can often choose from two or three wrapping paper and ribbon colours, and so you don’t need to wrap the present yourself. But overall I think they completely overdo it.
I am confident that I am not the only Westerner in Japan who thinks that it is rather environmentally unfriendly to indulge in this unnecessary packaging culture. Even shops that elsewhere are associated with environmentally friendly ideas have not had the guts to say ‘no’ to this wasteful practice.
During my last visit to the Body Shop in Osaka, they asked me if I needed a carrier bag. I said I didn’t because I got a fabric bag as a freebie with my purchases, and my new stuff could just go in the fabric bag. As one would predict, the Body Shop’s shop assistant was happy that I had chosen not to use a disposable carrier bag and said that I would get two extra points on my Body Shop loyalty card for my environmentally-friendly deed. But then things got a bit counterintuitive. First, the shop assistant wrapped my lip liners in bubble wrap. I don’t know why, as my lip liners bumble about at the bottom of my handbag for months along with all the other stuff in my bag, and thus I’m confident that they would not break in the fabric bag on my way home from the shop.
Second, before she placed my purchases in the environmentally friendly fabric bag, she further wrapped the pens and my other purchases in cellophane. I can tell you that I stood there not knowing what to say. Do beauty products really need as many layers of packaging to make it from the shop to home as an explorer needs of clothes to survive the journey from the Equator to the South Pole?
The Body Shop is not the only place in Japan where one witnesses a complete wrapping frenzy, given that:
Fruit comes in bubble wrap on a plastic tray wrapped in cling film.
Most food items, like chewing gum pieces and biscuits/cakes, are usually individually wrapped. I have even seen individually wrapped strawberries!
When you buy glass jars/bottles the cashier often wraps them in bubble wrap – and if you buy something that needs to stay cold on the way home then they are wrapped together with a small ice pack.
Often purchases are wrapped in cellophane, then put in a paper carrier bag. If you are buying a present, the shop assistant places in the carrier bag an extra carrier bag or two so that you can take the purchase home in the original carrier bag but switch the present to a fresh one when you hand it to the recipient of the gift. If it rains, the carrier bag is wrapped in a plastic bag to protect the paper bag from the rain. Below you can see photos of the packaging sequence of my recent handbag purchase.
I know this is considerate, but is it necessary? I think in the context of Japan it (currently) is. Japanese people expect shops, shop displays and, crucially, purchases to be aesthetically pleasing. In addition, the shop needs to demonstrate that they value their customer – and one way of doing this is to ensure that the customer’s purchases do not get wet, damaged, or fall out of carrier bags on the customer’s return trip back home. And consequently, I feel a shop would struggle to survive longer than you can say Sayonara if they just dumped purchased items in carrier bags.
Not only do Japanese shops overwrap purchases, but they also hand out a lot of chopsticks, plastic spoons, and straws. If you buy any ready meal (a food choice extremely common in Japan) in a convenience store, the cashier will place one pair of wooden chopsticks (and a plastic fork if you are a Westerner) per meal in the carrier bag with the food without asking you whether or not you’ll need the chopsticks/fork. If you buy yogurt or ice-cream, you’ll get a plastic spoon for each individual tub, and if you buy, say, a carton of milk, you’ll get a straw. It took me a while to get the hang of this but when our kitchen utensils draw was overflowing with disposable chopsticks, forks, spoons and straws, I practiced how to say: I don’t need X in Japanese. Since then, I’ve changed this slightly and now I say I don’t need anything – no chopsticks, forks, spoons, straws, carrier bags, wet wipes, napkins…nothing other than what I am buying. The shop assistant is often rather perplexed by this, in particular when I say that I don’t want a carrier bag, but complies.
I can’t bear to think how many chopsticks, spoons, and straws 120 million Japanese people get through in a day.
I should say that in defence of the Japanese, they are one of the foremost recyclers in the world. However, I can’t help but feel that if they were able to create less waste in the first place then they wouldn’t have to recycle it!
I don’t want to come across as an uptight hippie, but I feel this is one aspect of Japanese culture that I would like to see moving towards the eco-friendly mentality that prevails in most other developed countries. I assume the only way to change things is to make the Japanese consumer frown upon packaging instead of demand it. But how?