Life in Japan: Wrap it up! – Value or Waste?

Each individual celery stalk is wrapped in cellophane!

I love living in Japan and having this opportunity to learn about a new culture and language. I’ve tried to retain my “outsider’s perspective” while at the same time immersing myself in as many opportunities to learn from Japanese people and experience Japanese culture and business as I can.

Many of my observations that I’ve been writing about in my blog are focused on Japanese leadership, Lean, and healthcare. But I also think it’s fun to write about some of my experiences of “daily living” in Tokyo.

As I’ve written about in previous posts, Japan can be a place of contradictions and contrasts from a Western perspective. But this is part of what I enjoy about my experience here: learning about another culture, checking my own assumptions, and getting to ask “why?”

Packaging: aethetics versus waste

The cultural attention to detail and appreciation of aesthetics is something I value about living here. However, I continue to be surprised, though I shouldn’t be, at how much cellophane wrapping is used in this country.

This one constantly has me asking, “Why?!”

Wrapping is valued

On one hand, I appreciate the aesthetic beauty and presentation of Japanese objects – regardless if they are for gifts or just something bought in a store. Some of this wrapping, such as cloth tenugui (which I own a lot of and give away as gifts into themselves), can be reused, though much of it cannot.

But when does it become waste?

The amount of plastic and paper wrapping used – particularly for ordinary objects and food – continues to astound me. For an island country that has limited space for processing waste, the amount of waste produced on a simple trip to the supermarket is surprising.

Some of the packaging serves a purpose such as protecting delicate fruit (or wine bottles). I must admit that for the price some fruit comes or the beautiful perfection of one large apple, it should be wrapped so that it arrives to your house in perfect condition! And at least these mesh tubes are recycled in our house as children’s art supplies.

These plastic mesh casings are put on most larger fruit - and wine bottles.
These plastic mesh casings are put on most larger fruit – and wine bottles.

But for the most part, the amount of wrapping that objects come in – from small containers to wrapping objects and then putting them in one or two (or more) bags….

Below are just some examples of this use of cellophane – often to wrap individual pieces or very small portions (to a Westerner).

Each individual celery stalk is wrapped in cellophane!
Each individual celery stalk is wrapped in cellophane!

Plus, unless you are at your own house, its nearly impossible to find somewhere to throw out all of this excess wrapping!

Individual bananas - or a small group of 3.
Individual bananas – or a small group of 3.

For a country that is extremely diligent about trash separation, I imagine this adds to complexity of waste. Is this burnable or recyclable?! Many here would say “burnable” … but that seems to be creating a ton of other problems.

And the lemons are individually wrapped too!
And the lemons are individually wrapped too!

Why Japanese people?

To echo a famous (in Japan) American comedian “Why Japanese people, why?!” (Check out the link for a good chuckle).

A friend’s recent post on Twitter had me laugh as I had already been saving up photos I’ve included here to write a post about this:

How does the customer define “value”?

With a Lean mindset, we should look at this in terms value and waste from the customer’s perspective. This has me thinking about how much cultural preference and values impact what a customer defines as “value”.

Value can mean a lot of different things to different customers, as Mark Rosenthal wrote about in a good blog post about what value means.

Perhaps Japanese people put more value and would be willing to pay for all this additional packaging? But from my Western perspective, it definitely feels like waste…

Life in Japan: more observations

Another post soon will talk about the process of actually buying food at the supermarket…. Like the taxi queue at the train station, let’s just say that there are some opportunities for improvement in the process.

I know that every culture and country has its own idiosyncrasies and opportunities for improvement – certainly my home country included. But while I’m here in Japan, I’m enjoying noticing these contrasts and sharing them with you.

You can find more of my highlights and observations about living in Tokyo under the “Life in Japan” category.

Join the discussion

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Please share your comments and reflections below!

Katie Anderson
About Katie Anderson 128 Articles

Lean thinker and coach. Passionate about developing people. Healthcare change agent. Living in California again after 18 months in Tokyo. Writing about lean and leadership.

  • Gloria

    I believe there must be a careful balance on the view of whether or not something is perceived as waste or value in regards to how something is prepared and presented for customers. As a bustling, modern, and very populated city, space is limited to say the least. Many food items are available for daily consumption versus a westerner’s trip to the grocery to stock up for a week or month. How handy to purchase a stalk of celery to take to work and not have to do all the preparation and packaging at home. Beyond looking at lean and waste, the culture in Japan has long held fast to presentation and giving graciously to others. There would be very few, if any others, that outdo the packaging and presentation of simple gift items, that then become more than simple because of the effort put into the packaging. Consider a box of Japanese cookies or crackers. You will find them in very decorative tins, lined with lightweight, but decorative dividers, and then individually wrapped goodness prepared with color and shape in mind. The culture of packaging stems from the ancient art long held by the Japanese and modifications over time to eliminate some waste has occurred in materials and manufacturing, but I don’t feel a view of waste should be inferred in order to apply an opinion when visiting another country rich in beauty, thoughtfulness, and politeness. Does it not make you feel good when you purchase an item in a department store in your hometown and they take the time to wrap it in soft cloth or pretty tissue, then place it into a nice handled paper bag, instead of one of a million plastic bags hanging at the ready? Presentation and wrapping do make a difference in your day, so why not in a city of millions of people, let’s accept the presentation and the efforts to make everyone’s day a little brighter and thus help one another to be polite to the stranger sitting next to you on the train that could become your new best friend.
    Thanks for the post. Wish I could be there again.

  • Charles Intrieri

    You must recognize a country’s culture to understand them. It is the same for any company. What is their culture like today? Is it seeped in their tradition? Can they transform their culture and become a Lean company. People’s habits, ways of working and beliefs must change for Lean to be successful in a company. Leadership has to carry the Lean torch. People have to become process and problem solvers. This paradigm shift is critical and takes discipline. Slapping in tools like 5S and saying you are a Lean company, is just a façade. You have to transform your culture to be successful with Lean initiatives. Why? Because Lean is a new way of doing business.

  • David Rasmusson

    What principles do you find assumed and employed?

  • Hi Gloria – Thank you for your comments. As I acknowledge in the post, I very much appreciate the Japanese attention to detail and beautiful wrapping – it is one of the many wonderful elements and delights about living in Japan. I do also understand the customer requirement for smaller sized servings or packages given how people shop and prepare food. Where it really crosses into “waste” for me is wrapping individual lemons and bananas in cellophane. Do such fruit even need to be wrapped in the first place to maintain freshness? And I don’t see this adding to the beauty and appreciation of the fruit… Just more non-recyclable waste. I recognize this may be from my Western perspective. But then again, is this just a case of “we’ve always done it that way” that isn’t really meeting the original intention of wrapping as beauty?

  • Hi Dave – I was thinking less about assumed principles, but rather cultural preferences as a customer. Or did I misunderstand the context of your question?

    Thanks, as always, for sharing your comments and questions!

  • Hi Chuck – Thanks for your comments. Everyone’s habits and cultural biases contribute to their abilities – and challenges – in being a Lean leader. It can be country culture – or even organizational culture. It’s been interesting for me to learn more while living here about what is inherently “Japanese” versus “Lean” (Toyota management style). There are many overlaps, but they are not one and the same. Japanese people, just like Americans, struggle with aspects of Lean. It is new here (though perhaps not as new as in the U.S.) and not all businesses are Lean.

  • David Rasmusson

    My question is off the topic. Sorry for the diversion.
    Covey spoke 30 years ago of “true north” principles, those immutable, inviolate laws that, if recognized and adopted, lead to sound judgement and guided decisions, and a statement of values, and concomitant manifest behaviors.
    When visiting sites, do you observe correct principles at play that US sites do not recognise? For example, the true north principle of treating others as one would want to be treated…is that a cause of a practice of not passing on a defect, or of not conducting MBA reviews?
    (I may still not be conveying my question well. If poorly conveyed, let’s take a mulligan on it and move on to your next insightful post.)

  • Great question, though I don’t have enough in-depth knowledge from my short site visits to be able to answer it. I’ve been able to visit many organizations in Japan – both health care and other industries – but from a few hours at any place it is hard to really see below the surface layers of what they present or share on a tour. That being said, many of organizations that I’ve visited appear to have deeply held cultures of respect for people, which is manifested in how they talk about respect and engagement of staff in kaizen (see for example: )

    What are some examples of what you consider “correct principles at play that US sites do not recognize”? I would anticipate that no matter what country one is in, there are some organizations that are better, for example, of really embodying “respect for people”- in the U.S., Japan, or elsewhere.

    (And thanks for your positive feedback on my blog. I’m glad to hear you are enjoying reading it and learning from what I’m learning!)

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