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

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.

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