Japan offers a fantastic and comfortable lifestyle, with 24-hour convenience stores, easy transit, and vending machines around just about every corner. But Japan also uses an outrageous number of plastics and products that are harmful to the environment.
With a few small adjustments to your daily habits, you can live a more eco-responsible life in Japan without radically changing your routine. Here are a few tips.
1. Get the MyMizu app
When I first set up in Japan, I was amazed by the variety of drinks offered in the vending machines. Once the summer started, I got knocked out by the heat and found myself buying—and throwing away—dozens of PET bottles a day.
While Japan claims to recycle 84% of all end-of-life plastics, the official figure might be a little misleading. Part of this material is considered waste and burned (think about the bottle caps and ornamental plastics that you separate into the “burnables” waste bin).
Tap water is more-than safe to drink in Japan, so get a hip reusable water bottle and download the MyMizu app which shows you a map of nearby water fountains and businesses that’ll gladly let you refill your H2O!
2. Say no to plastic bags
Japan is the champion in customer satisfaction, but it’s also the champion of unnecessary packaging. When the supermarket cashier separates your meat into tiny plastic bags which you then have to put into a bigger plastic bag yourself, you’ll find yourself asking, “but, why??”
Bearing in mind that Japan is the world’s second-biggest producer of plastic waste per capita (after the United States), you might want to consider carrying a reusable tote bag with you. We recommend getting a Rootote which is a Japanese brand specialized in tote bags designed and printed in Japan. You’ll find every imaginable size and print, from the most basic to the most fun at their flagship store in Daikanyama! Alternatively, simply start reusing the plastic bags you already have.
Next time you buy groceries, to say no to plastic bags, you only need two words, “fukuro nashi” (no bag). If the staff asks you “fukuro irimasuka” (do you need a bag) simply say “iranai” (I don’t need it) or “daijoubu” (that’s okay). The habit will be just as good for your wallet since Japan started requiring all shops to charge for plastic bags from July 1.
3. Invest in a reusable bento set
Although you may find it challenging to give up eating on the go, there is one additional routine that can help reduce plastic waste: refuse single-use chopsticks, forks, spoons, and lunch-boxes. Better to just invest in your own bento set!
Taking a bento lunch is a well-established tradition in Japan, and you can find cute sets in many shops. If you like Marie Kondo’s tidying up method, you will surely love her online store. It offers a lovely eco-friendly bento box made with renewable bamboo fibers and a selection of reusable ceramic lunch accessories. Also, if you can’t resist your takeaway coffee in the morning, go for her reusable mug!
Not a KonMari fan? Drop by any Loft store or even the Line Friends flagship store in Harajuku to have your favorite emoji with you at mealtimes.
4. Cook more vegetarian Japanese food
According to a significant analysis of global food systems published in Science (2018), animal-based foods have a much higher footprint than plant-based. For example, producing a kilogram of beef emits 60 kilograms of greenhouse gases, while peas emit just 1 kilogram per kg.
For those who like to cook, Japan offers a variety of vegetarian protein-rich foods such as tofu, natto, mushrooms, and azuki beans. In case you lack inspiration, check out these easy vegetarian rice cooker dishes.
If you prefer eating out, you can ask politely for a “nikku nashi” (no meat) meal, and many places will come up with a tailor-made alternative.
Don’t know how to keep up a plant-based diet in Japan? We’ve got an article for that. If you’re looking for a place to buy vegan-friendly food in Tokyo or are too lazy to cook and need to find a vegan restaurant, we’ve got you covered there too.
5. Shop local, organic, and seasonal
Japanese people are very attentive to local and seasonal products. At your supermarket, if you want to buy Japanese vegetables instead of imported ones, pay attention to the stickers on them. Stickers written in kanji indicate vegetables from Japan while stickers in katakana mostly refer to imported ones.
To shop organic, check out natural food stores such as the chain Natural House, or weekend Farmers Markets. You might find a few items at normal supermarkets if you search for the following labels:
- JAS: a label that stands for Japan Agricultural Organic Standard
- 有機: the Japanese kanji for organic, or オーガニック
- 無農薬: chemical-free
For deliveries, have a look at Ecoloupe’s website. This zero-tolerance brand brings organic local farmers’ products straight to your home.
6. Do you really need to use that washlet?
Transitioning to a more eco-responsible lifestyle in Japan can seem tricky at first, but starting by changing just one habit can make a difference. Don’t know where to begin? Consider making a few tweaks in your home to reduce energy consumption, starting with washlets.
Although the warm seat and the hot spray are delightful in winter, they are not necessary. Without completely depriving yourself of the luxury of the washlet, start by simply turning off the washlet heating system to save electricity.
Many Japanese homes are also poorly insulated and in winter, you might want to keep the heating on continuously. Instead, you could adopt the Japanese approach by using a kotatsu and heating blanket.
7. Rent a bicycle to get around
Yes, we know Japan has one of the most efficient and fascinating train transportation systems in the world. Taking the Romance Car or the shinkansen, Japan’s bullet train, is an experience itself to reach most destinations in Japan. That’s perfect for long distances, but do you really need to take the train or taxi if you’re going somewhere locally?
If you’re just going to work or places around your neighborhood, try renting a bicycle. Docomo Cycle is a self-service electric bike system available in twelve wards of Tokyo and many cities in Japan including Yokohama, Kawasaki, Osaka, Nara, Sapporo, Nagoya, Hiroshima, Kobe, Naha, and more. Once you have created an account online, you can choose the daily or monthly plan. They also have a one-day pass that’s great when visiting another city which costs between ¥1,050 and ¥1,650.
Once you get used to it, consider buying a second-hand bicycle from the Sayonara sales or Mottainai Facebook groups where people are selling or sometimes offering their belongings for free.
8. Choose Japan-made clothes and second-hand shops
Fast fashion is another temptation in big cities like Osaka and Tokyo especially. Instead of buying another cheap T-shirt at the crowded Takeshita Street in Harajuku, go for quality pieces made in Japan.
Beams offers an eclectic collection of clothes made in Japan. To get a piece that embodies Tokyo fashion, Studious Outlet “Tokyo Brand Union,” features Japanese designers only (items might not all be made in Japan).
Dig thrifting? Head to Shimokitazawa, full of mainly local shops offering curated vintage and handmade items. Among the places to go are New York Joe Exchange, a second-hand store built in an old sento (public bathhouse), where you can also sell or trade your used Western-style clothing. Shimokitazawa Garage Department, a flea-market that gathers more than 20 stalls, is another choice to find something unique.
9. Choose natural beauty products
Whether it’s non-recyclable packaging or toxic chemicals in cosmetics that end up in our oceans, the cosmetics industry also has a significant impact on the environment. Luckily, finding sustainable beauty products with simple and recyclable packaging in Japan is getting easier.
The Crayon House store and restaurant in Omotesando is well-known for selling organic beauty products, groceries, and clothing. Nationally, Natural Lawson convenience stores offer a surprising selection of organic cosmetics. Finally, most Tokyu Hands department stores usually have an organic (or at the very least natural-based) cosmetics corner.
Now, go and be eco-responsible in Japan
Changing your lifestyle to reduce your impact on the environment shouldn’t be a burden and with the right guidance, it can be smooth. If you’re struggling to adapt, reach out to Mottainai Transition, a lovely individual initiative dedicated to helping anyone implement eco-friendly practices that fit their lifestyle and move forward on this journey.
The founder, Hélène, has been there herself when she moved to Japan. Based on her experience and her expertise, she developed individual coaching sessions and workshops around the themes of waste reduction, changing your consumption habits, cleaning products for your home, and sustainable food.
With this, I hope you can get the keys you need to reduce your impact smoothly!