There is no litter on the streets of Tokyo—and also no litter baskets. That combination tells us much about how this great city maintains its quality of life. Here, public order is preserved not primarily by the authorities, but by citizens. In contrast with today’s New York, Tokyo relies on norms.

Tokyo’s lack of litter baskets has a back story, one the city shares with New York: a terrorist attack. In March 1995, a death-cult group released deadly sarin gas on three lines of the Tokyo subway system, including one adjacent to Japan’s parliament, the Diet. The rush-hour attack killed 13 and sickened more than 1,000 others. Officials, concerned that litter baskets might be used for bombs and future attacks, removed them.

The city’s no-trashcan policy has not led residents to drop their 7-Eleven wrappers on street corners, however. Instead, it is expected that people will carry their own bags of trash for at-home disposal. It’s akin to the “carry-in, carry-out” rule on the Appalachian Trail, but with no written notice to that effect. As our tour guide explained, Japan is a nation of “unwritten rules.”

One rule implies another. Because there are no receptacles in which to dispose of wrappers, it is considered uncouth to eat on the street, bus, or subway. And there are no paper towels in the city’s numerous (and clean) public bathrooms. One is expected to carry a hand towel instead.

In other words, personal responsibility and courtesy are ingrained norms. On the subway, passengers not only offer to give up their seats for us gray-haired tourists—we are among the millions flooding the country, thanks to the weak yen—but also move aside so that my wife and I can sit together.

Another positive norm: paying subway fares. Turnstiles here are low, seemingly allowing easy entrance without paying. In fact, there are no barriers once you insert a ticket; a low bar pops out only if you try to proceed without paying. I asked our guide about this scenario and had to explain several times before she understood me—apparently, it was an unthinkable violation of the unwritten rules.

This is not to say that the Japanese authorities aren’t involved on the subways and elsewhere. Notable to the eyes of a New Yorker are the “safety barriers” on every downtown Tokyo subway platform, for trains as long as 16 cars. Officials installed these barricades, which open only on a train’s arrival, not so much to block the mentally ill from pushing passengers onto the tracks as to prevent drunks from falling into the rail bed—and, increasingly, to stop suicides.

The suicides reflect the reality that, notwithstanding Japan’s street safety and cleanliness, all is not well in the world’s fourth-largest economy. The country is plagued by population declines and labor shortages, alongside a general despondency about the future. Considered in contrast, America’s more chaotic social structure may yield prosperity, even at a price in quality of life.

Even Japan’s problems, however, yield notable features in daily life. One product of its labor shortage, for example: “conveyor belt” sushi restaurants. These establishments are almost entirely automated, as patrons choose from pictures and await lunch, which arrives on a moving platform. There are neither cashiers nor servers. No human hands are involved except, presumably, those of the unseen cooks.

Perhaps conveyor-belt sushi is not the most auspicious Japanese model to adopt. But others deserve emulation.

Photo: RichLegg / E+ via Getty Images


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