Why are Japan’s beaches so disgusting?

The environment at Enoshima Beach really is a bizarre contradiction for a nation that prides itself on cleanliness and orderly behaviour. I was always led to believe that the Japanese truly respect their natural environment. Or perhaps Enoshima Beach is simply a pressure valve for Tokyoites in summer . . . where they can strip off not just their clothes but also any respect they have for their surroundings.

Matthew Abrahams writing for the Sydney Morning Herald about six months out of season. This is a problem discussed in Japan as well (see this TV report republished on Japan Probe).

There is a ton of amazingly beautiful and (more or less) unpolluted coastline in this country, but it tends to be of the boulder- or concrete-encrusted variety that is pretty useless for beach recreation, like this scene just a stone’s throw from Enoshima.


I’ll throw out a few explanations of my own for Shonan’s problems.

  1. The few “good” beaches around Tokyo have to accommodate a huge beach-going population — the Tokyo metropolitan area has a population about one and a half times that of the entire Australian continent. Even if most people were meticulously clean, a tiny percentage of bad apples would be enough to spoil the beach for everyone.
  2. Beach visitors in Tokyo generally live very far from the beach (at least half an hour by train) and probably have a more tenuous personal connection to it than your average Australian coast-dweller.
  3. Shonan attracts the lowest common denominator of Japanese beach-goers, as the more well-off prefer to drop a few hundred (or thousand) bucks and visit Guam, Hawaii, Southeast Asia or the Gold Coast. Thus Shonan gets a bigger share of working-class yokels than the urbane Tokyo that many foreigners experience.
  4. As James notes in the Japan Probe piece linked above, Japan has no qualms about drinking in public, and booze consumption inhibits any pre-existing qualms about leaving trash on the ground.
  5. For some reason I can’t figure out, public trash cans are very rare here; if you want to throw something away while walking down the street, you basically have to find a convenience store. Same story at the beach, except there are no convenience stores.

32 thoughts on “Why are Japan’s beaches so disgusting?”

  1. “For some reason I can’t figure out”

    I’ve given this some thought and I’m convinced that it is because of a fear that unscrupulous people would dump their undivided household trash or items that can only be disposed of once or twice a month in public bins (saw this happen at a park that actually had one, it was removed sometime later). Anybody have a better theory?

  2. I thought they removed the majority of trash cans after 9/11. So no bombs could be placed in there. And security was increased during World Cup football in 2002. Before 9/11 it wasn’t hard to find a trash can in Tokyo if I remember correctly.

  3. Actually I believe the trash cans first disappeared in Japan following the Aum sarin gas subway attack. Following that they gradually reappeared, but every time there is another terrorist threat, or major international event that people think could attract terrorists, the cycle repeats itself.

  4. “Thus Shonan gets a bigger share of working-class yokels than the urbane Tokyo that many foreigners experience.”

    Was #3 intended to be tongue-in-cheek? I hope so.

  5. dude it’s a dump.

    have you ever been to a nice beach ?

    don’t take the guy’s article apart with a series of bullet
    points like its a legal case. Give us your view on why
    Kugenuma Kaigan in summer can be defended.

    as the author of the article says, letting people build the
    umi no ie on the beach is despicable. It’s a tiny beach anyway.
    it’s like center gai on sea and it’s rough.
    Australia wouldn’t let that happen to a beach you see.

  6. “As James notes in the Japan Probe piece linked above, Japan has no qualms about drinking in public, and booze consumption inhibits any pre-existing qualms about leaving trash on the ground.”

    Given that we seem to be comparing Japan to Australia here, I don’t think you can count “reluctance to drink in public” as a significant variable.

    Never been to Shonan. I have swum at a beach North/west of Kobe. “Swim” is perhaps not the operative word because I couldn’t go five metres without swallowing a plastic bag or bumping into a gyaru in full makeup. I can’t remember the name of the beach, but it was a dump.

    However, not all of the trash comes from the people on the beaches where it actually ends up. I was once on a beach in Awaji-shima. Deserted, but absolutely filthy.

  7. “Shonan attracts the lowest common denominator of Japanese beach-goers, as the more well-off prefer to drop a few hundred (or thousand) bucks and visit Guam, Hawaii, Southeast Asia or the Gold Coast. Thus Shonan gets a bigger share of working-class yokels than the urbane Tokyo that many foreigners experience.”

    Yes, Shonan/Enoshima does indeed attract the lowest common denominator from Tokyo, but not all the rich people go to Hawaii. You’d be amazed at the distinction just miles from the shores of Enoshima. Go east from Enoshima and you’ll soon get to Zushi, where the artists and cultured denizens of Kamakura go to the beach, and the scene from which Ishihara wrote his famous book. Then go further east and you’ll get to Hayama, where the Tokyoites keep their yachts, and where the Emperor has his private beach residence (one of the Hayama beaches is even called 葉山ローヤルビーチ).

    Meanwhile, if you go west of Enoshima a ways you’ll get more lower class and lower crust. Atami is a pretty scummy hot spring resort famous for its longstanding fuzoku culture (the concrete Atami castle is basically a porn palace), and down the Izu Peninsula is “Shibuya on the beach”, attracting all the teenagers from Shizuoka and Yamanashi.

  8. “Zushi, where the artists and cultured denizens of Kamakura go to the beach”

    Problem is Ishihara is one of the “cultured”denizens of the area……

    BRW,should I ever trust what SMH writes after this?

    “Connell’s troubles began in May with one of his now infamous WaiWai columns, which cited a Japanese magazine article about a restaurant in the Tokyo district of Roppongi where patrons allegedly have sex with animals before eating them. The piece caught the attention of a blogger called Mozu, whose angry post was soon picked up by 2channel, a massive, fractious web forum popular with Japan’s hot-headed conservative element”


    Here’s Mozu’s original “angry post”

  9. “shibuya on the beach”

    Sounds like Shirahama, just north of Shimoda.

    Depending on coastal morphology and wave climate, a lot of trash gets concentrated and washes up on some beaches. I’ve seen this in Izu.

  10. Hey! I used to live around that area, and I will have you know that you may try to lump everything from Hayama to Oiso together, but even amongst the Shonan beaches there is variation. As Curzon points out: Zaimokuza and eastwards are nice. However, Yuigahama and Shichirigahama are over run by either the beach event crowd or the jellyfish by mid-July. Once you get into Fujisawa (Enoshima and Katase-Enoshima), it is a much different ballgame. It seems that there are many more events down in Fujisawa now, and each event is an opportunity for the out-of-towners to come in and rape the place.

    There are smaller beaches (you’ll probably spend the whole time wondering whether or not you are trespassing on someone’s property) here and there that are uncrowded and clean, but they only known to the in-crowd. Sort of like a quirky foreigner I heard about that had a favorite bar in Roppongi, but didn’t want too many friends to know, for fear that it would be overrun by nasty foreigners.

  11. In “kokoro” (natsumi soseki) “i” talked of swimming at the beach at Kamakura,
    and how he had to ask someone to look after his stuff lest it be stolen.
    So looks like those yokels were around a while ago too.

    Come on. Kugenuma is a dump in summer. as someone who surfs it all year round,
    I can tell you that in October at 5:30 am with the sun rising, and the sea cobalt blue, it can even look like the gold coast. In summer though the odakyu line takes people almost dead onto the beach, via the conbini. One of the main culprits has now closed down as they are building more condos on top of it. In summer though there were chavs outside it all the time with thir vomit coloured hair, and silly cars,
    the ground festooned with chicken carcasses, fireworks, beer cans and all manner of litter. This litter, by the way, comes from the conbini. Take the conbinis near the beach away and you won’t see as much litter by a long way.

    Australia you wouldn’t see this happen. As we all know the Japanese love nature which is why local governments are happy to build umi no ie on the beaches !

    There are plenty of good beaches in Kanto though.
    I won’t let on . . as I want to keep them to myself.
    I’m talking beaches with nice white sand and no litter anywhere,
    with transparent waters.

  12. i’m surprised that public trash cans are hard to find in Japan…I haven’t been there myself but being so populated as the country is, it doesn’t make much sense to not provide garbage receptacles for people to throw stuff away….i mean, the big cities here in the US have tons of garbage cans on the streets but some of the cities are still rather dirty and unkempt…..doesn’t make much sense to me for Japan to not provide garbage cans on the street.

  13. “pretty useless for beach recreation, ”

    …if your recreation consists of laying around on sand, perhaps. If you like snorkeling, Japan’s rocky shores are a total blast: thick kelp forests, vibrant tide pools, abundant sea life — just don’t get tangled in the ossan’s fishing lines!

    And even when it comes to sand I find Miura’s beaches a lot more relaxed (and clean) than the super-packed Shonan ones.

  14. It isn’t just beaches with a litter problem. Look in any Japanese river and you’ll see tons of litter and worse (dumped bikes, scooters, washing machines). I do a lot of jogging around Saitama and the cycling paths and narrow roads through rice fields I run have a real litter (and dumping problem). Lots of hiking courses are similarly afflicted with lots of litter.

    And you can’t explain it away by saying Saitamaites are the unwashed masses of Japan. I encountered the same problem around Nishinomiya and Kobe.

    The cynic in me might argue that Japanese people hate nature. That is why they want to pave it all over and while they are waiting for some construction company to lay down some concrete they throw litter around. Although it probably has more to do with the population density making the number of bad apples large enough to produce the amount of litter that annoys me enough I take a garbage bag with me about once a month.

  15. And another thing… Does anyone else come across huge stashes of dumped porn. Or is it just me? Everywhere I’ve lived in Japan (5 different cities in Kanto and Kansai) I regularly come across stashes of dumped magazines, videos, DVDs while jogging/xcountry running.

  16. I think it’s just you. How does all that porn end up in your bin ?

    ha ha just kidding brother. I hear you. I think they do hate nature –
    Alan Watts talked about it 30 years ago when he came to Japan.

    Ask Alex Kerr what he thinks.

    Basically, it might be easier just to concrete over the whole landmass and then
    just chip away the bits you don’t want to be concreted.

    Having said that, there are some great beaches for surfing in Izu, Chiba, Chibaraki,
    Fukushima, Sendai, Wakayama, Kyushu, Shikoku etc.
    Has anyone been to the beaches of Tosa-Wan in Shikoku ? Stunning. Especially
    around Shimanto.

    This soceity makes so much rubbish and wrapping. It is akin to the vested interests who benefit from concrete and construction. You wonder whether rather than the products themselves, it is the wrapping that they come in that is so lucrative for producers and factories. Ever noticed how in conbinis if you don’t want a bag they will still try and give you a smaller bag etc. – it is as if the shops receive money for the amount of plastic they can give out. Or as that too cynical ?

    My favourite Kanto beaches (go on then) are Chikura, Tatado, Imai-hama, and on its day, a little spot called Keio Mansion.

  17. The reason why you rarely find trash cans in parks, etc., is the campaign that started back in 1973 to “bring home your own trash” http://ja.wikipedia.org/wiki/%E3%81%94%E3%81%BF%E6%8C%81%E3%81%A1%E5%B8%B0%E3%82%8A%E9%81%8B%E5%8B%95 Apparently it was so successful when it started in Oze that most other parks followed suit. Also, according to http://ja.wikipedia.org/wiki/%E3%81%94%E3%81%BF%E7%AE%B1 , municipal governments find it too expensive to maintain waste management at public facilities so they simply do not bother.

    Incidentally, I wrote an article back in 1993 about trying to keep Enoshima clean. I haven’t been back there since, and am sad to learn through you that nothing has changed….. Please see: http://flickr.com/gp/manako/bu1w9h and http://flickr.com/gp/manako/6Q5515

  18. Did you just imply that “working-class yokels” are somehow worse on the environment than the “more well off?” I could say that’s not true in my experience, but that’s not really the point–is there really any sort of connection between class and environmental/beautification control? I mean, I’ll give you that a truly poor person (a homeless person in Japan, or someone from a 3rd world country) is more concerned with survival than with the environment, but that’s not what you’re talking about here.

  19. “Ever noticed how in conbinis if you don’t want a bag they will still try and give you a smaller bag etc. – it is as if the shops receive money for the amount of plastic they can give out. Or as that too cynical?”

    I’ve posted about this in the past, but a number of countries (including nearby Taiwan) have made it illegal for conbinis to give away plastic bags for free. In Japan there was a VERY half-hearted campaign a few years back to encourage customers to proactively ASK for the clerk to NOT give them a plastic bag, but even the staff didn’t seen to notice the signs posted behind them. While I think the conbini campaign has petered off completely, and increasing number of supermarkets are voluntarily implementing such policies, and now most places I buy groceries either charge for plastic bags, or have a laminated tag you put in your basket to tell them you don’t need one. I think that it’s obvious the default position should be NO bag unless the patron specifically asks for it, whether it costs money or not.

  20. yeah that makes sense.

    There shouldn’t be plastic bags and plastic wrapping. full stop.
    nip it in the bud why not ?

  21. “Look in any Japanese river and you’ll see tons of litter and worse”
    Actually all of the rivers and streams in Kyoto are pretty clean, but they are also a major part of the tourist-friendly environment so I presume they get more attention than in most places.

    @treblekickeresq That happened to me once, when I was walking from Yamashina back to Kyoto proper and around the top of the hill, several hundred meters of roadway was littered with torn up porn magazines.

  22. @Roy
    Heh, I agree with you in general about the cleanliness of Kyoto waters.
    However, I have several pictures, taken over the course of two years, of the same motorcycle dumped in the water from the walkway on the south side of the river at Arashiyama, maybe 50 meters upstream of where you board the tour boats 🙂
    I took the last picture in 2006, but I kinda hope it’s still there.

  23. Why public spaces are dirty : http://www.theonion.com/content/news/how_bad_for_the_environment_can?utm_source

  24. I don’t know if this happened at Enoshima as well, but the disappearance of rubbish bins happened back around 2000 – it started out on a limited trial basis around Tokyo and spread.

    What was happening was that rubbish bins become dumping “areas” where people would throw their garbage not just in, but all around, sometimes even taking household garbage and so on. A lot of the areas with garbage bins around Shibuya and so on became overrun with people not using the bins properly, so (I think it was Ishihara) trialled removing the bins altogether, and strangely enough, it resulted in less littering. With no rubbish bins, people get more used to the idea of having to pick up and take their garbage with them. I wish it wasn’t true and it seems counterintuitive, but at least in Tokyo, it’s what happened.

    By the way, I think it’s a bit harsh judging Japan’s beaches by Shonan.


  25. Another japanese hater who lives in Japan. Idiot.
    Go back to your country, stupid!

  26. I can’t believe how little care the Japanese take care of their beaches. It seems like a lot of countries in Asia are similar. Take Bali, for example. If there isn’t a hotel on the beach, the beach area away from the hotel will be surrounded by trash and crap.

    In Japan, as soon as the summer is over, no one cares about the beaches anymore. It’s mad!

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