When I was 18 I was arrested and charged with the insidious crime of Underage Possession of Alcohol. Apparently, the three Bud Lights in my backpack were enough to warrant two sets of handcuffs and a ride in the paddy-wagon, which I had never experienced before but weirdly enjoyed. Some would call this treatment a bit harsh, but in retrospect, those officers were doing the Lord's work. That’s one less suburban teenager roaming the streets on a three-beer buzz.
As much as I despised them at the time, I owe my life to those cops because after that day, I never picked up a bottle again. I’m kidding. I drink all the time.
After paying a fine and attending a bullshit seminar on the dangers of drinking (which I proudly showed up for hungover), I was free to carry on with my life as a disaffected college freshman who thought underage drinking was the absolute lamest way one could be arrested. That belief remained unchanged until earlier this year, when I was found in violation of Japan’s Waste Disposal and Cleaning Law. In Tokyo, throwing out garbage the wrong way can land you a free trip the police station.
There are two reasons why Japanese cities are among the cleanest on Earth. One is that residents actually give a shit about where they live—what a concept—and the other is the strict and at times overly complicated method of waste disposal and recycling. While Americans typically divide their waste into two categories—trash and recycling—each neighborhood in a Japanese city designates a different day of the week for combustible waste, non-combustible waste, glass, cans, paper, recyclable bottles, electronics, and bulky waste. To dispose of bulky items like refrigerators and bed frames, a phone call must be made weeks in advance with a specific pickup date and time. It can be a little frustrating, but it’s the only way to fit 130 million people on an island the size of California without turning it into a dump.
Anyway, while preparing to move out of my apartment in August I realized I had forgotten about a few items I needed to get rid of by the following day. And by a few items, I mean three huge storage bins overflowing with miscellaneous crap I’d collected over the past five years in Japan. Included in the bins were various outdated electronics, Japanese study books, souvenirs, a small vacuum cleaner, Nintendo GameCube (with three controllers!), an air purifier, an electrical fan, and a bad bottle of wine. Before you accuse me of being a wasteful person, bear in mind that I had acquired all of these items in the same way; friends of mine leaving the country had to dispose of them ASAP, and I never could say no to free stuff. I had promised myself I’d put everything to good use, but most of it never even left the storage bin, and now I was frantically posting on Craigslist and Facebook, showing my generosity by trying to pass on someone else’s garbage to friends, family, and strangers on the internet.
Unfortunately no one was interested in my third-party rubbish, and so in my infinite wisdom I decided I would pack everything up and “bless” a few of the residents in my area with a random box of miscellaneous fun. One by one, I carried the bins four or five blocks from my apartment, each time in a different direction, ducking into the darkest alleyway I could find to stash each one beside a bike rack or underneath a stairwell. Somehow the fact that everything in the boxes was (sort of) useful made me feel justified in this decision, like I was some sort of Japanese Peter Pan.
The Tokyo police did not share the same sentiment. For some reason, when an unshaven foreigner of the brown persuasion leaves an unmarked box under a staircase and hurries away, it raises a few eyebrows. I’m still not sure why. And while I’d been careful to remove any traces of my identity from the bins, I overlooked the New Year’s card that had been sent to me my first year in Japan by my friend Sayaka. When the police received a call from a worried resident regarding a suspicious package stashed beneath the stairs of his apartment building, they searched its contents and found the card with my name and address on it. There is no such thing as the perfect crime.
When the police called me the following day I feigned ignorance as they listed off everything in the bin (It was the one with the GameCube) and asked me who Sayaka was. When I told them I was planning to return to the US soon, the voice on the other end simply replied, “If you don’t come in right now, you will not be able to leave the country”. Arrest and deportation, all because I'd forgotten to take out the trash. No wonder this country is so clean.
And so I got on the train, headed to the police station, and turned myself in. Upon arrival, I was taken into—I kid you not—an interrogation room for questioning. Two officers grilled me while a third took my photo for their records (Yes, I now have a mugshot in Tokyo), and just like in the movies, one was sympathetic and curious while the other played the role of hardboiled detective. He even had me draw a picture of the bin and where I had placed it to confess my crimes. Occasionally the door would open and another officer would come or go, and every time this happened I heard laughter from other members of the department—they were clearly amused by the situation and I’m sure there are far bigger fish to fry in a city like Tokyo.
After about twenty minutes of questioning, the officers stepped outside to talk. Good Cop must have been in my favor, because when they returned they had decided to cut me a deal: I wouldn’t be charged with anything, but I had to issue a formal apology to the frightened resident of the apartment where I’d dumped my stuff. They even agreed to drive me to his place so I wouldn’t have to pay for cab fare, and for the entire ride there Good Cop just wanted to talk about baseball. Go Red Sox.
When we got to the apartment, Bad Cop rang the doorbell and when the door opened, Good Cop explained the situation; now was the time for redemption. Moshiwake gozaimasen, I said as I gave my best bow. He replied with formal language I couldn’t quite understand, but I assume it was something along the lines of, “just take your garbage out on time, you fucking savage”. He went back inside, and the police drove me to the nearest subway station. I said my final thank yous, and bid them sayonara.
I’m really glad they didn’t find the other boxes.