Yesterday, I read a post by John Milito where he mentioned (quite correctly), that people back home can just drag their Christmas tress out to the curb when done with them and the garbage man will come and carry it away. This makes disposal easy and, as he said, once it's outside, it's someone else's problem whereas you'd have to chop the tree up or arrange for special removal in Japan. Of course, in my neck of the woods (rural Pennsylvania), you more than likely had to deal with the whole process yourself because there was no trash pick-up in the boonies, but that's beside the point.
His post sparked the thought that the mentality that someone else will clean up your mess once you drop it off somewhere isn't one that is unique to America and the perception that Japanese people are scrupulously clean is true in some respects and false in others. This was a fact that was brought home to me not an hour after reading John's post as I was riding my bike to a local market and saw a man on his bike in the opposite direction as me blithely pitch his used tissue onto the ground as he rolled along. Because of this, as I rode along, I decided to take heed of all the other garbage on the roadside and sidewalk on the 4 minute bike ride to the store. While there weren't great piles of debris, there were noticeable scattered bits of garbage including discarded tissues, empty shopping bags, flyers, cigarette butts, food wrappers, and receipts.
The quantity of these items was relatively low (particularly for a city like Tokyo) though the frequency suggested that people regularly dropped their trash. This is a habit which is encouraged by the lack of any waste cans aside from those in front of convenience stores though I do wonder how much more trash receptacles would help. I say this because, despite the fact that there are 3 trash bins in front of one of the convenience stores I passed, there were discarded receipts and bags just opposite the bins. It was as if someone exited the store, tried to get their bike key out in front of the space opposite the store where they'd parked iand just dropped anything they were holding (such as the receipt they were handed upon completing their transaction) on the ground rather than walk 4 feet back to the opposite side of the sidewalk to toss their trash in the cans.
The reason the omnipresent littering doesn't see Tokyo knee-deep in garbage is that the people who work in the shops and live in the houses near such areas routinely clean everything up several times a day. Sweeping the sidewalk every morning, afternoon, and night on a daily basis provides the illusion that Japanese people, unlike those in other countries, are a bunch of incredibly tidy and responsible people. On the one hand, they are tidy and responsible about what is on their doorstep because others judge them by the look of their area. They aren't so tidy and responsible when it comes to leaving it on someone else's doorstep.
If you happen to run across an area of Tokyo which is lying fallow for any length of time (like a vacant lot), you can see what happens when someone doesn't attend to an area for a long time. Before it was turned into a parking area, a lot next to my office in Nishi-Shinjuku frequently filled up with butts, drink cans, and fast food discards. Every once in awhile, the lots owner cleared it out, but the process invariably started anew every Friday evening until construction started and the builders took over regular tidying. Also, if you leave your bicycle parked anywhere along a busy street for several hours, there's a good chance someone will drop their empty drink can into your basket.
While I don't feel that the Japanese are any worse about littering than any other country, I do believe they have an undeserved reputation for being better about it than others. They are certainly capable of just as much irresponsibility as anyone else. They just don't tend to do it in front of their own homes.