Sunday, 29 August 2010

Silver-haired angels of the night

By now, cycling home from a bar at 4 or 5am is no rare occurrence (and I would like to point out that I often go out and don't have any alcohol, even if nobody believes that I am sober). And a few times, I have encountered some of Japan's oldest people. Tiny and permanently bent at 90 degree angles from years of torturous tea-picking, these little old people float around the streets, their silver hair agleam in the moonlight, picking up rubbish. As I make my way home to catch some sleep, they greet me with "ohayo gozaimasu!" and I think "it is NOT morning until I have slept".

But what are they doing? Do these people wake up at 3 or 4am and start their day with a stroll through the streets, picking up the droppings of a lazy younger generation? Does this happen every day? Is it a collective effort to keep the streets clean? These gentle geriatrics, perhaps vampires who feast on garbage rather than blood, seemingly swoop out of their homes as dawn breaks, silently making the world that little bit cleaner.
The sight is certainly enough to strike my heart with guilt, and general shame towards my generation as a whole. I have always thought that Japan is a relatively litter-free country, but is that only due to these uncelebrated angels who sweep our cities clean while we sleep (or drink)?

The garbage that accumulates on our street can be blamed, partly, on Japan's startling lack of bins (or "trash cans"), but I have seen too much pollution born of sheer laziness and apathy to think that this is the only reason. But I must wonder... do these elderly spirits, floating through the night, picking up our mess, really benefit us? On the surface, I see these remarkable old people, uncomplainingly working their already mutilated spines to pick up the packaging of uncaring youths (and no doubt, foreigners), possibly silently mourning the loss of a respectful age... and I think about how little we realise the good deeds that people do... people who do not call attention to their good work or ask for praise or reward. But perhaps these humble, unsung deeds create an even greater vicious circle of laziness - for if we do not see the mess that we create, not left to accumulate and stare us in the face, we will continue to pollute, like the spoilt child who doesn't stop and think about why his clothes are always clean despite the fact that he doesn't know what a washing machine is.

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