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In Japanese culture presentation is everything. And this extends not only to exquisite layers of kimono and delicately wrapped gifts for example, but packaging: heavily packaged goods, individually wrapped fruit and thousands upon thousands of plastic bags.
Here’s an example. I went to buy lunch in a convenience store: a carton of juice, an onigiri rice ball and a small bento box which the shop assistant heated in a microwave for me. In the blink of an eye, the shop assistant had put the hot food in one plastic bag, the rice ball and juice in another and provided a straw, disposable chopsticks, a disposable handwipe and a paper towel. This was a ridiculous amount of packaging for my simple lunch which I was planning to eat in my hotel room two minutes away.
So now I’ve learnt how to politely but effectively refuse this much packaging in shops. Here’s my three point plan:
1) Be vigilant. Those shop assistants will have everything wrapped up before you know it.
2) So keep alert and when the shop assistant reaches for the plastic bags make a cross sign with your hands and smile.
3) Finally you could say ‘iremasen’ (it’s not needed) for emphasis, then grab your goods before the shop assistant can do anything about it (although make sure it’s been scanned through the till first. Otherwise this would be stealing and gives Westerners a bad name in Japan;-)
At home and in Japan I carry a fold up shopping bag like this:
Refusing packaging takes practice and a lot of persistence but it’s definitely a battle worth fighting!
And finally: if you can’t refuse a plastic bag, you could at least reuse it :-