Big in Japan: A Look Inside Japanese Sewers

Let’s start out with some comparisons, shall we?

In regards to total land area, Japan is approximately the size of the US State of Montana. However, unlike Montana which is home to less than one million people (and a whole bunch of cattle), the island nation of Japan tops out at over 127 million people.

To put things into perspective, consider the fact that California, which is home to no shortage of large American cities, is only home to 36 million people. The greater Tokyo metropolis alone tops out at 35 million people, and is considered by demographers to be the world’s largest urban area.

So of course, this brings about a very simple question: where does all the poo go?

Fortunately for the island residents of Japan (myself included), Japan has one of the world’s most advanced sewerage systems. Considering that Japanese cuisine can at times be heavy on the brown rice and cabbage, this is a good thing for all of us using the porcelain throne.

Although some historians argue that modern institutions such as democracy and the legal system are the greatest Greco-Roman inventions, I have to argue that it’s sewerage. I mean, if you think about it, it’s kinda hard to elect public officials and hold judicial hearing if there are rivers of raw effluent running down the streets, even if they happen to be made of polished marble.

Not surprisingly, the Romans caught on to the whole sewerage thing fairly quickly. In approximately 600 BC, the Cloaca Maxima, literally the ‘Greatest Sewer,’ was built in Rome in order to drain local marshes and remove the waste of one of the world’s most populous cities.

Of course, environmentalism hadn’t really been invented yet – the sewer dumped its untreated contents directly into the River Tiber, which ran beside the city. Think about that when you order ‘Frutas del Mar’ over linguini the next time you’re in Rome!

Moving to the other side of the world, the Japanese were also implementing sewerage systems in all of their cities. In the Nara Period, approximately 1,300 years ago, a large and complex drainage system ran through the capital area. A few hundred years later, large stone culverts designed to collect human waste were standard features on castles and stately homes.

So, it’s not surprising that the Japan Sewage Works Association (that’s the JWSA for those of you not in the know) is able continue this proud history of poo-related achievements.

Every year, the JWSA holds a ‘Sewerage Works Exhibition’ aimed at highlighting the latest in poo-draining, poo-collecting and poo-treating technologies from around Japan and the world. It’s also a forum for poo-networking and poo-information exchange, and a time for sewerage officials to let down their hair and engage in a variety of poo-related festivities.

(I’m sorry, but as a professional writer, it’s rare that I can use the word ‘poo’ in abundance without inquiring the wrath of my editors. Forgive me if I get a little carried away with it!)

Anyway, I’m sure I can speak for everyone by saying that I’d love to be a fly on the wall at the poo conference. Next year, I’ll see if I can work my press credentials and get you some photos from the inside.

Special thanks to the big boss Justin Glow for tipping me off to these photos.

** All photos courtesy of the Edogawa River Office in Tokyo, Japan. **