The odor is so thick it's almost visible, a purple haze hovering around the small truck. But it doesn't seem to bother the man leaning against it and waxing philosophical. "It's war between us," he says, warming to his subject. "It's like oil and water, like sharks and men, like ..."
Minutes later, Mr. Hirano the garbage man ("Just call me Hirano, that's good enough," he orders) winds up his spiel, turning back to the plastic bags lining the street and the enemy lurking unseen all around him: the crow.
What raccoons and squirrels are to North American cities, crows are to Tokyo. The intelligent, mischievous birds drive city administrators to distraction by disrupting commuter trains and nesting on delicate power lines. Worst of all, in a place that is almost always litter-free, the crows use their beaks to romp through garbage, strewing streets with a stinky mess several mornings a week.
Now the city is taking action. Since current laws forbid killing the clever birds, officials here are enlisting a good chunk of Tokyo's 12 million residents in a plan to outwit them.
Tokyo neighborhoods are having their garbage days changed and collection hours rolled back in an attempt to confuse the crows, who start foraging in the early morning. Some city wards, not content with the plan, have contracted their own private collection agencies. "In some busy shopping areas," reports Mainichi, a Tokyo newspaper, "garbage is already collected at night to outsmart the pesky critters."
At heart, the crow debate is really about the often smelly challenge of keeping one of the world's largest cities in working order. In Japan, garbage is a world unto itself.
Construction companies build whole new islands out of trash in Tokyo Bay. And Japanese adhere to elaborate garbage routines. Three, four times a week, residents dutifully cart their trash to special neighborhood collection points. Some days are for burnable garbage, others are only for bottles and cans.
Once a month, trucks come around for major garbage. It's a day many young foreigners in Tokyo liken to Christmas, because city streets are often lined with perfectly good furniture, appliances, and stereos discarded because they are no longer cutting edge.
The Japanese admit they are a "throwaway culture," but despite widespread concern over pollution, attempts to recycle and reuse are not going well, experts say. Dump space is dwindling, while disputes about waste disposal facilities have escalated. And while the population hasn't grown much, the amount of rubbish collected daily has risen sharply.
For the crows, the overflowing trash bins are the avian equivalent of a convenience store - breakfast, lunch, and dinner all within easy pecking distance. "It is a disgusting but common street scene in Tokyo," harrumphs the Yomiuri newspaper.
Originally inhabitants of Japan's mountainous countryside, crows have moved in droves to the big cities and had families. In 1985, there were about 7,000 in Tokyo, says the Urban Bird Society of Japan. Now the society estimates there are at least 20,000.
Their escapades aren't just trashy. The Tokyo Electric Power Co. lays the blame for an annual 50 to 60 power failures on crows, whose nests on utility poles cause short circuits. Farmers' crops are often ruined because crows sample their wares. Crows have disrupted bullet-train schedules by dropping stones on the tracks and have even been blamed for starting fires.
But it's the garbage problem that has prompted years of crow symposiums, crow studies, and crow experiments. In 1994, for example, Tokyoites started draping nylon nets over their garbage to protect it until collection time. It has met with only limited success, however.
"Seeing your dinner leftovers scattered all over the street in the morning ... ugh, it's awful," groans shop owner Noriko Onda. She doesn't think it would be a bad thing if the city allowed the environmental agency to kill crows for the sake of environmental balance.
Hirano the garbage man is content, for the time being, to see how the rearranged scheduling works. "But you know," he says, "those birds, they are clever."
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society