Alongside the Goth-Lolis, Forest Girls and dozens of other fashion tribes that parade up and down Omotesando, Tokyo’s most fashion-conscious street, there is another group joining the urban catwalk. All in green vests, they’re holding metal tongs and plastic bags. These are the volunteers for Green Bird, a litter-collecting non-profit organisation that was started 11 years ago by city councillor Ken Hasebe. From small beginnings, the organisation now has teams in 44 locations across Japan plus overseas groups in France, Sri Lanka, Singapore and Ghana. Rubbish gathering might not sound like the next big thing but Green Bird is a unique operation that has captured the interest of thousands of young people who’d never volunteered for anything before. It has also opened the corporate pockets of everyone from Nike, which supplies the bibs, to Coca-Cola, who printed millions of cans with the Green Bird logo on the side. Although Green Bird’s main focus is “to clean the towns we live in and love”, it’s also about changing people’s attitude. “The idea is to deter people from throwing away litter by showing that we’re picking it up,” says Hasebe. The Green Bird message is clear: “Littering is ugly and uncool.”
Hasebe was born and bred in Jingumae, the neighbourhood behind Omotesando where he still lives. Lean and tanned from triathlon training, Hasebe, 41, is not your typical politician. Smiley and engaging, it’s not hard to see how he’s convinced people to give up their time to pick up rubbish. He used to work for the advertising giant Hakuhodo, before giving up a promising career to stand in local elections.
“My parents used to make me clean the area in front of our house before school,” he says. “It was embarrassing. I wanted to finish as quickly as possible before anyone saw me.” That sense of public spiritedness led him to join a youth group that set out one day to pick up litter along Omotesando. “It was hard work but fun,” he says. “People said hello, and it was satisfying. You could see the street looked better.”
Hasebe realised that the odd afternoon of cleaning wouldn’t be enough and the idea for Green Bird grew. He had T-shirts printed, drafted in friends and the weekly litter gathering began. It wasn’t long before word spread about the funky young cleaners taking to the streets. With their gelled hair and earrings, they were hard to miss.
Hasebe’s Hakuhodo contacts have come up trumps: Green Bird’s distinctive logo was designed by Bunpei Yorifuji, a highly sought-after illustrator with whom Hasebe had worked on a Japan Tobacco campaign. Other friends in the industry have contributed their time and skill to the slick, witty commercials that play on screens in Harajuku.
The volunteer team on Omotesando is a mixed bag of hairdressers, students and assorted locals. The thrice-weekly litter runs are organised by team leader Mika Arai. “At the beginning, there were days when nobody showed up,” she says. “Now we get around 20 to 30 each time.” Kohei Sakamoto, who runs his own fashion business, is a regular. “I noticed the team out on the streets and looked them up on the internet,” he says. Yuma Takata and Shintaro Hirozawa are trainee hairdressers who work in the area. Yokan is a musician with peroxide hair who lives locally and joins in when he’s not on tour. Twenty-year-old Daiki Takeno leads the student contingent. “People take some persuading,” he says. “But it’s a great way to meet people and do something for your community.”
Green Bird costs a modest ¥17m (€130,000) to run and that includes an office in Harajuku and five staff. Last year Hasebe handed over the daily running to Toshinari Yokoo, a 32-year-old city councillor, who shares his mentor’s vision and motivation. “Sometimes an npo can get things done more quickly than the government,” he says. Green Bird teams join in on local festivals and fun runs, and have been featured in fashion magazines and school textbooks.
The nationwide network has grown more than Hasebe expected. “We’re not looking to expand for the sake of expansion,” he says. “There has to be a strong team leader or it doesn’t work.” A global presence was never one of Hasebe’s goals either but diaspora Japanese have started their own satellite teams. “On any day of the week, somewhere in Japan, a Green Bird team will be out cleaning the streets,” says Hasebe. “Once people join in they start to feel more attached to where they live. It becomes their home town.”
Donning a green bib and gloves, Leo Jockovic and his army of street cleaners are met with puzzled expressions from passers-by each time they carry out a Paris clean-up. In an otherwise attractive city, this mainly Japanese expatriate team is trying to create awareness that dropping litter is not OK.
Each month the Green Bird team assembles at a central location (most recently Notre-Dame, Trocadéro and Châtelet) and they get down to work for an hour, picking up whatever should have been put in a litter bin. On the whole they are given a warm welcome wherever they go in Paris and are applauded for their efforts, although not everyone appreciates their presence. “A very small minority of people make a mockery of what we do, while others say they feel insulted that a Japanese team is doing what Mairie de Paris employees are paid to do,” Jockovic says. “But as long as we raise public awareness, we don’t really mind about the occasional slight.”
It seems Green Bird’s five-year-long Paris campaign is bearing fruit. The city’s outgoing mayor, Bertrand Delanoë, has declared war on litter. As well as ordering tens of thousands of new bins, the government is also threatening to introduce stiffer penalties for offenders.However, Jockovic and his team are not hanging up their bibs yet. They are keen to recruit new volunteers. “Everybody is welcome, even if just to take part once. Check out our website.”