About one and a half year ago, I wrote in Greecejapan something about the, admittedly impressive, cleanliness of Tokyo and I ended its first paragraph with the phrase "it seems that an inherent need for keeping things clean is a very old affair in this land". Unfortunately (for me) I had once again underestimated the frequency with which the Japanese invent traditions; to my defense, the reason I was tricked (again) this time was that when they decide to adopt something they go so much for it and they do it with such intensity and at such length that you find it hard to believe that things weren't always like this.
I was put into my place by a TV program I was watching the other day which was saying that until the end of the 1950s, Tokyo was so dirty that it was known as "Garbage Town" (gomi-toshi/ゴミ都市). Because of the upcoming 1964 Olympic Games there was an enormous cleaning campaign which even included the army and this is how the Tokyo we know today and admire for its cleanliness came to be. For the record, I cross-checked the story and apparently it's pretty well known -there's lots of relative information online although most of it is in Japanese.
One detail worth mentioning (and which explains the picture) is that important part in the metropolis' reform played the chemical company Sekisui (積水) which in 1961 launched the "Polypel" (ポリペール) series of plastic trash cans; until then, Japanese homes didn't have trash cans. Today, 55 years later, the particular cans with their characteristic light blue color are still best sellers, they are everywhere and continue contributing to Tokyo's image. I think there is a lesson to be learned here but I think I'll leave that to the reader's judgement.
(For a bigger version of this picture both in color and black and white, check my "Japan Arekore" set on Flickr)