Japan holds a reputation both for minimalism — embodied in Zen Buddhism and the KonMari method — and excess, where everything comes double-wrapped in plastic. Here, professor Eiko Maruko Siniawer tackles waste and wastefulness in Japan from the immediate postwar to the present.

Waste: Consuming Postwar Japan, by Eiko Maruko Siniawer,
414 pages

Once the pressing wartime concerns of malnutrition — in which waste, particularly of food, was literally a matter of life and death — passed, waste consciousness in the 1950s and ’60s primarily focused on infrastructural deficiencies. Although increased consumption was considered an indicator of a recovering economy, the country was unable to deal with the resulting physical waste, which piled up on street corners and in the ironically named Island of Dreams landfill, attracting insects and rodents. The inanimate garbage itself, rather than the system that produced it, was perceived as a “threat” to modern civilization, and citizens’ groups addressing the root causes of waste remained marginal.

In the chapter “Wars Against Waste,” Siniawer illustrates these shortcomings with an amusing anecdote about the Garbage War of 1971, in which residents of Koto Ward (which had two-thirds of Tokyo’s landfills) set up a blockade to prevent residents of Suginami Ward from dumping all their waste on them.

Siniawer, who remains studiously neutral, closes by briefly mentioning the 3/11 disaster and its minimal, but visible, impact on waste consciousness, leaving the question open as to whether this most recent disaster will alter Japan’s wasteful behavior for the better.

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