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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.

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.

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