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Society / Culture

Waste: Consuming Postwar Japan

(Cornell University Press 2018)

Eiko Maruko Siniawer

In this original and fascinating account of the meaning and value of waste and wastefulness in postwar Japan, author Eiko Maruko Siniawer delves into the nitty-gritty of daily modern-day life to show how the history of waste is, at its core, a history of “how people lived.” She prompts us to consider waste in its many incarnations and especially how it relates to our perennial search for well-being, or a life well lived.

Take garbage—tangible, material waste. Once discarded, it becomes seemingly valueless, yet can reveal much about the society that generated it, particularly attitudes toward consumption, materiality, and sustainability. Siniawer also examines our wasteful relationship with time. While, unlike other resources, time cannot be accumulated or recycled, it is nonetheless subject to determinations of value, often in relation to money and the perceived generation of wealth.

“How shall I live?” is a question that we all face, in varying degrees of awareness, in our day-to-day choices. Assumptions, habits, and decisions about what is waste and what behaviors are wasteful are powerful forces. In Japan today this waste consciousness is shaped less by any inherently Japanese conception of frugality or clean aesthetics than by such universal parameters as mass production and consumption, affluence and abundance, and environmentalism. Siniawer’s groundbreaking examination of postwar Japan’s waste consciousness and responsibility considers essential but often overlooked class-based and gendered perspectives.

Social history texts can often feel removed from our daily lives, all the more so when addressing concerns of another country. Siniawer’s deftly handled treatment of an issue that affects us all is both intimate and immediate, for it is ultimately about how we make sense of and live in the everyday.

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