Friday, November 2, 2018

Eiko Maruko Siniawer's "Waste: Consuming Postwar Japan"

Eiko Maruko Siniawer, Professor of History at Williams College, specializes in the history of modern Japan. Her first book (Ruffians, Yakuza, Nationalists) examines issues of political violence and democracy through a focus on violence specialists, or the professionally violent. The book explores the ways in which ruffianism became embedded and institutionalized in the practice of modern Japanese politics and argues that for much of Japan’s modern history, political violence was so systemic and enduring that Japan can be considered a violent democracy.

Her new book, Waste: Consuming Postwar Japan, is about conceptions of waste and wastefulness in Japan from the 1940s through the present. By considering shifts in what was considered to be waste and wasteful (be it resources, time, or material objects), her work explores people’s struggles to find value, meaning, and happiness in a post-industrialist, capitalist, consumerist, and affluent Japan.

Siniawer applied the “Page 99 Test” to Waste and reported the following:
On page 99 of Waste, we are thrust into the middle of a war. The combatants were the residents of two different wards in Tokyo that were at odds about who should be responsible for making garbage go away, for shouldering the burdens of waste disposal. At this point in the early 1970s, Kōtō ward decided that it no longer wanted to serve as the literal dumping ground for the rubbish produced by the more wealthy Suginami: “the confrontation between citizens of Kōtō and Suginami wards ... heightened the visibility of the garbage problem even as it was about who should be obliged to render garbage invisible. In late May 1973, when Kōtō again refused to accept garbage from a Suginami that had not yet agreed to house its own incinerator, people opened their newspapers and turned on their televisions to witness members of the Kōtō ward assembly in helmets, physically barring entrance to Landfill Number Fifteen. And for at least the few days when collection was suspended, denizens of Suginami ward encountered piles of garbage spreading across their sidewalks.” This conflict between Kōtō and Suginami wards was part of a larger Garbage War—a battle against “the sheer volume and unceasing accumulation of garbage” launched by Tokyo Governor Minobe Ryōkichi in 1971.

Captured on this page is a pivotal moment in the history of thinking about waste in postwar Japan. Through the Garbage War, rubbish came to be understood as a problem of postwar modernity, as a consequence not of civilizational inadequacy but of rapid economic growth and the recent achievement of relatively affluent, mass-consuming lifestyles. Sanitation experts began to view garbage as a product of civilizational excess and their industry as one of environmental protection. And for the residents of Tokyo, waste was rendered visible.

Yet there is much about the book that is not revealed by page 99. Waste is not centrally concerned with garbage so much as it is the idea of waste—about what was considered to be waste and to be wasteful in Japan from the mid-1940s to the present day. It considers waste in terms of stuff, money, possessions, resources, and time. Page 99 does hint at the ways in which ideas of waste shifted and how they were bound up with understandings of wealth, consumption, and environmentalism. But to read the book as a whole is to see more keenly the deep embeddedness of waste in the decisions, values, aspirations, and disappointments of everyday life in postwar Japan.
Learn more about Waste: Consuming Postwar Japan at the Cornell University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue