Yutori, Danshari, Mottainai and the War on Waste in Postwar Japan

Annette Gough, Centre for Urban Research, RMIT University [About | Email]

Volume 19, Issue 2 (Book review 1 in 2019). First published in ejcjs on 10 September 2019.

Siniawer, Eiko Maruko (2018) Waste: Consuming Postwar Japan. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press. ISBN 9781501725845, hardback, 398 pages.

At a time when the world’s oceans seem to be drowning in plastics waste materials, and cities around the globe struggle to keep up with their citizen’s rubbish, even that deemed recyclable, in part because China is now refusing to import contaminated recyclable materials, this book would seem to be, from its title, a timely analysis of the situation in Japan. What it actually offers is a lot more. Eiko Maruko Siniawer gives us a history of waste and a history of postwar Japan, with a focus on “how various Japanese people at various times thought about the waste they saw and experienced in the world around them” (page 5). She sees questions about waste as deeply embedded in the decisions of everyday life, reflecting the priorities and aspirations of the historical moment, and revealing people’s ever-changing concerns and hopes.

She also makes a case for thinking about the entirety of postwar Japan as one coherent and cohesive period, as the postwar period is now longer than the one that stretched from the Meiji Restoration to the outbreak of the Pacific War. The period can also be distinguished by the longevity of conservative party rule, an international position that is at once weighty and subordinate, and by a period of affluence that was previously unimaginable and a society of mass consumption that that was virtually inescapable.

The question of value is central, but what determines “value” is not fixed: “no object, use, or expenditure is inherently and unequivocally a waste” (page 4)—what is garbage to one person could, at a different time or by a different person, be recharacterised and repurposed as valuable. Indeed, Siniawer problematises the meaning of notions of waste and wastefulness as malleable and capricious, and historically situated in the acts of the everyday in postwar Japan, which imagines a virtually universal and relatively homogeneous middle class that around 90% of Japanese identify with. Waste is not just discarded matter (garbage), it can also be thought of as anything, material or not, that can be used and disused—electricity, food, money, time, energy and resources. Time is purposeful inclusion, and while it cannot be accumulated (like money and things), or reused and recycled (like resources), it is continuously being expended so it can be “saved,” “used,” and “wasted,” and it is interrelated with the material. “Not depleting natural resources can extend time horizons, being efficient can translate into earning more money and buying more stuff” (page 4). Thus, in many ways, she pursues her interest in the idea of waste, rather than the physical waste itself. This is not clear from the book’s dust jacket photograph of the garbage dump on an island in Tokyo Bay which more conveys a concern with the throwaway society and a “war on garbage (waste)” than the multilayered understandings of waste and Japan’s postwar history discussed in the book.

The book comprises ten chapters, divided into four parts, plus an introduction and an afterword. The four parts organise the text historically and chronologically—transitions of the early postwar period (1945-1971), defending middle class lifestyles (1971-1981), wealth and its discontents in the 1980s and beyond, and identities and values in the slow-growth era (1991 to present). Across these chapters Siniawer’s concern is not what she (or the reader) might find wasteful in postwar Japan rather, she is trying capture the various historical, subjective definitions of waste that have operated since 1945. Each chapter documents the rollercoaster of attitudes to waste and consumption over the decades.

Chapter 1 takes the reader from the immediate postwar period to the early 1950s, a period where the imperative to not waste anything gradually faded and the possibility that one might be able to hope for something more grew. Chapter 2 covers the late 1950s and the 1960s, a period where the wartime mindset that “luxury is the enemy” was replaced by a pursuit of “a cultured lifestyle, a comfortable life, and a bright home” (page 45). This period also saw the emergence of mass consumption in tandem with mass production, a social revolution. However, by the end of the 1960s there were doubts being raised about desirability of rampant consumerism. Chapter 3 discusses the war against waste that emerged in 1971, and which resulted in the introduction of waste classification and separation by type. Chapter 4 continues the focus on the 1970s and the growth of waste consciousness through stinginess—kechi—strategies for managing waste in the home, shopping skilfully, making things, saving energy, controlling expenses, and extending the life of goods, but as a bright kechithat preserved middle-class aspirations and achievements. However, by the end of the 1970s, there were two strands of waste consciousness. One focused on material waste, established practices for reuse and recycling, and the promotion of saving resources and energy. The other moderated or even undermined such shifts through pursuit of affluent, mass-consuming middle-class lifestyles. There was also the push for the 1980s to be a time for affluence of the heart. However, Chapter 5 describes the 1980s as a time when “waste of most kinds did not seem so immediately menacing to people’s lifestyles, and consumer desires were amplified and expanded” (page 163), to the point where Japan was seen as more wasteful than its affluent counterparts, and recycling and garbage reduction movements were circumscribed.

Chapter 6 charts how the pursuit of an affluent heart gradually emerged during the 1980s, as a supplement to financial and material affluence. This was also a period when some people started to question the superficiality of Japan’s affluence, and a time that one could choose to live “a psychologically, spiritually, and emotionally affluent life” (page 202) and seek yutori—“the time and space to breathe, to appreciate the fruits of one’s labor, and to enjoy hard-won lifestyles” (page 203). This led to the labelling of the “new poor” (nyūpua), people who felt they did not have yutori.Chapter 7 focuses on the 1980s and beyond, and particularly the popularity of a book, Momo: The Mysterious Story of the time Thieves and the Girl Who Brought the Stolen Time Back to the People, the German original of which was translated into Japanese in 1976. A review of the book in the Asahi newspaper in August 1983 asked key questions for the period: “Could people become truly happy with a lifestyle in which efficiency is everything, speed is a priority, and time is money? What was being lost in living this way?” (page 209). Momocreated a fantasy world that resonated with the readers: Momoenshrined the yutorithat was so strongly desired. As Siniawer argues,

The book deftly captured the zeitgeist of the time, tapping into dissatisfaction with the poverty of meaning in people’s lives and a desire for greater contentment, happiness, and humaneness in contemporary Japanese life. (page 220)

The last three chapters are concerned with pursuit of affluence of the heart since 1991. The growth of green consciousness (Chapter 8) paralleled the growth of the international sustainable development movement, and Japan sought to bolster its standing and image abroad by making the environment an important political issue within Japan. Recycling laws were introduced and green consumerism was promoted to minimize waste and protect the environment. Chapter 9 discusses how “we are all waste conscious now” and mottainai:

Mottainai, in its postwar incarnation, expressed attention to wastefulness, though the word has a long linguistic history of many and various definitions. In premodern times, it suggested trouble, harm, impropriety, regret, disappointment, or graciousness; in modern usage the word could mean unworthy or undeserving, as well as impious, irreverent, profane, or sacrilegious. In postwar Japan, the predominant definition of mottainai was “waste” or “wasteful”—as in “What a waste!” or “How wasteful!”—and it would come to be invoked to promote waste consciousness and to criticize waste of various sorts (page 241).

In the 21stcentury, mottainai has become associated with environmentalists’ 3Rs (reduce, reuse, recycle) and waste consciousness campaigns, promoted by Nobel laureate Kenyan activist Wangari Maathai who linked her Green Belt Movement with the Mottainai Campaign. At the individual level, mottainai raises questions about what affluence has meant for what was valued and desired, and provided “a particular angle from which to consider, redefine, and express Japanese identity” which resonated with “the recently anointed ‘cool Japan’” (page 264). Siniawer concludes this chapter with a reflection on the efforts to teach children about waste in the fourth grade curriculum, and the thought that the first decade of the twenty-first century has seen the development of an environmentalism concerned about the future which provided a new way of thinking about living in a time of stagnant affluence.

The linking of environmental education with Japan seeking an international identity reminded me of how Japanese Funds-in-Trust had bankrolled UNESCO program for the United Nations Decade of Education for Sustainable Development (2005-2014) (https://www.unesco.emb-japan.go.jp/htm/jpfundsintrust.htm) as well as various other cultural heritage, education and natural sciences programs. Without the Japanese funding of these activities many would not have eventuated.

The final chapter introduces danshari, a new technique for tidying. Danshari—a term invented by Yamashita Hideko in 2009—

consisted of three characters that were interpreted to mean: severing your relationship with incoming things you do not need (dan); throwing away the clutter that overruns your house (sha); and separating yourself from a deep attachment to things and existing in yutori, or a space of relaxed ease (ri). By practicing danshari, you could realize a kind of yutori similar in spirit to the one leisure promoted in the 1980s, but with greater emphasis on a sense of freedom, mindfulness and serenity. (page 266)

Siniawer then reflects on the impact of the earthquake and tsunami of March 2011 (3.11) on Japanese society and thinking about waste, concluding that “the assumptions about and desires for middle-class lifestyles afforded by financial affluence have persisted… at the very same time, the longing for an affluence of the heart, variously conceived, has grown” (page 292).

Siniawer writes from an American context (she is Professor of History at Williams College) so it is not surprising that, in the Introduction, she dispels the belief “that the history of attention to waste is unique to Japan, that there has existed a uniquely Japanese culture of frugality” (page 8). Instead, she points out that waste consciousness in postwar Japan was forged largely and primarily by the logics of phenomena—mass production, mass consumption, economic growth, affluence, material abundance, and environmentalism—that assumed certain forms but were not unique to Japan and actually experienced globally and with shared intensity across the developed world. She also points out that “different and often contradictory understandings of waste and wastefulness have existed in Japan at the same time” (page 9), and that waste consciousness has waxed and waned over time. Nevertheless, she sees the history of waste in Japan having its particularities, with certain types of waste being the object of especially acute attention. For example, because Japan’s relatively small geographic area, disposal of material waste was a significant issue as landfill areas were depleted, and pressure to build incinerators grew after the Garbage War of 1971, which is engagingly discussed in Chapter 3.

The first chapter opens with a scenario that encapsulates the starting point for the book – subsistence in a country in ruins – and introduces the gendered nature of waste consciousness as a theme that continues throughout the book. In late August 1945 the popular women’s magazine Fujin kurabu (Women’s Club) used its precious supply of paper to print an issueaddressing the urgent concerns of daily life in defeated Japan:

Anticipating hardships yet to come, with winter just around the corner, a member of the Japan Home Cooking Research Association (Nihon Katei Ryōri Kenkyūkai) instructed readers on how to preserve and cook what they had been summarily and habitually discarding. Even corncobs, spent tea leaves, and tangerine peels were not to be thrown out but thoroughly used for much-needed sustenance (page 19).

This scenario also reinforced the gendered nature of waste consciousness in Japan. Women were the focus of messages concerned with waste management in the household as the fulltime housewife married to the salaryman was the idealised norm (but never constituted as actual lived experience). In contrast, and again not lived experience, the workplace was constructed as the domain of men and the waste management messages there were focused on minimising waste, conserving electricity and spending time efficiently “for the sake of the bottom line” (page 10).

As discussed in Chapter 10, the gendered nature of waste consciousness messages has persisted into the 21stcentury, with the target now being striving for a good life through being attentive to saving money, decoupling money from material acquisition and seeing luxury in less material terms. Notions of the “decluttered self”—epitomised by Hideko Yamashita’s (2011) Danshiriand Marie Kondo’s (2012/2014) KonMari method—are very much pitched at women, and a middle-class lifestyle: as the feminist humor site The Toast critiqued, “It’s important to be very rich but have almost no items in your home” (page 303). Siniawer’s discussion of “gendered hearts” provides multiple instances of how women were the primary target for messages about striving for a good life through waste consciousness across the decades, and for looking beyond the material to seek happiness and pursue affluence of the heart, while there has been little emphasis on male workers to experience greater yutori.

There is much more than could be written about Waste: Consuming Postwar Japan, but, in summary, Eiko Maruko Siniawer has provided a highly readable account of both the history of Japan since 1945 and a history of waste that is cleverly interwoven. The breadth and depth of her research and her passion for the themes shows through as you read your way through the various decades. The book should be of interest to both those interested in Japanese history and environmentalism. The relationships she describes between waste consciousness and movements is society are both engaging and thought provoking.


Kondo, Marie (2012/2014) The Life-Changing Magic of tidying up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing. Translated by Cathy Hirano. Berkeley: Ten Speed Press.

Yamashita, Hideko (2011) Shigoto ni kiku “danshari”. Tokyo: Kadokawa Makechingu.

About the Author

Annette Gough is Professor of Science and Environmental Education in the Centre for Urban Research at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia, and has been an adjunct/visiting professor at universities in Canada, South Africa and Hong Kong. She has worked with UNESCO, UNEP and UNESCO-UNEVOC as well as the Australian and Victorian governments and NGOs on many research and development projects. Her research interests span environmental, sustainability and science education, research methodologies, posthuman and gender studies.

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