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  • "Uncovering the Waste of the World":Women and the State in Japanese Wartime Waste Campaigns, 1937–1945
  • Rebecca Tompkins (bio)

Starting in the morning of July 22, 1938, under the blazing sun, hundreds of women set out into the streets of Tokyo, searching for instances of "waste" (muda). The women—members of women's groups, such as the League for Women's Suffrage (Fusen kakutoku dōmei), the Young Women's Christian Association, and the Women's Peace Association (Fujin heiwa kyōkai), that together constituted the Japan Federation of Women's Organizations (Nihon fujin dantai renmei)1—walked through amusement quarters, parks, offices, markets, and eateries, recording on cards any waste they observed. The 883 women who participated in the event discovered 1,257 cases of waste, ranging from uneaten food to unnecessary use of electricity by streetlights (Asahi shinbun 1938e, 2).

The occasion was a one-day event called "Finding Waste in the Streets" (Gaitō ni muda o hirou), initiated by the Federation of Women's Organizations. The women organized the event in support of the government's official "Week for Emphasis on the Economic Battle" (Keizaisen kyōchō shūkan), a campaign organized by the Central League of the Spiritual Mobilization Movement (Kokumin seishin sōdōin chūō renmei) [End Page 27] to encourage thrift and frugality for the wartime economy. The week's activities were carried out nationwide, and, according to the posting for the event in the Asahi shinbun newspaper (1938d, 2), "In Tokyo for one week from July 21, frugal consumption and practical use of materials, scrap collection, promoting savings, and the like are to be implemented in every direction." Women were expected to play a large role because, as the Asahi reported, "Following the China Incident, national subjects [kokumin] are all soldiers in the economic battle" (2). The newspaper article concluded by describing these events as examples of "the great efforts of women's participation in the economic battle" (keizaisen fujin sanka ni ōwarawa de aru) (2).

As exemplified by this event and how it was reported in newspapers, during the Asia-Pacific War, Japanese women on the home front were mobilized primarily as "warriors in the economic war" and as reproducers of the nation through their roles as mothers (Ueno 2004, 44); official state rhetoric associated with various wartime mobilization campaigns emphasized the primacy of women's domestic roles, even as it promoted their participation in mobilization activities outside the home (Ueno 2004; Miyake 1991). Sandra Wilson (2006, 210) considers this tension one of the "basic contradictions" of the state's wartime rhetoric on women's duties: a clash between the state's "strong focus" on "home and motherhood" and its "need for women to be active outside the home." In this sense, wartime mobilization challenged prevailing conceptions of the relationship between women and the state. One arena in which this contradiction was evident was in the mass mobilization of women in wartime waste collection campaigns: while certain state-sponsored campaigns, especially in the earlier years of the war, loudly proclaimed the importance of "men outside, women inside" (otoko wa soto, onna wa uchi), other campaigns organized and run entirely by women were acknowledged as successful expressions of patriotism (Asahi shinbun 1938b, 6; Asahi shinbun 1939b, 11).

Waste campaigns were a major component of women's home-front mobilization during the Asia-Pacific War but have received relatively little attention from historians. A close examination of these campaigns offers numerous examples of the complexities of women's national belonging during the war years. The various examples of waste campaigns discussed in this article, organized by different groups with potentially divergent goals, reveal wartime waste-related mobilization to be a site of rhetorical contention regarding the role of women in the nation-state. Importantly, these campaigns show that women's groups and individual women were not merely the objects of this discourse but instead were active participants in shaping and contesting the processes of women's integration into the nation-state.

In this article, I use waste-related wartime mobilization activities as a lens through which to examine women's shifting relationship with and role within the Japanese state, [End Page 28] with...


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