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Reviewed by:
  • Troubled Natures: Waste, Environment, Japan
  • Julia Adeney Thomas (bio)
Troubled Natures: Waste, Environment, Japan. By Peter Wynn Kirby. University of Hawai‘i Press, Honolulu, 2011. xii, 250 pages. $49.00.

Peter Wynn Kirby refers to his book as “a penetrating cultural analysis” (pp. 2–3), but Troubled Natures would be described more accurately as a series of ruminations on contemporary Japan loosely organized around the themes of environment, waste, and pollution. Kirby’s stated purpose is to trace environmental consciousness and conduct, construing “environment” to encompass both natural and social phenomena ranging from physiological reactions to toxins, crow eradication campaigns, garbage collection schemes, ideas of ritual pollution, whaling, declining birth rates, golf courses on landfill sites, questions of identity and social outcastes to changing government policies. In linking all these concrete and metaphorical arenas, Kirby hopes to reveal a distinctively Japanese mode of dealing with contamination. Although the problems of garbage and toxic pollution, along with the social policing of “clean” and “unclean” things and people, are common to all modern and many premodern societies, Kirby’s goal is to reveal “the unexpectedly troubled natures at the heart of Japanese life” (p. 3).

An anthropologist, Kirby focused his efforts as a participant observer in two communities that he pseudonymously calls “Izawa” and “Horiuchi” in the “Azuma” ward of western Tokyo. His core research was done in 1998–99 supplemented by more recent visits to these areas. The neighborhood of Izawa was riven by controversy over a large garbage-compacting plant that released toxins dangerously harmful to some residents while apparently leaving others unscathed. Those who became ill, most of them older women, wanted the plant modified or closed, while their unaffected neighbors wanted to protect property values and community pride by downplaying health concerns. The sufferers eventually won their case, garnering scientific evidence of increased toxicity in the area, winning compensation from the government, and forcing changes to the way the plant processed waste. Less than a decade later, however, the government shut down the facility entirely due to a change in its policy from compacting “unburnable” garbage to incinerating all garbage at extremely high temperatures said to eliminate dioxins and other dangerous chemicals (p. 189). This story of Izawa’s shifting fortunes and Japan’s shifting policies appears in several installments in chapters 1, 2, 6, and 8.

The problems in Horiuchi, Kirby’s other ethnographic site and the focus of chapter 3, were different. The source of anxiety there was not a local plant but the general sense of toxic pollution spreading throughout Japan’s [End Page 249] food distribution system, its air, and its media. In 1999, a pollution scare arose from the discovery of a cluster of small, poorly regulated incinerators burning Tokyo’s waste just beyond the city’s borders in Saitama Prefecture. According to TV-Asahi, the toxins from these incinerators had contaminated Saitama’s famed spinach crop. Even when this story proved wildly exaggerated—at least for spinach—Kirby’s informants continued to feel anxieties about pollution and illness as well, he admits, as worries about the unrelated economic downturn weighing on Japan since the 1980s economic bubble burst. Later, in chapter 7, Kirby links anxieties about toxins to national demographic worries summed up in the phrase shōshi-kōreika. This phrase refers to both the declining birth rates which are sometimes ascribed to environmental pollutants (though more often to economic constraints and the changing roles of women) and also to the aging population which has little relation to pollution and might be construed to indicate that the Japanese islands are relatively healthy in letting so many people lead long lives. In grouping all these sources of anxiety under a capacious definition of the “environment,” Kirby presses us to see a world of connected worries.

Kirby’s final chapter turns to the problematic notion of sustainable development, providing an interesting update on changes in governmental strategies in the last decade. These strategies include more incineration, encouraging the recycling of large appliances and computers, and tapping into “renewable” energy supplies by burning plastic pellets made from PET bottles and by harnessing the methane gas emitted by organic matter in landfills. Kirby...


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pp. 249-251
Launched on MUSE
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