- Waste: Consuming Postwar Japan by Eiko Maruko Siniawer
Eiko Maruko Siniawer's Waste: Consuming Postwar Japan is an ambitious book on a fascinating topic but is undermined by problems in its conception and, to some degree, its execution.
In a brief introduction that gives a good foretaste of the central themes to come, Siniawer states her aims in crafting the volume. In a section headed "A History of Postwar Japan," she writes, "This book is at once a history of waste and a history of postwar Japan. … Only by examining the entirety of this period might we have more productive debates about its persistent challenges, moments of fracture, and defining qualities" (p. 12). It is certainly the case that waste has been an important and evocative element of everyday life in postwar Japanese society, and understanding how conceptions of waste have shifted over time, how policy has responded to deal with waste, and how waste overlaps with and influences consumption and identity are fine ways of relating the history of Japan since 1945. Nevertheless, these twin goals of the book—a history of waste on the one hand and a history of postwar Japan on the other—come into tension with one another frequently, and the author's attempts to reconcile the competing aims of the volume sometimes serve to limit the insights it seeks to provide.
To take one telling example: Siniawer points (e.g., pp. 9, 308 note 15) to Japan's long self-conception as a "small island nation poor in resources." This resource-scarcity discourse served as a powerful driver of Japanese policy throughout the twentieth century; its reach was extensive, influencing ideas of frugality, energy efficiency, recycling, environment, and selfsufficiency for many decades in ways that are profound and far-reaching. Yet to read Siniawer's account, this resources fixation is primarily a postwar phenomenon of postwar significance (with a couple cursory mentions of pre-1945 links). She does not seek to show how concern over resources rose from the 1920s, during Japan's growing militarism, in turn feeding Japan's sense of geopolitical insecurity.1 It is no exaggeration to say that the Japanese empire's prewar fixation on resources, particularly energy resources, shaped its actions considerably and helped launch Japan into its disastrous role in the Pacific War. The consistent freight of concepts such [End Page 163] as "resources" (shigen), of great importance to Japan's development, is one reason why some scholars prefer to conceive of the "transwar period" to take account of the continuities of such themes. Siniawer cites the 2006 doctoral dissertation of one of these scholars2 but doesn't go into a real discussion of these issues. In my opinion, it is unfortunate that Siniawer has not chosen to note the historical ramifications of such an important set of concepts, since many undergraduates—a key intended audience for the book—would likely not be familiar with them.
This brings up another linked issue. If the book is a history of postwar Japan, when does the postwar period end? Does it go on indefinitely? Siniawer mulls this over (pp. 14–15) but doesn't go so far as to give a concrete endpoint or a very satisfactory answer. One could argue that the seismic 2011 triple disasters, commonly referred to as "3.11" in Japan, offered a fine—though imperfect—opportunity to declare the end of Japan's postwar period. Naturally, there is an ongoing debate on this point and perhaps the continuities with pre-2011 Japan outweigh the differences and upheaval that the tsunami and Fukushima Daiichi crisis ushered in. At the very least, this confluence of ideas and arguments for and against would merit a thorough discussion.
The book is curiously reticent on the disasters and their ramifications. In the months and years after 3.11, Japan engaged in history's largest decontamination effort, with thousands of workers having scraped about 16 million tons of radioactive dirt, etc., from hundreds of square kilometers of the irradiated surface...