Spotlight on Research: Professor Siniawer explores waste in postwar Japan

Professor of History Eiko Maruko Siniawer ’97 did not, in fact, like history as a high school student. Wanting to remedy her “ignorance,” as Siniawer put it, toward U.S. history – she recalls failing her Advanced Placement U.S. History exam in high school – Siniawer decided to take an American history course when she was a first-year student at the College. That class ended up transforming Siniawer’s outlook on history as a subject.

“That’s when I learned that history is a very interpretative discipline, that history is not just the political history of elites, but that there is such a thing as social history and cultural history and economic history,” Siniawer said. “Basically, all different ways of thinking about the world fall under this umbrella of studying the past. And that was really eye-opening for me.”

Fast forward to 2017, and Siniawer is a leading expert at the College in East Asian studies with a specialization in Japanese history. She has focused her interests on using unseen yet ubiquitous phenomena in history to raise larger societal questions.

One phenomenon that Siniawer explores in her upcoming book, which does not yet have a title, is the concept of waste in Japan. Slated for a fall 2018 release, her book delves into the multi-faceted nature of waste and how, over time, the broadened meaning of “waste” – in terms of resources, time and money – affected post-World War II Japan’s perception of various topics, including economic growth, environmentalism and happiness.

Siniawer’s idea to consider implications of waste in Japan first came about quite naturally in 2001 while she was monitoring garbage duty in her Tokyo neighborhood. Still somewhat unfamiliar with the extensive management process – she had only just recently arrived in Japan to conduct research on the yakuza for her Harvard Ph.D. dissertation – Siniawer decided to put off her duties until later, only to discover that someone already finished the job for her.

The experience left her curious to learn more about waste management in Japan, and in 2008, Siniawer began to seriously explore the presence of waste in Japanese society since the end of World War II. Although there is some literature that details the history of physical trash in Japan from the 1860s, Siniawer said that she wanted to use the topic of waste to discuss the evolving history of everyday Japanese life.

“I think what opening up the concept of waste has enabled me to do is write a history about everyday life in postwar Japan,” Siniawer said. “How people found value and meaning in their everyday lives, in the context of mass consumption and affluence. And ultimately, I think the book also says something about changing notions of affluence and wealth in postwar Japan.”

Indeed, in the 1940s and early ’50s, being wasteful was considered perilous, given the country’s issues with hunger and poverty. But in the late ’50s and ’60s, increased economic growth and mass consumption raised questions of how to best use one’s monetary wealth, particularly in the ’70s, when Tokyo’s governor’s environmental campaign of “war against garbage” brought to light the correlation between mass growth and wastefulness. In the ’90s, Japanese citizens engaged in national discussions about waste as it impacts global environmental concerns. But it wasn’t until the 2000s, Siniawer said, that there was a diversification of the kinds of issues that were seen as relevant to wastefulness.

“There continues to be interest in exploring the concept of wasting time or things, but there is also a kind of emotional or almost spiritual meaning behind waste,” Siniawer said.

Siniawer highlights this spiritual notion surrounding waste through the popularization of the word “mottainai,” or “wasteful” in the 2000s and 2010s. The word became the theme for a nationwide cultural movement against rising consumerism and materialism. Additionally, mottainai became a way for millennial Japan to “capture not just the act of wasting, but principles and feelings associated with the consciousness of wastefulness, such as regret and shame for the loss of things, appreciation and respect for things as well as those who made them, and empathy and compassion,” Siniawer wrote in her article “Affluence of the Heart: Wastefulness and the Search for Meaning in Millennial Japan,” published in The Journal of Asian Studies (Feb. 27. 2014).

According to her, such sentiments highlight Japanese people’s concerns with applying individual economic growth in such a way that one can achieve a sense of genuine happiness.

“This idea of mottainai reflected wide-ranging principles and beliefs that were thought to define what it meant to be Japanese in the 21st century, at a time when there settled in an uneasy acceptance of economic stagnation and a desire to find meaning in an economically anemic, yet still affluent, Japan,” Siniawer said.

As a result of such research Siniawer has found that there is no singular definition of waste in Japan. However, national discussions regarding waste in its various forms speak to the country’s deeper “desire to create a national identity,” Siniawer said. “The people in Japan are asking themselves, ‘What is Japan supposed to be about? What do we value?’”

While it is unclear if people in Japan as a whole are more efficient and less wasteful, what’s for certain is that the evolving notions of waste have led to increased understanding of the connection between waste and value over the years. Siniawer said she hopes the book will also resonate with American readers, as themes of waste, affluence and environmentalism affect American life as well, and lessons from waste in postwar Japan can resonate with all societies.