The 1980s are often characterized as the height of rampant consumerism and excessive materialism, as a time when Japan embraced its financial and material affluence. Yet this decade cannot be understood simply as one of unflinching consumption and unabashed materialism. This talk will examine how ideas of waste and wastefulness were constructed in these years to argue that there existed a certain ambivalence about abundance and affluence. In many ways, waste consciousness was more muted than it had been in the previous decade and the exigent problems of waste were to be mitigated in ways that did not impinge too much on the established expectations, desires, and practices of middle-class life. Yet in other ways, conceptions of waste became linked to the appeal of a more psychological, spiritual, and emotional understanding of affluence. It was in this time of relative financial and material plenty that thinking about the waste of time and things became integral to meditations on well-being and happiness and to a more capacious definition of meaning and value in everyday life.
Eiko Maruko Siniawer, Professor of History at Williams College, specializes in the history of modern Japan. Her first book (Ruffians, Yakuza, Nationalists) examines issues of political violence and democracy through a focus on violence specialists, or the professionally violent. The book explores the ways in which ruffianism became embedded and institutionalized in the practice of modern Japanese politics and argues that for much of Japan’s modern history, political violence was so systemic and enduring that Japan can be considered a violent democracy. Her current book manuscript in progress is on the concepts of waste and wastefulness in post-World War II Japan. By considering shifts in what was considered to be waste and wasteful (be it resources, time, or material objects), her work explores people’s struggles to find value, meaning, and happiness in a post-industrialist, capitalist, consumerist, and affluent Japan.