Throwaway society: Rejecting a life consumed by plastic (D’Alene & Jared)

The article describes Japan as the second-largest contributor of plastic waste in the world, 40% of which is single-use plastic. Disposable plastic is so ubiquitous in all kinds of products, it is difficult to go ‘plastic-less’. Japanese institutions have made efforts to reduce plastic waste. In addition, McKirdy features various Japanese individuals who strive to reduce plastic waste, such as Mona Neuhauss, who sells reusable metal straws to reduce the use of plastic straws and believes the action of using less plastic has a knock-on effect on others. The article is optimistic that Japan can reduce their plastic use because of their waste-averse mindset.

McKirdy illustrates that capitalist human activities in Japan have significant influences on the environment. Approximately 8 million tons of plastic waste is dumped into oceans worldwide annually. These microplastics pollute food chains such that the average person ingests the amount of plastic equivalent to a credit card weekly, which is an area of increasing concern to human health (Royte, n.d.). Plastic waste harms every creature in the ecosystem through ingestion, trapping animals and breeding pathogens (Reddy, 2018). This parallels the similar devastation to marine life posed by the Chisso corporations’ dumping of methylmercury in Minamata’s waters (Walker, 2010). Both examples are representations of the adverse impacts Japan’s rapid industrialisation have on the environment. Much like Chisso’s factories, plastic production is the result and symbol of tapping on industrial prowess to fulfill the modern need for convenience at the expense of Japan’s environmental health.

McKirby explains that human actions on the environment will ultimately affect humans too, as we ingest discarded plastic through consuming animals who have accumulated them. Paralleling this, Walker (2010) discusses the crippling effects bioaccumulation of mercury had on the health of Minamata townsfolk. It is impossible to segregate human activity from the environment, in spite of our technological prowess (Walker, 2010), and our actions on the environment will result in a backlash on our own health.

McKirdy points out two key issues with Japan’s waste problem: the first is the indiscriminate use of plastic packaging in most aspects of consumption. This part of the problem cannot only be tackled by those in positions of power. As Odachi believes, “a fundamental shift in mindset is needed among politicians and business leaders.” However, the issue lies in the constant obstinacy of powerful actors in changing, as reflected in Kirby (2011), wherein “sustainable development” is often carried with the “characteristic Japanese emphasis on the development half of the phrase.” This notion is best seen in the article by how businesses “only look for the answer [to sustainable practices] from within their existing business model. But the most important thing is not to produce so much disposable plastic in the first place.” In other words – there is merely a patronising performance of sustainability from influential stakeholders, but no real commitment to it.

The second part of the problem concerns the actual usage of plastics by consumers – an area where active efforts by individuals can make a difference. The “green” aspect of this article is embodied in highlighting individual ground-up efforts in tackling an issue widely perceived to be an institutional onus. McKirdy’s article emphasises the influence of ground-up action over the environment. The existence of individuals such as Seguchi and Neuhauss, who devote a large part of their lives to promoting sustainable personal habits in Japan, is testament to the promise of a revolution in Japan’s consumption practices. The foregrounding of civil society as a prominent stakeholder in Japan’s environmental efforts is echoed in Waley’s (2000) analysis of Japan’s Multi-nature-style river planning initiative. Though focused on government policy, Waley nonetheless highlights the importance of public buy-in in the determination of an initiative’s success. In McKirdy’s article, there is a cautious optimism of the power of the people. Should there be sufficient will from the Japanese public to radically change their consumption habits, and “people […] express their opinions” by taking action, it could act as effective ways of signalling that demands of the public are changing, and it would be remiss for any institution to ignore that.

Word count: 682

Article link:


Kirby, P. (2011). Constructing Sustainable Japan. In Troubled Natures: Waste, Environment, Japan (pp. 160-192). University of Hawai’i Press. Retrieved July 19, 2020, from

McKirdy, A. (2020, January 10). Throwaway society: Rejecting a life consumed by plastic. The Japan Times.

Reddy, S. (2018, September 24). Plastic Pollution Affects Sea Life Throughout the Ocean. PEW.

Royte, E. (n.d.). We Know Plastic Is Harming Marine Life. What About Us? National Geographic. Retrieved July 19, 2020, from

Waley, P. (2000). Following the flow of Japan’s river culture. Japan Forum, 12(2), 199–217.

Walker, B. (2010). Introduction: Knowing Nature. Toxic archipelago: a history of industrial disease in Japan . University of Washington Press. (pp. 3-21).

Walker, B. (2010). Mercury’s Offspring. Toxic archipelago: a history of industrial disease in Japan . University of Washington Press. (pp. 137-175).

Week 4 Hanae & Zhi Yuan

The following is a review of Amy Chavez’s article from the Japan Times.

This article is about the interaction between humans and nature on Shiraishi Island in Okayama, Japan. Amy Chavez, the author of this article, lives on this island and writes about how the residents seem to care about the environment by recycling, but their other actions portray otherwise. The article encourages a deeper inquiry into the motivation behind “green” actions. The islanders live much closer to nature and even depend on it for their livelihoods. Thus, they provide a different perspective on what nature means to different groups of Japanese people.

 The residents seem to be enthusiastic about protecting the environment through their active recycling habits. They sort their garbage and recycle their glass, cans, PET bottles and other recyclables. The recyclable garbage day comes once a month, when their recyclables will be collected. However, it seems that they only do this because they are taught to do so. They are not taught “to choose environmentally friendly products over ones that aren’t, or to say no to plastic” (Chavez, 2020) because consumption is “what’s fueling the country’s economy” (Chavez, 2020). This creates a dichotomy between what is being stereotyped of Japanese people and their mindsets about recycling. Additionally, the islanders often incinerate their waste to make room for more trash. The author argues that the islanders find this acceptable because others (namely, the factory the the mainland) incinerate their rubbish as well. Thus, islanders may recycle not because they love the environment, but because recycling is a social norm they learned from young. This idea is further supported by the strong stigmas that many Japanese people attach to those who fail to recycle properly (Quek, 2018). Recycling can thus be seen as a social ritual for affirming one’s place in society (Kalland & Asquith, 1997, p. 12). Therefore, the author argues that environmental problems in Japan must be approached socially through the use of role models and effective education.

The article also touches on more pragmatic aspects of the human-nature relationship: utility and policy. For example, while islanders occasionally initiate beach cleanups, the author believes that they do so to beautify the beach for beach-goers. This relates to the idea that the Japanese people love only certain manicured and controlled forms of nature (Kalland & Asquith, 1997, pp. 16-17). Controlled forms of nature are more readily appreciated and used by people and might thus be preserved for those purposes rather than out of a love for nature itself. This view of nature as a commodity has become increasingly common (e.g. among advertisers) and contrasts with the more symbolic form that brings to mind the Japanese people’s love for nature (Kalland & Asquith, 1997, pp. 22-23). Unfortunately it is pragmatism that guides policy. For example, the author describes how the government fails to restrict unsustainable tourism practices such as jibikiami (tourists throw large nets into the ocean to catch few large fish for barbecue, killing thousands of smaller fish in the process) while being quick to build sea walls and provide subsidies to the fishermen affected by the sea walls. By building the sea walls, islanders “feel safe”, fishermen are satisfied with the subsidies, jobs are provided for workers in construction companies and everyone benefits. This apparent focus on immediate economic gains challenges the idea of a nature-loving Japan.

Admittedly, it is understandable for people whose business and livelihood depend on nature to see environmental protection as an obstacle: sustainable practices can be costly (the article mentions that it’s cheaper to buy a new bottle of soap than to get a refill that uses less plastic). Additionally, the islanders could perceive the “environment” we try to protect as distinct from the “environment” they interact with on a daily basis. The former is a material resource while the latter is an abstract idea that they interact with through social or religious rituals (e.g. recycling). This could explain why people fail to connect the consequences (e.g. air pollution) with their own actions (e.g. incineration of trash). It does not help that the government has historically reinforced this dichotomy through their shallow, short-sighted and disjointed policies (Sumikura, 1998, pp. 247-248). By distancing the consequences of environmental degradation from the root causes, this conception of nature could cause people to thoroughly extract nature’s resources without realising that they are simultaneously causing their own demise. 

The ethnographic account of life on the Shiraishi Island encourages us to question the idea of nature and what it means to different people. Ideas of nature are highly fluid and contextual, and these ideas guide action. Thus, it is imperative to understand how groups of people perceive nature in order to fundamentally change habits to be sustainable.

Word count: 776


Chavez, A. (2020, January 27). There’s a case for climate concern but not everyone in Japan is ready to go the extra mile. Japan Times. Retrieved from

Kalland, A., & Asquith, P. J. (1997). Japanese Perceptions of Nature: Ideals and Illusions. In P.J. Asquith & A. Kalland (Eds.), Japanese Images of Nature: Cultural Perspectives (pp.1-35). Richmond, Surrey: Curzon Press.

Quek, T. (2018, April 18). Make environmental mindfulness a social norm. The Straits Times. Retrieved from

Sumikura, I. (1998). A Brief History Of Japanese Environmental Administration: A Qualified Success Story? Journal of Environmental Law, 10(2), 241–256. doi: 10.1093/jel/10.2.241