3 Japanese brands innovating products from repurposed waste material (Rachel and Winslow)

The article that we have chosen is titled Waste not Want not in Japanese Design, published by The Japan Times. It features three Japanese design companies which, in their own ways, have creatively innovated products from repurposed various waste materials. In this news review, we shall analyse the authenticity of these “green” initiatives, as well as the ways in which they have been presented in the article. Henceforth, we shall discuss how they reveal Japan’s relationship with the environment in the context of key concepts that have been touched upon in our syllabus.

The common underlying idea that is being reiterated brings out the Japanese spirit of mottainai, which as we learnt has been repopularized in modern times. The act of repurposing excess material that would have otherwise been disposed of, and giving them new life no doubt is a step in the “green” direction. It (ideally) ensures that there is no waste created from the production process by fully utilizing even the by-products. 

What is novel and noteworthy, however, is the capitalization of a virtue that was borne out of the scarcity of resources. Unlike in Mottainai Grandma, which aptly employs an archetypal character from the older generation where people tended to be more frugal, this form of mottainai has evolved with the times and been popularized as a trendy style of its own. We witness that in the article’s mention of the urban portmanteau, “Newsed” (New + Used) as a successful tool for marketing sustainability. Perhaps sustainability needs to be trendy to keep up with the consumerist pressures of modern capitalist Japan. 

The danger in that lies when brands miss the point. We see that in the second exemplar, the Oogiri-Insatsu project. The article dedicates most of its feature to commending the project’s comedic, almost satirical innovations which were inspired by people’s tweets, and the concept that “recycling can fuel the imagination”. Meanwhile the need for sustainability, frugality, or even basic practicality is deemed as secondary or a bonus feature, “whether [the project is] producing practical products from scrap is debatable”. Coupled with the fact that Oogiri-Insatsu was birthed by the Japan Federation of Printing Industry Associations and its PR company, one questions if this is merely another instance of greenwashing or a PR stunt. 

In its final feature, the article introduces social entrepreneurship alongside sustainability – Atte’s project is a touchingly communal effort, “selected by the local government […] as an initiative to help revitalize the 2011 tsunami-struck areas in Ishikawa Prefecture [in collaboration with] the local forestry association”. Upon light investigation, the last initiative emerges to be considerably more transparent and intentional with their sustainability efforts. In addition, the “Ishikawa-inspired designs” can be seen as a form of remembrance of the town’s tragic history, encapsulating loss, pain and the past in nostalgic design. 

One wonders, however, if the project promotes a singular idea of the town – like Minamata, will it be permanently “post-disaster”? Similarly, does it promote a singular idea of nature? In further using the all-purpose, renowned Japanese Cypress hinoki, it possibly runs the risk of creating an aesthetic abstraction that has little relationship to the “nature” of a real ecosystem, perpetuating the anthropocentric view of that nature is to be utilized by humans above all (Totman, 1993). 

Nevertheless, there is some poetic beauty to be found in the fact that the effects of the tsunami –  a humanly-perceived destructive form of nature – are being healed by other regenerative forms of nature such as the “scent and anti-bacterial” character of the hinoki. Coupled with redeeming human efforts of repurposing hinoki chippings and recycling them into paper, it is a truly remarkable initiative that almost seems to come full circle. 

(612 words)



Atte Chou Chou. (2018).  “アッテ・シュシュ – ATTE Chouchou”. Retrieved from atte.jp/chouchou/.

CMYK. (2018). “大喜利印刷”.  Retrieved from oogiri-insatsu.com/.

Kenelephant Company LTD. (2014). “Project Recycle Standard. Retrieved from: corp.kenelephant.co.jp/recycle-standard/.

Yamada, Mio. (2019). “Waste Not Want Not in Japanese Design.” The Japan Times, Retrieved from:  www.japantimes.co.jp/life/2019/12/30/style/recycled-design-japan/.