Troubled Natures: Waste, Environment, Japan
272pp. January 2011
Troubled Natures: Waste, Environment, Japan
Author: Kirby, Peter Wynn;
What does "environment" really mean in the complex, non-Western milieu of present-day Tokyo? How can anthropology contribute to the technical discussions and quantitative measures typically found in environmental studies? Author Peter Wynn Kirby explores these questions through a deep cultural analysis of waste in contemporary Japan. His parameters are intentionally broad—encompassing ideas of "nature," attitudes toward hygiene, notions of health and illness, problems with vermin and toxic waste, processes of social exclusion, and reproductive threats. Troubled Natures concludes that how surroundings are conceived, invoked, and enacted is subjective, highly contextual, and under continual negotiation—with suggestive implications for anthropology, social science, and environmental studies generally.

Kirby casts his anthropological lens over two Tokyo neighborhoods, comparing environmental consciousness and conduct in communities facing specific toxic threats (real or perceived). In each fieldsite, the tension between lofty rhetoric and daily practices helps highlight the practical ambivalence of Japanese environmental consciousness. Waste practices and ideas of pollution in Tokyo tie clearly into broader social issues such as exclusionary practices, emergent lifestyle changes, recycling efforts, and novel forms of energy production. Throughout, waste and environmental health problems in Tokyo collide against diverse cultural elements linked to nature(s)—uneasy relations between animals and humans; "native" conceptions of the "foreign" and the "polluted"; reproductive challenges in the face of a plunging fertility rate; and changing attitudes toward illness and health. The book’s thoughtful inquiry into the ways in which environmental questions circulate throughout Japanese society furnishes insight into central elements of contemporary Japanese life.

As for the pivotal question of how to shape environmental policy internationally, Troubled Natures reminds us that efforts to influence a society’s waste shadow must unfold over a distinctive sociocultural topography where attitudes to garbage, health, purity, pollution, and excess can impact environmental priorities in profound ways.

15 illus.

Troubled Natures is a vivid ethnographic compendium of some of the ways in which nature and waste become meaningful in Japan. Rendered in graceful and compelling prose, this work charms with vibrant descriptions—of a dead cat taken as symptom of environmental degradations, of the hidden filth of unseen toilet drains, of a golf course built on an island of trash venting flammable fumes—and is studded with erudite considerations of neighborhood life, Japanese exceptionalism, and classical anthropological concerns with purity and pollution. It provides a deeply cultural understanding of the meaning of environment in context.” —Environment and Society: Advances in Research (3:1; 2012)

“A compelling and enjoyable look into the Japanese ideology of waste and purity, the Japanese historic culture of consumption and how Japanese comprehend the modern dilemma of creating a sustainable society—particularly relevant considering recent events at the Tokyo Electric Power Company’s (TEPCO) Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. Kirby includes rich references and details that provide the necessary background to comprehend and visualize contemporary Japanese perspectives on waste, nature and the environment.” —Asian Anthropology (10, 2011)

"Welcome to post-Bubble Tokyo. A miasma emanating from a waste transfer station hidden under a city park sickens local homeowners and tears a neighborhood apart. Smart, malevolent jungle crows menace passersby and lay waste to garbage bags. Fears of incinerator fumes and tainted spinach paralyze residents of a middle-class neighborhood. And all the while Tokyoites question who among them belongs and who does not. Peter Kirby’s sensitive ethnography brings the new field of environmental anthropology to Japan. He grounds universal questions of waste and renewal in the specific context of a city and nation afflicted by economic malaise and social uncertainty." —David L. Howell, Professor of Japanese History, Harvard University

"Kirby’s long-term ethnographic study takes the unlikely-sounding subject of waste (in all its forms) to a fascinating depth, demonstrating the sociocultural complexity of environmental issues, and the crucial contribution that an anthropological study such as this can make to the broader field. Here is a novel way to understand the changing nature of contemporary Japan, through insights into the lives of residents of its enormous capital city and their struggle to eliminate environmental pollution and maintain the purity on which Japan has long prided itself." —Joy Hendry, Oxford Brookes University

"Kirby makes a large original contribution both in content and approach in this work. The scholarship is sound and the writing style is exceptionally good, even eloquent. Policy makers, urban and environmental anthropologists, environmentalists, and those interested in Japan will all find useful insights in this book. It is important for understanding the Japanese case in hand, but equally important for pointing to the necessity of considering multilevel factors unique to each society in dealing with global approaches to environmental degradation." —Pamela Asquith, University of Alberta

Author: Kirby, Peter Wynn;
Peter Wynn Kirby is a research fellow in the School of Geography and the Environment, University of Oxford, and also a member of Oxford's Institute of Social and Cultural Anthropology. He holds a PhD in social anthropology from the University of Cambridge.
Read the Introduction (PDF).

1. Introduction: Japan’s Waste Shadow
2. Perils of Proximity: An Invisible Scourge
3. Mediated Anxieties: Nowhere to Hide
4. The Cult(ures) of Japanese Nature
5. Tokyo’s Vermin Menace
6. Pure Obsession: Pollution, Outcasts, and Exclusion
7. Growth, Sex, Fertility, and Decline
8. Constructing Sustainable Japan