The Japanese House
The Japanese House

Inge Daniels

Inge Daniels is Lecturer in Social Anthropology, Institute of Social and Cultural Anthropology, University of Oxford. Author affiliation details are correct at time of print publication.

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with photography by Susan Andrews

Berg, 2010

Inge Daniels,
with photography by Susan Andrews


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Troublesome Things

DOI: 10.5040/9781526600516.ch-006
Page Range: 157–182

Japanese homes are in domestic disarray … there is no unity according to a certain theme, colour, or shape. There is no aesthetic consciousness whatsoever

CDI & CORE (1993: 289–90)
© susan andrews
© susan andrews

Domestic Disarray?

To accuse Japanese (women) of having ‘no aesthetic consciousness whatsoever’ is probably a bit too harsh. As I have pointed out in previous chapters, some of the interiors studied were decorated in accordance with a strict overall aesthetic scheme. Moreover, a majority of married women in my sample experimented with ‘native’ aesthetics in designated display areas in their homes. Still, I do agree that most seemed relatively unconcerned with creating any particular aesthetic effect in their everyday, lived-in environment. What the Communication and Design Institute (CDI) identified as ‘domestic disarray’ corresponds with what I have called the ‘eclectic aesthetic’ consisting of a blend of liked and disliked objects –souvenirs, handmade items and gifts. The ubiquity of this domestic aesthetic bears witness to the fact that taste is not purely an individual choice but that it is a practice embedded in a complex network of social and material relations (see Chapter 4). It also demonstrates that objects may ‘create unintentional consequences to which agents have to respond’ (Clarke 2002: 148).

One category of goods of which all those participating in my study possessed large quantities, whether on display on in storage, and which were frequently referred to as troublesome, is small decorative gifts. Many of these were souvenirs. In the literature, Japanese souvenirs are defined as inexpensive, easily recognizable commodities linked with a particular place that are bought home as gifts for others (Nitta 1992; Kanzaki 1997). My research (Daniels 2001a) confirms that souvenirs play a key role in the consolidation of social relations and networks, as Japanese tourists are very conscientious of bringing home gifts for family, friends and colleagues. It is generally seen more as an obligation than a free choice. This said, souvenirs are also purchased as personal mementos (kinenhin) (Daniels 2001a: 130; see also Moeran 1983) and in the homes studied both types of souvenirs were on display.[1]

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In Osaka, the Sakais offer a fascinating example because they turned their whole living room as well as their hallway into one large display space for souvenirs from all over the world. From the time of their marriage in 1971, more than thirty-two years before my study, the couple had been on a trip together at least once a year, and Mrs Sakai proudly claimed that she displayed ‘something from each trip’. Many of the Sakais mementos were immediately recognizable as ‘famous souvenirs’ (meibutsu) from iconic tourist destinations throughout Japan.[2] Examples include Shisa lions from Okinawa, a fan from Gifu, Kokeshi dolls from Tohoku along with a pair of wooden Ainu dolls and a statue of a bear from Hokkaido. Japanese tourists of the Sakais’ generation, so-called Silver Travellers, like to visit authorized, famous destinations that have established themselves as authentic places through association with famous products, commonly local food and craft (Clammer 1997: 144–5).[3] The success of this strategy is reflected in the frequency with which certain ‘famous souvenirs’ appeared in the domestic environments studied.

The Noguchis offer another example of a family that displays an array of souvenirs. Like the Sakais, this couple had travelled all over Japan, but instead of going on all-inclusive, organized group tours, they preferred to travel in a camper van that 70-year-old Mr Noguchi bought when he retired. Their many road trips are embodied in a large collection of brightly coloured paper lanterns that were attached all around the lintel of one of their Japanese-style rooms extending into their veranda. Each lantern was imprinted with the name of a tourist spot they had visited. Souvenirs with place names are popular travel mementos among participants of all ages, and they often become part of collections. Thirty-year-old post-doctoral student Sawai-san, who frequently travels abroad to attend conferences, for example, keeps a collection of stuffed animals with the names of the places he visited written on them in his home office.

International travel has steadily increased since the economic boom of the 1980s. In 2003, more than 13 million Japanese travelled abroad. The number one destination is the United States, followed by China, Korea and Thailand (AS 2004: 245).[4] The majority of these international travellers are under forty, but consumers of all ages are travelling further afield. The Sakais are again a case in point as apart from an array of famous Japanese souvenirs they also displayed decorative objects brought home from trips to China, Taiwan, Thailand, Singapore, Bali and Hawaii. Like domestic tourists, Japanese travelling abroad tend to buy famous products associated with specific countries. The Sakais’ well-known foreign products included, for example, shadow dolls from Bali, a Hawaiian Hula doll and a Taiwanese mask.

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The shopping section of any travel guide carries detailed information about must-have local products. Moreover, most travel agencies provide special catalogues from which souvenirs, associated with a particular destination may be ordered for delivery directly to one's home. The service is very popular because it enables tourists to enjoy their trip without having to spend precious time buying souvenirs or carrying the heavy load home. Foreign famous products listed are commonly foodstuffs such as Hawaiian Macadamia nuts, Belgian chocolates or Canadian Maple Syrup, but famous goods such as Venetian Glass, Dutch clogs or Russian dolls are also for sale.

Souvenir Cabinets: Objects Frozen In Time And Space

The centrepiece in the Sakais’ living room was a beautifully crafted wooden Chinese display cabinet that contained an array of famous souvenirs from China: copies of well-known Ming vases, incense burners and jade statues. The Sakais had purchased the cabinet complete with its entire contents on a recent trip to Beijing. In other homes, similar – albeit less elaborate – display cabinets, or ‘glass cases’, which are generally part of the dowry (see Chapter 5), were used to display souvenirs. The lower part of this piece of furniture consists of a number of drawers while the upper part contains a series of shelves that can be closed off with glass doors. Although a large section of the shelved area is used for displaying decorative things, some shelves may contain utilitarian items such as tableware or bottles of liquor, as well as paper documents.

Centrally placed against one wall of the Ebaras’ living room, facing a sofa set arranged around a low coffee table, stood a large display cabinet. Mr Ebara is a manager at a large Japanese car company and, about twelve years before my study, he was transferred to a branch office in Frankfurt. As a result, the whole family spent four years in Germany. After their return to Japan the Ebaras bought a glass case to display their European souvenirs. One afternoon Mrs Ebara and her 24-year-old daughter Yu discussed the contents of this cabinet with me. At first Yu claimed that these objects were her mother's and she did not know anything about them. But Mrs Ebara repeatedly stressed that these were ‘things belonging to the whole family’. Their stay abroad had clearly been a happy time and, as we went through the display, both women enthusiastically recalled memories triggered by specific objects. Some items were farewell presents from German friends, but the majority they had bought themselves while travelling in Germany and other European countries. A collection of miniature buildings – a Spanish villa, a Dutch windmill, an Italian palazzo, a Flemish Merchant house and a Swiss mountain chalet – embodied this ‘once in a lifetime experience’.

As we made our way through the shelves it became clear that many of the items on display could no longer be traced back to their place of purchase. Over time, other decorative objects had been added to the original display of European souvenirs. A number of objects on display, such as some flowers and fruits made from silk, were handicrafts that Mrs Ebara had produced in local hobby classes for housewives. More than once mother and daughter quarrelled about the supposed origin of a particular object. Mrs Ebara, for example, linked a glass flute to a trip to Venice, while Yu claimed that she actually bought the flute on a school trip to Nagasaki. Two ceramic beer mugs, which Mrs Ebara classified as ‘souvenirs from Germany’, turned out to be local copies produced by the Japanese beer company Sapporo. The identity of many of the gifts’ donors had also been for gotten and, on more than one occasion, Mrs Ebara answered rather vaguely, ‘this is nothing part icular, just a thing we received’. Soon their focus shifted to objects that needed no further explanation, such as a sign with ‘Berlin Bahnhoff’ written on it, or a piece of the Berlin wall.

Ms Kadonaga, the single lawyer in her mid-fifties, also displayed a large collection of souvenirs in a cabinet on the first floor of the house in Kobe that she shares with her elderly mother. After her father passed away, his collection of small mementos, brought home from frequent business trips, were placed in Ms Kadonaga's care. These objects subsequently formed the basis of her own souvenir collection. She talked vividly about some of her most treasured items, such as a family of stuffed Koala bears she bought on a trip to Australia, a wooden Kokeshi doll she received from a friend from elementary school and a jar filled with star sand collected on a beach in Okinawa. However, like many other participants in my study, she had forgotten where the majority of souvenirs originated from, whether or not they were gifts and, if so, who were the donors. The fact that she had merged her father's and her own collection made identification even more challenging, and a large number of souvenirs were just identified with the words ‘father must have purchased them’. Like the content of the Ebaras’ souvenir closet discussed above, many ornaments in Ms Kadonaga's cabinet were frozen in space and time, and their provenances were untraceable. Thus, the value of ornamental collections does not lie in personal meanings ascribed to each object, but the collection as a whole mediates a general sense of the past and family continuity.

Glass display cabinets generally contained a mixture of three types of decorative objects: personal souvenirs or kinenhin, gifts received from family and friends – among them souvenirs (omiyage) – and handmade objects. Interestingly, as we have seen in Chapter 4, contemporary dec or ative alcoves contain similar objects. Moreover, both glass cases and alcoves were primarily used by women over forty-five years old. Those of the under forty-fives who displayed similar ornaments tended to arrange them on open display racks. The Iwaiis junior provide an example. In their rented house in Kyoto, two large shelves stood against a wall in their dining-kitchen area; previously used to store Mr Iwaii junior's books they now contained a range of decorative objects. The two lower shelves were completely taken over by toys, a reference to their small baby; Mr Iwaii mused, ‘Yes, our lives have basically become overflow[ing] with toys.’ However, the majority of the things displayed were gifts the couple had exchanged between themselves. A statue of Snow White, for example, was her first gift from him from a trip to Disneyland, while he had received a stuffed gorilla from her. Some items they had made themselves. For example, a vase and two tea cups had been made by Mrs Iwaii junior while studying ceramics and there was a piece of textile he had dyed. Souvenirs included two wooden dolls she had received from friends who had been to Bali, and two small animal statues from a trip Mr Iwaii junior had made with his parents to Egypt. Finally, one wedding present – a vase and a letter Mrs Iwaii junior had received from her pottery teacher in Aichi prefecture – was on display. Mrs Iwaii junior called a number of other objects on display ‘ zakka’, or ‘miscellaneous things’ that needed no further embellishment.

The example above shows that the displays put up in designated areas in the home of the younger generation closely resemble those of their parents.[5] In both instances, the aim is less to impress visitors than to commemorate social relations that are important for the inhabitants. However, the young tend to idealize the bond between the couple (see Chapter 1) rather than family and other relationships that are primarily driven by obligation. That said, over time, as the networks of social relationships in which the recently married are embedded become more complex, the items they choose to display may change.

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The Tyranny Of Ornaments

Display cabinets are ordering devices through which people try to assert some aesthetic control over ornaments that they have accumulated and that continue to flow into the home by confining them to a specific space. Some tried to prevent undesirable objects from entering the home altogether by starting a collection (Chevalier 1999: 510). Most souvenir collections consist of a mixture of both gifts and personal mementoes (Pearce 1995: 243–5). They are often a source of pride and admiration because they allow their owners to demonstrate that they possess an extended network of family and friends, that they have good taste and the time and money to travel widely. A number of souvenirs I came across have been produced especially with collectors in mind. Such, for example, was the case with Mrs Ebara's collection of souvenir teaspoons with images of a variety of European cities and Mr Noguchi's collections of lanterns, small paper kites and miniature animals. Miniature figurines seemed particularly popular among male collectors. Mr Sawai (born in 1974) and Mr Nakayama (born in 1970), for example, collected plastic figurines (anime fighter figures and Buddhist statues, respectively) that were token gifts inside chocolate eggs.

Over time some collections might spin out of control. As we saw earlier, Mrs Sakai liked to create eccentric displays of famous souvenirs, but her fondness for these kinds of gifts resulted in an eclectic mix of ornaments entering their home. In order to regain some aesthetic control, she started collecting owls. Collections of lucky shapes such as owls or frogs are popular. In theory, more lucky objects could result in more luck being accumulated, but, as I have pointed out in Chapter 3, the downside of this logic is that it is particularly difficult to rid oneself of these kinds of objects. Over the years the owls have steadily increased and, although Mrs Sakai ‘officially’ stopped col lecting them a long time ago, ‘everyone just keeps on giving them’. Eventually, the owls were ousted from their main living area but they found a new home in the hallway, where they currently occupy every available space. Similarly, Ms Kadonaga's souvenir collection, partly inherited from her father, has continued to grow. Although she manages to keep the mass of ornaments under control in a display case, in her view her collection has become increasingly oppressive as ‘it is not about likes and dislikes, but about not being able to throw them away’.

The examples I have discussed above focused on those people participating in my study who, although they wanted some control over the volume and type of ornaments that entered their home, were fond of objects of this sort and used them to decorate their everyday living spaces. However, the majority expressed a strong dislike for decorative trinkets, and they were far less happy to receive them as gifts. Still, even if people did not like them or had no use for them, all felt reluctant to throw away ornamental gifts. In the anthropological literature about gifting, this reluctance to dispose of unwanted gifts is generally explained by referring to Mauss's (1967) well-known conceptualization of the gift as an inalienable object invested with part of the personality of the giver. This ‘spirit in the gift’ might turn against those who do not reciprocate appropriately. Based on Mauss's ideas, Carrier, for example, argues that many people in Europe and the United States feel reluctant to dispose of or recirculate dislikedgifts, because gifts are intrinsically linked with the giver and they embody the reciprocal relationship between giver and receiver (Carrier 1995: 26–7).

The continuing focus on the obligation to reciprocate gifts (and the need to compare rules of reciprocity with models of economic exchange) has recently come under scrutiny by those who want to disconnect the research about the gift from the commodity. The aim is not to return to a supposed dualism between both but to avoid gifting practices being reduced to economic transactions (Gregson and Crewe 2003: 177). My research similarly argues that gifting is not only about the realization of reciprocity. In other words, the fact that something was once given as a gift does not mean that it continues to refer back to exchange, the giver and the relationship it embodied. Gifts, once reciprocated, become part of the diverse material culture of the home and the meanings and practices important in the previous phase of their lives may or may not matter (Attfield 2000). In the domestic sphere complex processes of appropriation and divestment are at work. As the following example illustrates, the mere presence of decorative gifts in the interior does not mean that the link with the donor continues to be acknowledged.

The Kagemoris, intellectuals who were living together with their 30-year-old daughter Shigeko, a PhD student, in the centre of Osaka, stored many of their possessions that were not continuously in use in two rented storage spaces. However, their 3DK apartment was still jam-packed with things. Against every wall in their living-dining area stood large bookshelves spilling over with books, while even more books, magazines and research papers were piled high on the floor. Scattered among their treasured collections of books they had an eclectic assortment of decorative trinkets. The majority of these ornaments had been received as gifts from their large circle of foreign acquaintances and work colleagues who they regularly invited to lavish parties in their home. The Kagemoris repeatedly stressed that they disliked theseornaments, but ‘people keep on bringing them even if we assure them that this is not necessary’. Like the majority of my respondents, they felt reluctant to dispose of these unwanted gifts, at least right away. Because they had insufficient storage space, the Kagemoris stored these disliked ornaments ‘randomly, wherever there is space’ in their main living area. As is the case with collections of decorative objects, over time these trinkets had become part of an undistinguishable mass of similar things (see Chapter 5) that could not easily be disposed of or passed on to other people.[6] Paradoxically, the fact that the Kagemoris’ array of disliked gifts was on display inside their crowded flat meant that they had habitually to review the value of these ornaments. Indeed, the arrival of each new ornament might prompt them to rid themselves of another one that had already spent some period of time in their home.

Commemorative, Decorative Gifts And Unique Relationships

As we have seen in previous chapters, most home interiors do not adhere to a particular aesthetic scheme, and the widespread dislike for decorative gifts is generally not linked with particular tastes or fashions. The main complaint voiced against receiving ornaments was that ‘their shape remains’. Japan is an advanced capitalist society with a thriving gift economy. This system involves the exchange of commodities and plays a crucial role in the creation and continuation of social relationships. Gift occasions follow each other up in quick succession and throughout the year a continuous flow of gifts enters the home. I was told that because of the sheer volume of gifts received, most preferred to give and receive gifts that ‘do not remain’. Decorative gifts were only considered acceptable if they commemorated (kinen) special events. In the case of ornamental souvenirs this meant that they should embody special experiences such as a once-in-a-lifetime trip abroad. However, the fact that many Japanese regularly travel abroad and high quality foreign goods are readily available within Japan has somewhat diminished the unique value these goods might once have had.

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Still, even decorative gifts that commemorate special events have the potential to become problematic. One particular ornamental gift that is displayed as well as stored away in most homes studied, and which may shed further light on the troublesome nature of commemorative gifts, is the display doll. Some dolls enter the home as business gifts or souvenirs from trips, but many are given to acknowledge rites-de-passage. Gifts for weddings or sixty-first birthdays are common, but the majority of the dolls on display are associated with the birth of children. In the Kansai region it is common for maternal grandparents to present infants with display dolls for their first Girls’ (3 March) or Boys’ Festival (5 May).[7] One type of doll given, known as an Ichimatsu doll, is a realistic representation of a female or male child dressed in a kimono. This is an effigy doll thought to protect children while they are growing up.[8] First-born daughters are also commonly given hina-dolls, which are sets of miniature dolls depicting a noble wedding during the Heian period (794–1192 ce).[9] Hina dolls are seasonal objects that are only displayed during the weeks leading up to the Girls’ – or Dolls’ – Festival (hina matsuri) on 3 March, when people pray for the health, happiness and reproductive capabilities of girls[10] (see Spread 9).

At the birth of a female child, when both types of dolls are given, the dolls are strongly associated with the giver(s), as they embody female family bonds across the generations. However, as children grow up, these objects become imbued with the personality of the recipient. In Japan, as in many other cultures, there is a long history of dolls being employed as substitutes for people, and the Japanese word for doll – ningyô – literally means ‘human shape’. During the Girls’ Festival many religious centres, for example, organize ceremonies in which a pair of male and female paper dolls are rubbed against the body or breathed on before being set adrift on a river, taking the bad luck away with them. The effigy dolls for children mentioned earlier offer another example of the mimetic power of dolls, as people repeatedly remarked that, over time, the face of a particular Ichimatsu doll had begun to physically resemble the child who had the doll (see Daniels 2009c).[11] Most people in my sample thought that display dolls, which become inalienably linked with the recipient, needed to be treated with special care, otherwise they may acquire a harmful agency that is not reducible to the intentionality of people. During my fieldwork this concern manifested itself in the way dolls were stored and disposed of. A number of participants in my study covered the faces of their dolls before they were carefully wrapped in several layers of paper to make sure that ‘they do not feel crushed’ (kurushii) in their boxes. Moreover, many informed me that old or unwanted dolls needed to be brought to religious institutions for ritual disposal.[12]

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The concern about the well-being of dolls, and also other ornaments, should be viewed within the context of the specific subject–object dialectic in Japan. In short, objects are thought to fulfil their potential through human consumption. As Ashkenazi puts it, ‘the valuation of objects, is seen in their utility, that is, in their direct and unmediated relationship to humans’ (Ashkenazi 2000: 139). In the case of functional goods (jitsuyôhin) this means that they should actually be used, while decorative goods (kazarimono) are thought to reach their potential by being displayed in the home. If things are treated disrespectfully – such as throwing them away prematurely, before they have had a chance to fulfil their potential – then they might act against humans. Thus, although the decorative souvenirs discussed above are not thought to be imbued with the same powerful agency as dolls, because of their durability, these objects may also become closely linked with the recipient. Moreover, as the following example illustrates, some of the participants in my study thought that, if decorative objects were not properly used, they would have the potential to cause harm. Mrs Terayama, of Itami, for example, singled out three statues representing wise men; she did not like the statues but did not feel she could throw them away either because they might have a curse (tatari). Her husband brought these statues home from a business trip to China. When he saw them in a shop, it was obvious that they had been in there for a very long time and, because he thought they were pitiful (kawaisô), he decided to buy them.

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Hetherington calls haunting ‘an unacknowledged debt’ that occurs when processes associated with disposal are unfinished or ineffective, and ‘where questions of value are not properly honoured’ (Hetherington 2004: 170). As I have previously pointed out (Daniels 2003), within the Japanese context the belief that things that are treated without respect can act against humans is grounded in a particular attitude towards the inanimate world based on native folk beliefs and Buddhist thought. Buddhism teaches that all life forms, not only humans and animals but also plants and objects, should be treated with respect because they all have the potential to reach Buddhahood. As a further example, inShinto, objects are believed to be endowed with spirits (Kretschmer 2000: 145–8). Moreover, the concern with the wellbeing of objects generally points at an awareness of the interrelatedness of human and non-human entities, and suggests that all living individuals have the obligation to care for others (ibid.: 333–4). This specific sensibility towards the inanimate world should not be understood as a timeless, essential component of Japanese culture, but as a dynamic, changing attitude grounded in a blurring of the boundary between people and things. Indeed, one of its most recent manifestations is what Ann Allison has called ‘techno-animism’, whereby people create intimate relationships with technological devices imbued with human characteristics (Allison 2006: 12–3).

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Ephemeral Gifts For The Renewal Of Value

Decorative objects might be acceptable to commemorate specific, unique occasions[13] but, for fre quently recurring gift occasions such as domestic travel and seasonal gifting (oseibo-ochûgen), food is considered to be the most appropriate item of exchange. First, food is liked for its social potential as the receiver can share these gifts with others in the home. Although ornaments may also be enjoyed by all the inhabitants of the home, they do not enable all to actively participate in creating family sociality (see Chapter 1). On the contrary, as we saw in Chapter 4, objects are often used to negate tensions between husbands and wives or adult women in the home. Second, food ‘leaves no trace’, and it was repeatedly pointed out that, by giving an item that can be consumed relatively quickly, the giver attests that he or she has taken the domestic situation of the receiver into consideration. It is the fact that, as food perishes, no one can be expected to keep it for long, and its potential for being shared makes it the perfect gift for the regular renewal and continuation of social relationships. Colloredo-Mansfeld has similarly demonstrated that, in the Andean community he studied, the using up of food is thought to ‘replenish relationships, animating the life of a small, interwoven ecology of subjectivities, goods, and place’ (Colloredo-Mansfeld 2003a: 282). In both contexts, the ephemeral quality of food is not associated with the negative value of depletion but with the generative value of renewal.

Depending on the gift occasion, subtle distinctions are made between types of foods. For example, fresh produce that needs to be consumed fast, such as fish and fruit, is a popular travel gift. However, fresh food is considered less appropriate during the twice-yearly seasonal gift periods in June and December when many people receive large quantities of food. During December 2002 the Kuwaharas in Itami, for example, received a surplus of fresh fish. Days such as 7 December, when they received a pre-roasted bonito fish from a former teacher of Mr Kuwahara, who lived in Koichi on Shikoku Island, a pack of smoked salmon from relatives in Kyushu in southern Japan, and a box of oysters from a friend in Hiroshima, are not unusual. Others also received a large amount of similar foods, such as beef, peaches or mandarins, so that instant, dried, canned or pickled foods were much appreciated.

Although Japanese gifts before the Second World War consisted almost solely of money or food (Yanagita [1940] 1962), in the post-war period the overall quantity of gifts exchanged as well as the number of durable items have both increased (Ito 1995: 95–6). The growth of the economy during the 1970s and 1980s led to a commercialization of gifting, with big supermarkets and department stores in charge of distributing large quantities of gifts.[14] Indeed, these businesses continue to operate special gift services that assist in choosing, wrapping and sending gifts using in-house delivery services.[14] Moreover, large food and drink companies have been the driving force in the creation of new forms of reciprocity such as Valentine's Day or Christmas (Moeran and Skov 1993; Ito 1995). These new types of gift occasions, associated with relationships of affection and love between individuals, which are especially popular with the younger generation, have been discussed briefly in the conclusion to Chapter 1. However, throughout this book my focus has been on practices that are considered essential for the production and reproduction of the social, economic and cosmic order of the family. In this chapter I am therefore primarily concerned with gift exchanges conducted between representatives of a particular group or so-called moral persons (Mauss 1967).

Importantly, my research does not suggest that socially prescribed gifting is an impersonal activity exclusively aimed at repaying debts (Befu 1983) or that the gifts concerned are chosen purely for their economic value in accordance with the status of the receiver. As the following example illustrates, in practice, the boundaries between formal and informal exchange are often blurred. Like many other people also in their late thirties, the Matsuis are not that involved in seasonal gifting yet. Still, they always make sure to present Mrs Matsui's parents with seasonal food gifts. Because Mrs Matsui knows that any foodstuff given will eventually end up back in her house she generally selects two items of the same food that she likes. This is an example of informal gifting linked with filial piety that is driven by obligation, but is also a genuine expression of gratitude and intimate care.

Interestingly, the majority of non-food gifts people receive for regularly occurring gift occasions are utilitarian things that can be used in the preparation or consumption of food, such as kitchen utensils, glasses or plates. As we saw earlier, the Kagemoris in Osaka disliked small decorative souvenirs but, as Mrs Kagemori proclaimed while pouring me another cup of tea, ‘handy things that can be used every day, for example, this teapot Mrs Fujii brought back from her visit to the UK’ are much appreciated. Others similarly considered functional objects that could easily be integrated into everyday routines, such as cushions or chopsticks, to be more appropriate.[16] However, utilitarian gifts may also become part of collections that are often in use. Mrs Kagemori, for example, had a collection of ceramic tableware, while Mr Kagemori collected lacquerware, the majority of which he purchased at antique markets.

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Other examples were collections of teapots, teacups and glasses. Gregson and Crew suggest that, in confined spaces shared with others, collections may only be tolerated if they can both be dis played and used (Gregson and Crew 2003: 189). Some assumed that functionality cancelled out the ambiguities about likes or dislikes associated with ornaments but, in practice, there is no guarantee that usable gifts will be liked. Mrs Matsui in Nara, for example, who is 37 years old, regularly received functional souvenir gifts from her mother-in-law. However, she claims that, among these, ‘there is not one thing that is really useful’. From a recent trip to Thailand, for example, her mother-in-law had brought home a silk shirt for her husband and an embroidered lipstick case for her; neither Mrs Matuis nor her husband has ever used either gift. She adds that durable souvenirs are generally not of very good quality and that she prefers to buy food.[17]

A final group of utilitarian gifts received during frequently occurring gift occasions, particularly seasonal gifting, are items employed in domestic cleaning routines such as washing powders, detergents or towels. Most referred to these goods with the term shômôhin, which is translated as ‘expendables, supplies’, but which literally means ‘things that can be used up’.[18] These gifts have in common with other utilitarian items that their material form will eventually disappear through regular use. Although the various types of gift differ in the temporalities of wear and tear, so also in the nature of their eventual destruction – whether they are absorbed in other food, washed away by water, worn out while drying bodies or break while one is having a drink – their obliteration will eventually enable the creation and renewal of relationships among family members as well as with those outside the home. Of course, this process also supports an economy in which the notion of the gift is of paramount importance.

Surplus, Divestment And Informal Sociality

In the previous section I showed that gifts that can be used up rapidly through shared, everyday use are most popular for regularly occurring gift occasions. I would like to stress that ideally these gifts should be consumed. However, the commodification and acceleration of the yearly gift cycle has resulted in such large quantities of gifts entering the home that most people are unable to use them up before the next load arrives.[19] This is especially true for gifts of a more durable nature, such as towels and tea sets. As a result, many Japanese people possess large quantities of these kinds of gifts, on top of the surplus of ornaments that I have discussed above.

Because of their durable, inalienable qualities it is virtually impossible to redistribute ornaments, but utilitarian gifts, particularly food, may be passed on through a number of informal networks. As Rupp (2003) has demonstrated, in the past, people belonged to extended, informal local support networks through which food and other stock was continuously divided and shared. In rural communities this practice is still common, as the Iwaiis senior, who live in a close-knit local community south of Nara, illustrate. When they receive seasonal gifts they only keep those things that they need themselves and the rest is recirculated (mawashite ageru) among neighbours. During summer gifting of 2003, for example, when gift boxes filled with fresh produce such as oranges or noodles arrived from family members living all over Japan, they kept about half the contents of each box and the rest was passed on. In turn, the Iwaiis senior frequently ‘receive something we need from someone else’.

Urban participants also tried to redistribute unwanted food gifts among family, friends and neighbours. Examples are the Ebaras, who exchanged food with a sister who lived next door; the Noguchis, who recirculated surplus food among two neighbours; and the Kagemoris, who shared unusual food stuff with their close friend Mrs Fujii. However, the scale and intensity of the redistribution of food gifts among urban dwellers differs considerably because most do not know their neighbours and their relatives live far away (Fujiwara 2003: 25–31). As I have argued in Chapter 2, the focus of urban social networks has shifted from the neighbourhood community to school and work relationships. Indeed, quite a few people told me that they resorted to taking disliked food gifts such as coffee or sweets to their offices, where they are then placed in a communal space with the message ‘ dôzo’ (‘please take’).

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Like food, other unused utilitarian gifts such as towels or tea sets may move through several cycles of gifting and re-gifting. Some people passed these unwanted gifts to family and friends, but I was repeatedly told that it was important first to tell people that these were gifts, and to make sure that the potential recipients really wanted them. Everyone disapproved of people in positions of authority who dumped their disliked gifts on those lower in the social scale regardless of whether they actually wanted them. Typical in this are the Matsuis from Nara. Soon after their marriage, Mr Matsui received a gift set of ceramic plates from his teacher/mentor. Although this might have been a well-meant gesture, Mrs Matsui frowned upon this practice as follows:

Well, this set of plates belonged to a former teacher of my husband who said that this was not his taste and he told my husband, ‘Matsui-san what do you think, you just got married and you will probably need plates and so on.’ Of course my husband was in no position to refuse and he replied, ‘Yes, thank you very much’ (she mimicked him), and then he brought it home with him, and of course I also felt like it was something that ‘one would want to throw away but it is difficult to throw away’.

The phrase ‘things that one would like to throw away but are difficult to throw away’ was repeatedly used during my fieldwork to refer to unwanted gifts. Some disposed of these kinds of gifts through alternative channels such as bazaars and flea markets. I won't go into much detail here about practices enacted in these venues but I would stress that the bulk of gifts exchanged are ‘unused goods’ (fuyôhin). Interestingly, when discussing recycling, the notion of ‘taking care of things’ (taisetsu ni suru), discussed earlier, frequently surfaced. Most expressed a strong dis like for things that had been used and claimed they would never purchase goods of this kind. Further discussions revealed that their main reservation was that, because the previous users were strangers, they could not be sure how they had treated their possessions – in other words, whether or not they had taken care of them. This stream of thought also explains why used goods sold by professional traders are often in immaculate condition (see Spread 10).[20]

Conclusion: Possibilities And Constraints Of Japanese Gift Exchange

Unlike Maussian-based models of gift exchange, in Japan (as in Asia at large (Parry 1995; Yan 1996)) prestige is associated with receiving gifts. Those in my sample who occupy a high social position, such as teachers, doctors or company presidents, received comparatively large numbers of gifts as repayments for favours or services. This kind of upward gifting is asymmetric, as no return gift is expected. However, as the anthropologist Lebra has argued, even within unbalanced gift relationships, reciprocal gratification is possible as ‘the superior can offer guidance, protection, and benevolence – material and non-material – which the inferior needs and is willing to take; whereas the inferior, in turn, can afford to give reliance, esteem, and loyalty which the superior wants’ (Lebra 1975: 557). Still, unbalanced giving also reinforces a hierarchical structure and my ethnography clearly reveals the strong financial and social pressures placed on those at the giving end of the relationship.

One group compelled to express their gratitude for past and future favours by sending their superiors gifts are young people at the start of careers. It is common for parents to assist adult children in following proper gifting etiquette. In practice, gifting is largely a female affair as it is com monly women – wives or mothers – who are responsible for selecting and sending ap pro priate gifts to other women in order to facilitate and soften relationships between men. This is why, from a very early age, women are socialized into gifting practices and prepared for this important role (Ishii 1994: 192). A second group that is considerably burdened by the demands of gift culture are those ‘white-collar workers’ (sarariiman) who are on a low salary with few prospects forpromotion but who have to continue sending gifts to superiors and colleagues throughout their career. The Matsunagas, a family of four who live in a small flat in the centre of Itami city, are in this situ ation. Mr Matsunaga, a 49-year-old sarariiman, has worked as a salesman for the same travel agency for the past twenty-five years, and Mrs Matsunaga does part-time work to make ends meet. During the seasonal gifting in June 2003, when I asked Mrs Matsunaga what kind of gifts they received, she remained silent for a while before replying, ‘Well, you see, we are on the sending side.’

Large numbers of gifts entering a home attest to the inhabitants’ success in creating and consol idating extended social networks. They may confirm social position and status, but they also embody family cohesion and continuity. Although most people asked felt that it was inappropriate to burden recipients – especially those of higher status – with gifts ‘that remain’, large quantities of decorativegifts, especially souvenirs, continue to enter Japanese homes. One explanation could be found in a clash between gift cultures, as my data suggests that the donors of many small, decorative gifts/souvenirs are foreigners who might not be aware that these trinkets will place a heavy burden on the recipients. More importantly, as Bourdieu has demonstrated, gifting is not just a dis interested obligatory act. Participants often engage in a ‘confrontation of strategies’ that can mark the particularity of the relationship or that may attempt to challenge or transform it’ (Bourdieu [1979] 1984: 22–3).

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The surplus of unwanted goods reveals the ambivalences and tensions associated with ex change. Some of those participating in my study strongly criticized gift exchange driven by obliga tion. Instead, they idealized a more disinterested type of gifting based on the European and North American notion of the ‘pure’ gift (see Carrier 1995: 157; Belk 1995: 69). However, as the following example illustrates, these people were also aware that, to paraphrase Smith, they were dealing with ‘indebtedness and gratitude that the individual is hardly free to accept or refuse’ (Smith 1974: 132). The Nakaos, a couple in their mid-fifties living in Osaka, tried in vain to withdraw from the endless cycle of gifting. Mrs Nakao has managed to come to an agreement with her close family members to at least stop exchanging seasonal gifts. However, other, more distant kin and business relations continued to send gifts and, in order to keep their relations in order, and both their businesses alive, the Nakaos felt they had to reciprocate. Therefore, only when drastic changes are implemented from above might one be able to escape the heavy demands associated with gifting without becoming a social pariah. During the economic crisis of the early 2000s, for example, the management of some workplaces prohibited gift exchange among their employees.

Spread 9: The Dolls Festival

During the Dolls’, or Girls’, Festival (hina matsuri), held on 3 March, Japanese families pray for the health and happiness of unmarried daughters by displaying hina-dolls (hina ningyô or ohinasan) inside their homes. This celebration originated during the Tokugawa period (1603–1868) and draws on two different traditions, the first of which is a Taoist purification ceremony that originated in China, in which human shapes made out of straw and paper were invested with illness and misfortune and set adrift on rivers (Kawasaki and Moteki 2002: 58–61). A second influence is two effigy dolls employed since the fourteenth century to protect infants against evil. The first of these, the ‘heavenly child’ (amagatsu), was a stick figure that was placed next to newborn babies, mainly boys, to absorb illness and ward of evil (Baten 2000: 13). The second, ‘lowly child’ (hôko), was an X-shaped, textile doll, associated with girls, which was considered to capture evil spirits who would mistake the doll for the baby (ibid.: 37).

From mid-February until early March most participants in my study with unmarried daughters displayed sets of miniature dolls. Some families, such as the Matsuis, the Kuwaharas and the Takahashis, set up a tiered platform (hina dana) covered with a velvet cloth on which they arranged an elaborate display of dolls depicting a royal wedding from the Heian period (794–1185). The married couple is placed prominently on the top shelf, while the other shelves contain an extended entourage of court ladies, pages, soldiers and musicians, each with their appropriate tools, as well as a miniature version of a ‘traditional’ bride's trousseau. It is significant that the dolls depict a wedding, as marriage was – and still is – considered to be the wished-for, and often the only acceptable, path for girls in Japan (see Chapters 3 and 4).

These seasonal dolls are yet another type of domestic object that embodies female family bonds as they are generally given by maternal grandparents to first-born daughters for their first Dolls’ Festival. Ornate sets of dolls are expensive purchases that take up a lot of space in the home, and during my fieldwork displays consisting only of the married couple were most common. Moreover, over time, as girls grow older, those families who possess ornate displays felt less inclined to go through the trouble of putting them up. Still, all families with unmarried daughters continued to display at least a pair of miniaturehina-dolls, while many referred to the widespread belief that if one does not display any dolls (or if one forgets to the take display down at the end of the festival) girls might remain single forever.

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Because the display is thought to assist women in finding a husband, upon marriage the dolls may be left behind in the parental home where they quickly become part of the surplus of unused, stored away goods. However, about half the married women in my sample had kept their dolls and displayed them once they had children of their own. Indeed, some doll displays consisted of a collection of dolls and accessories belonging to several generations of women. For her 4-year-old daughter Nao's Dolls’ Festival in 2003, for example, Mrs Matsui put up her own complete set of dolls as well as a series of miniature tools that had belonged to her mother and grandmother. When Nao was born, she did not receive hina-dolls, but her grandmother bought her an Ichimatsu doll, a realistic female doll dressed in traditional attire that is kept in a glass display case and which generally stays with and protects girls until they marry (see Chapter 6). During the Dolls’ Festival this doll is given a prominent place next to the tiered display platform with the miniature dolls.

Interestingly, single women were most eager to show me their hina-dolls. Ms Kadonaga, the 55-year-old, single lawyer in Kobe, for example, considered her dolls to be among her most treasured possessions. She stored them away very carefully, each doll individually wrapped in its own box. She is particularly fond of a clay pair of hina-dolls and an Ichimatsu doll, which belonged to her mother, and whose kimono was made by her grandmother. Ms Kadonaga, like the four other single women in my sample, continued to put up hina-displays throughout their lives, and some even went as far as to refer to their hina-dolls as their children. These examples illustrate that some material excess in the home may be caused by blockages in the circulation of women, as single women are unable to pass on their dolls to the next generation, while over time they will become inalienable possessions the disposal of which would be inconceivable.

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Spread 10: Recycling Domestic Goods

I had this toaster for 6 years but I have not used it once. It turned old all by its self. Isn’t that sad. Please cherish it while you use it.

The text above is the farewell note attached to a toaster that I acquired for ¥100 (about 50 pence) in March 2003 at a bazaar held for incoming students at Kyoto University. It sums up two key issues surrounding the disposal and recycling of goods in Japan. Firstly, a large percentage of goods that are traded at temporary retail-sites such as bazaars and flea markets are functional items that are either new or in pristine condition and, secondly, many people express concern about the wellbeing of things.

Bazaars are fund-raising events held by organizations such as schools or churches, but also more informal groups such as clubs for the elderly or housewives associations. The majority of the goods that change hands at local bazaars are unused domestic goods, mainly unwanted gifts. Most participants in my study donated functional gifts still wrapped in cellophane boxes; towels were most common, but some gave boxes of washing powder or sets of plates. The divestment of decorative goods through the second-hand arena also occurs, but this is more challenging because ornaments cannot be used up quickly through shared consumption and will remain in the new owner's home for a considerable period of time (see Chapter 6).

Gregson and Crewe single out charity as one reason why their UK informants try to dispose of goods in the second-hand arena (Gregson and Crewe 2003: 123–4). The City Recycle Committee, a voluntary organization that collects and repairs goods for recycling within the Kyoto area, yearly supplies the goods for the Kyoto University bazaar. However, in Japan philanthropy towards people outside one's immediate social networks is unusual (Befu 1983: 454). The focus of social life is on specific relationships, driven by both obligation and sentiment, as opposed to a more universal orientation driven by the ideology of disinterested giving that is common in Europe and North America (Parry 1985: 467). Most people I worked with saw ‘donating’ goods to bazaars as an obligation, and the pressures involved can be considerable for those who do not possess large stocks of ‘unused goods’ (fuyôhin). Indeed, although it is also acceptable to donate handmade goods, some younger housewives feel pressured into buying new goods to donate.

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Making money has been defined as another major impetus for trading in second-hand goods (Gregson and Crewe 2003). At Japanese flea markets, unused gifts are indeed exchanged for money, but the amount asked tends to be minute. Takahashi Yasuko's most popular merchandise was washing powders and bath salts. The latter, for example, only cost ¥100 (about 50 pence) for three packs. Mrs Matsui, who has enjoyed frequenting flea markets since her university days (see Chapter 1), sells unused gifts sets for ¥500 (about £2.50) each, which is about one-tenth of their original price. The Japanese sociologist Tatsumi argues that recycling is about ‘the circulation of feelings and things’. Because objects are thought to be able to reach their potential through human consumption, those divesting of their own things in temporary retail environments are pleased that ‘there seem to be people who think they would like to use them and are willing to even pay a bit of money to do so’ (Tatsumi 2002: 150). Both Mrs Matsui and Takahashi Yasuko expressed their joy because people actually wanted to pay a little bit of money for their unused gifts.

I am cautious about overstating this concern with the inanimate world as the main incentive to dispose of unused gifts at flea markets is sociality. Flea markets, modelled after garage sales held in the United States, have been organized in Japan since the end of the 1970s. From the start they were popular among young people who saw them as a form of ‘recreation’ and ‘communication’(CDI & CORE 1987: 97–9). In October 2003, Mrs Matsui persuaded two housewives she met through her daughter's kindergarten to set up stall at a local flea market. Once the three women had arranged their merchandise on plastic sheets, they sat in portable chairs and spend the next four hours chatting, drinking tea and eating snacks, only occasionally interrupted by the performance of selling things.

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[1] Most Western literature about tourism assumes that souvenirs are primarily purchased for personal consumption and that they have a commemorative function (Littrell et al., 1993: 198, Shenhav-Keller, 1995: 149–51). A notable exception is the study by Mars and Mars (2000) of ceramic souvenirs from Blackpool, which were bought by working-class women between 1880 and the 1950s as gifts for their mothers (ibid.: 99–100)

[2] Meibutsu literally means ‘things (butsu) for which an area is famous (mei)’. The first famous durable souvenirs were crafts that were small, light and not too fragile to be transported on foot (Kanzaki 1997: 148)

[3] As early as the seventeenth century a Japanese consumer culture developed around travel to famous places Knowledge about these places was circulated through all strata of the population via travel diaries and collections of visual representations, such a woodblock prints (Shirahata 1995: 60)

[4] In 2003 SARS had a negative impact on international travel. However, in the other years between 2000 and 2004 approximately 17 million Japanese travelled abroad. This said, this is still only seventeen per cent of the population, and for most Japanese foreign travel remains very expensive. A traveller spends on average ¥169, 000 (about £850) to travel abroad, while average costs for a domestic trip are only ¥29, 500 (about £150) (AS 2004: 244 and 2006: 255)

[5] All families studied possessed a large number of photographs, but except from formal pictures taken at special events such as graduations, these were generally stored away in albums. The placing of informal snapshots in the domestic interior is a relatively new practice that is most common among the younger generation. This topic would merit further investigation

[6] By contrast, those decorative gifts that they appreciate were given a prominent space in their home. A colourful painting, ‘by a famous artist’, which they had received from a Mexican friend, for example, hung on the wall above their dining table, where they spent most of their time

[7] Although boys also receive dolls, the correlation between girls and dolls is much stronger

[8] Ichimatsu dolls have been produced since the eighteenth century. Their head consists of a mixture of sawdust and glue with a special coating and the body is made of papier-mâché or wood with textile joints The hair is either real human hair or silk, and they have glass eyes. The dolls wear kimonos as they are realistic representations of children clothed in the outfits they traditionally wear to visit religious centres to celebrate their third, fifth and seventh birthdays (Baten 2000: 107). Initially Ichimatsu dolls were used as toys, but these days they are expensive crafts placed in glass cases and commonly displayed in Japanese-style rooms. During May 2003 an exhibition and sale of Kyoto Ichimatsu dolls was held at the Maruzen bookstore in Kyoto City. Prices for standard-size dolls started at ¥40, 000 (about £200), but some dolls cost more than ¥100, 000 (about £500)

[9] The origin of the word hina is hiina or ‘miniature objects’. Originally miniature dolls made of paper or clay were used as embodiments of the deities during religious ceremonies (Mingu Jiten 1997: 477)

[10] Although in principle hina-dolls are not toys, in some homes sets had become damaged or incomplete through years of handling by children and grandchildren

[11] This focus on the mimetic quality of faces should be seen in the light of common associations between the face and personhood in Japan (see Schattschneider 2004: 148–9)

[12] Temples all over Japan regularly organize special memorial services for dolls in which they are ritually burned. In recent years these photogenic ceremonies have become hugely popular tourist events

[13] For most lifecycle events money is the preferred gift. Because of its unambiguous exchange value, money can easily be assessed within a series of past gifts given and received (Brumann 2000: 238). Depending on the age of the giver and his/her relationship with the recipient clear rules exist about the appropriate amount of money given (Kuraishi et al. 2000: 148). The presentation of money adheres to strict rules: bills need to be brand new, given in an odd, auspicious, number and they have to be placed in an envelope appropriately decorated for the occasion

[14] The commodification and professionalization of Japanese gift exchange has been largely ignored in pub lica tions before 1985 (Befu 1966, 1983; Lebra 1975). One reason for this might be that this is a relatively new phenomenon that only occurred during the late 1970s (Ito 1995: 113–8; Ishii 1994: 190) How ever, another reason for the lack of interest in this important aspect of exchange is that Japanese research about gifting has been dominated by attempts to link contemporary gift exchange with the food-commensality model developed by folklorists during the first half of the twentieth century. We have to wait until 1995 for a concise study that places Japanese gifting within broader anthropological gift theories and critiques the strong focus on the exchange of food (Ito 1995). Finally, considering that Japan is an interesting example of a contemporary gift society, it is surprising that the first comprehensive English-language study about contemporary gift practices based on long-term fieldwork was only published in 2003 (Rupp 2003). Rupp's work offers an array of interesting ethnographic examples of how people negotiate the contradictions and pressures of gift exchange. However, her conclusions do not extend far beyond challenging the much-discussed gift/commodity distinction. Of course, many readers might recall Hendry's 1993 study about presentation in Japanese gift exchange. Although her work sheds light on the wrapping and circulation of utilitarian gifts such as towels, its overall focus differs considerably from my research as Hendry endeavours to demonstrate that ‘wrapping’ is a form of non-verbal communication characteristic of most aspects of Japanese life, such as the wrapping of space, thoughts and the body

[14] During my fieldwork some gifts continued to be personally delivered. Most commonly these were from neighbours or friends who would drop by to hand over small gifts, primarily souvenirs, casually

[16] A large percentage of these kind of gifts are ‘return-gifts’ (oiwai no okaeshi) for money given at lifecycle events or important personal occasions. These goods are generally less ephemeral, but because they can easily be integrated into domestic routines their form will eventually disappear through use (Daniels 2009a)

[17] During a previous ethnography about Japanese tourism (Daniels 2001a) I found that retailers sold certain souvenirs of less reputable quality because their main customers were schoolchildren with little money to spare

[18] The verb shôhi as well as shômô can be translated as ‘consumption’, but the former has the connotation of spending and refers to the act of purchase while the latter refers to the actual physicality of using up things

[19] Moeran and Skov have eloquently summarized the scale of the yearly Japanese gift cycle as follows Christmas leads to New Year, which itself is linked with the Coming of Age Day (15 January), which leads to Valentine's Day, which is inseparable from White Day (11 March) which harks back to Girl's Day (3 March) and forwards to Boy's Day (5 May), which themselves are part of Mother’s Day (10 May), not to mention Father's Day (6 June), or Old People's Day (15 September), and so on and so on. (1993: 123–4)

[20] Most people were less resistant to buying second-hand durable goods that the previous owner had only had a short relationship with, such as books or childrens’ clothes and toys. Gregson and Crewe have also pointed to the popularity of these three commodity types among the participants in their UK study who recycled them as a reaction against the wastefulness of the first cycle of consumption (2003: 126) By contrast, none of those participating in my study expressed a similar concern about the ethics of consumption, but the potential danger of objects that have been neglected for a long time was frequently highlighted