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The life-changing art

In a gift society like Japan, the sharp rise of disposable income, together with travel and the commercialization of old and new festivities such as Valentine’s Day, have swamped homes with objects. Yet to throw them away might cause bad luck. To this day, gifts and souvenirs cannot easily be transferred unless a new recipient promises to take good care of them. One housewife, for example, hated the three wise men statuettes her husband had brought back from China but worried she might be cursed (tatari) if she got rid of them. Appliances, similarly, should not be thrown out if they are still functioning and full of life. To cope with the material deluge, Japanese households have come up with three strategies. One is to have cabinets and alcoves so that the many figurines, flowers and gifts can be appropriately housed and displayed. The second is to favor gifts that can be used up, especially sweets and pickles, but also washing powder. Finally, there are fund-raising bazaars where people can leave their unused things with a farewell card, asking the new owner to look after them well, almost as if dropping off a child at an orphanage.

—Frank Trentmann, Empire of Things, 2016 (author’s note: The above draws on Inge Daniel’s ethnography of thirty homes in the Kansai region in central Japan conducted in 2002-3: The Japanese House: Material Culture in the Modern Home.)

they must have really nice washing powder

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