Nisei Mom repurposes with a purpose

Sadako Kashiwagi saves the sink water with a bucket. photo by Soji Kashiwagi

Reducing, Reusing and Recycling are known as the “Three Rs” of the current-day “Going Green” movement.

Add in “Repurposing” and you have my mom, Sadako Kashiwagi’s, “Four Rs.” She is 88 years young and still repurposing to this day.

Except for mom, “Going Green” and the “Four Rs” are nothing new. For her and many of her fellow Nisei, this is much more than a concept. It’s been their way of life and survival, and still resonates through generations of Japanese Americans, whether they know it or not.

The concept of “mottainai” or “don’t be wasteful” is real among JAs, and has deep roots in Buddhism and the Japanese culture going back centuries.

My mom explained it this way: “If you waste something, you’re wasting all the efforts of the knowns and unknowns that went into producing that item,” she said.

“Because of all the efforts of all the people something was produced and we benefit from it. We should have a feeling of arigatai (appreciation) and okagesama de. When you waste something you’re wasting the efforts of everybody and everything.”

And so instead of wasting stuff, she saves stuff. Lots of it. And a lot of the stuff she saves, she repurposes. For example, she has repurposed the classic wooden kamaboko (Japanese fish cake) board as a mini cutting board for fruits and cheeses. The plastic tofu container holds cut veggies and other items. She has used both items, along with the cardboard toilet paper cylinder, for various art projects over the years.

She uses a cardboard ice cream tub to collect items for the compost bin. A small to-go paper bag from McDonald’s also serves as a container for kitchen garbage.

Sadako Kashiwagi reuses bento containers. photo by Soji Kashiwagi

She stores bento boxes in a bin and reuses them when she gives friends pieces of blueberry mochi cake.

“I always ask them to return the bento box to me so I can reuse it,” she said.

Mochiron. Of course she does.

She also has a sizable collection of cardboard boxes, and lots of paper and plastic bags. She either recycles or shreds paper products.

“I remember we used to save butcher paper, and then during our annual family mochitsuki (mochi pounding), we would put the mochi on the butcher paper to dry,” she said.

Of course, this was in the 1930s when my mom, her parents and four siblings lived and worked as tenant farmers on a 20-acre fruit orchard in Newcastle, Calif., outside of Sacramento.

“We lived in a house so old that it had square nails,” she said. “There was no running water. No electricity. No toilet.” Instead, my grandfather built an out house and a Japanese-style bath house known as an ofuro. Back then, they even repurposed the ofuro water.

Sadako Kashiwagi (right) with son Soji Kashiwagi has spent much of her life wasting nothing. photo by Greg Viloria

“After the war, when we could afford a washing machine, we used the water from the ofuro for the washing machine, or the water would be drained and used to feed the nearby fruit trees.”

They wasted nothing. It turns out the Issei and Nisei were recycling, repurposing and composting way before it became known as recycling, repurposing and composting. In those days, what they did didn’t have a fancy name; it’s just the way it was.

As for today, she offered this advice for the younger generations: “Just get started. Everyday try to do a little bit at a time. It doesn’t take much effort. Make it a habit. And remember to use what you have, make the best of what you have, and appreciate what you have. Don’t waste it.”

For all this to work, though, my mom believes it’s going to take a collective effort.

“For the survival of the planet, each of us has to do our part,” she said.

“If everyone does this, then little by little it will make a difference.”

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