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Out Of the Bag Ban, A New Maui Export Product?

October 16, 2011 - Ray Tsuchiyama

Since our arrival on Maui my wife C. and I jumped into the world of shopping on Maui, to create new lives in a Kihei apartment: the Maui economy must have received a sharp upward rise due our buying spree and we probably will receive a Shopper’s award from the Maui Chamber of Commerce later this year.

Earlier in our relocation to Maui, at a Kihei store my wife C. pointed out a sign: “Bring your Own Bag. No Plastic Bags.” She took a photo with her Smartphone and posted it in her Facebook page. We were intrigued by the sign, but we did not realize its real meaning. I learned afterwards that the law banning plastic bags was passed in 2008 by the Maui County Council, but the actual implementation began in Maui County this January.

Later at the huge city-block of Costco’s off Dairy Road in Kahului, we witnessed seniors pushing carts outside in the parking lot. The carts were overflowing with bottled water, frozen waffles, toilet paper, and even microwave ovens – without any paper bags. We watched – we must have appeared like spies – as people opened car trunks or lifted SUV rear doors and carefully placed steaks and chicken wings into coolers, and other items into woven and plastic re-usable bags.

The Maui Bag-Ban-Campaign appears to be working – an extraordinary experiment. I saw no groups of protestors holding up plastic bags as indispensable to their Maui-based lives. My Maui office colleagues and friends said simply: “We got used to it, and now bring bags to stores or carry items back to the car.” Of course large grocery stores have paper bags for heavy cans and slabs of roast chuck at check-out stands; some offer cash back if the shopper requested no paper bags. But in general, this new law seems to be having no major issues with the Maui population.

This Brave New No-Plastic Bag World is a radical change from our previous lives in Tokyo. At department stores one bag of green tea was first wrapped tightly in paper and placed in a plastic bag; if we bought more items, a bigger paper bag was promptly offered. In one shopping area (the “Noren-Gai” at the Shibuya Train/Subway terminus), one has to go to a myriad different shops for Japanese sweets, sushi, Western cakes, Chinese food, and so forth. If I bought one item at five stores, I would be dangling five separate plastic bags, plus some paper wrapping, as well – all paper/plastic trash back home.

Yet, Japan was not historically a plastic bag paradise. In pre- and post-World War II Japan, many Japanese used a furoshiki, or a large piece of colorful cloth to wrap purchases or gifts. During my childhood in Yokohama I recalled watching an elderly woman bringing a gift for my mother. Sweet rice cakes were wrapped carefully in a furoshiki cloth, and my mother’s friend would fold it back into a square and put it back into her kimono sleeve (totally invisible and transportable).

In pre-World War II Maui, many Japanese immigrants owned furoshiki. The large silk squares were cherished possessions by my grandparents’ generation. Most likely Japanese families exchanged gifts wrapped in furoshiki at garden parties at pre-War boutique Japanese hotels on Maui, like the Maui Grand – perhaps the largest, most upscale hotel in Wailuku established in 1937 (my late father may have gone to its opening, since he graduated from Maui High School that same year) – or the smaller, still elegant Shimamura or Wakida Hotels in lively Lahaina.

Interestingly, the arabesque patterns on furoshiki are thought to have influenced Aloha shirt patterns in the 1930s and into the classic era of the late 1940s, as exemplified by the current Maui Arts and Cultural Center Schaefer International Gallery exhibit that celebrates the legacy of Shaheen Fashions, led by garment entrepreneur Alfred Sheehan*, a genius for patterns and fabric who essentially elevated the Aloha Shirt to art.

Today, with the plastic bag ban, there could be a revival of the furoshiki to be used to wrap small items purchased at stores (not Costco-level) – in Hawaiian-Asian fusion patterns and hardy natural fiber weaving, first used by sustainability- and fashion-conscious Mauians, and then used throughout the State, then finally exported back to Japan (and globally) to be used instead of the mountains of plastic bags now cluttering the Japanese landscape – a full circle, plus a new local industry, new jobs creation, the 2011 revival of the lost world of Japanese customs of Maui.

*Furoshiki patterns in Japan originated from silk cloth imported from China via Korea, and the flowing abstract patterns are thought to designed by weavers along the Silk Road (the former glory of the bustling traders’ city of Samarkand) that led to Middle Eastern markets, so Alfred Sheehan’s Lebanese roots are intrinsically linked to the origins of the furoshiki.


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