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Sustainability Ideas From The Edo Period
How looking back at Japan's Edo Period can help us build a circular future
“A the start of the 1600s, Japan’s rulers feared that Christianity […] would spread. In response, they effectively sealed the islands off from the outside world in 1603, with Japanese people not allowed to leave and very few foreigners allowed in. This became known as Japan’s Edo period. […]
It also meant that Japanese people, living under a system of heavy trade restrictions, had to rely totally on the materials already present within the country which created a thriving economy of reuse and recycling. In fact, Japan was self-sufficient in resources, energy and food and sustained a population of up to 30 million, all without the use of fossil fuels or chemical fertilisers.”
This is super interesting! Because here we have an example of a fully circular economy….not of a tiny community from thousands of years ago or so…, but from a circular society of 30 million people with, at the time, the largest city in the world, and from an era that “only” ended around 130 years ago, in 1867. Quite amazing right?!
In this week’s issue, I want to highlight a few interesting ideas and characteristics from the Edo Period which I think can spark a rethink and some new ideas with regard to building a circular economy today. So here we go:
The Overall Philosophy
Nature Dictates Time & Pace
“During the Edo period, a […] system was used to divide the time between sunrise and sunset into six parts. As a result, an “hour” differed hugely depending on whether it was measured during summer, winter, night or day. The idea of regulating life by unchanging time units like minutes and seconds simply didn’t exist.
Instead, Edo people – who wouldn’t have owned clocks – judged time by the sound of bells installed in castles and temples. Allowing the natural world to dictate life in this way gave rise to a sensitivity to the seasons and their abundant natural riches, helping to develop an environmentally friendly set of cultural values.”
Humans = Nature = Humans
“When we use the phrase, "Environment and human beings," it may give an impression that human beings are sight-seers looking at the environment from the outside. However, the reality is that we humans are nothing more than a part of the environment just like other animals. Therefore, we are affected by environmental deterioration in the same way as other animals. Worse, the effects on human bodies and minds from the deterioration may not be erased even if we achieve a perfect materials recycling society through advances in technology.”
Nothing Comes From Nothing
“In Japan, there is an old saying "Shobo-ni kidokunashi” […]. This old proverb can be construed as "Something cannot come from nothing," one of the basic principles of the natural world. In essence, there are no miracles in the natural world, just like no magician can perform a magic without a trick.”
“As a basic rule of natural science, when someone does something somewhere, the effect of the action does not merely disappear, but instead remains in some different form. Likewise, we always have to pay the price for the convenience we enjoy in today's world in one form or another.”
“Under the motto of "economical growth", we have blindly sought convenience and wealth, refusing to recognize their downsides and must now pay the cost that has quickly accumulated in just less than half a century. Our pursuit for convenience has created huge debts, which will be mostly taxed on our future descendants.”
Having Enough = Happiness
“One characteristic of the times when people only depended on solar energy is a low capacity to manufacture commodities. As a result, the lives of our ancestors in the Edo period were very simple--in fact, it had to be so, because once they resigned themselves to being satisfied with a simple life, they could live with small amounts of energy.”
“Even in the illustrations of novels written during the Edo Period, we commonly only find tools such as braziers and folding screens. People living in big houses put their clothes in big chests called "nagamochi" in storage rooms. Those living in small row houses on back streets wrapped their clothes with a square piece of cloth called "furoshiki" and placed it at the corner of a room or on a shelf. This was sufficient as they had only a few clothes.”
Eisuke Ishikawa further writes that explorers and colonizers who visited Japan during the Edo period were baffled seeing people who lived simply but were happy, content and had enough. For example, Harris Townsend, the first United States Consul General to Japan, wrote in this in his journal:
"But this is a poor place, where all are poor and have enough to do to live without looking to the ornamental. But they live comfortably, are well fed according to their wants, and are abundantly clad, and their houses are clean, dry, and comfortable. In no part of the world are the laboring classes better off than at Shimoda."
"The children all have faces like 'full moons,' and the men and women are quite fleshy enough. No one can for a moment suppose that they are not well fed."
- Harris Townsend
Recent Solar Energy & Plants
“Throughout the Edo Period the Japanese were living only with solar energy. […] [And] among all of the present so-called advanced nations, Japan was the last to use solar energy as its only energy source. Our ancestors built the unique Edo culture by utilizing stored solar energy (which had a maximum life of two years) and plants (which requires solar energy and is an indirect way solar energy was used). They also used solar energy directly.”
“Though there may not have been the idea of solar energy it is probable that many knew that their survival was due to the sun. For many, early morning began with ritual worship for the sun by facing the east, clapping hands, and bowing.”
“Due to the indirect and simple ways which people used solar energy technology, [they] did not use nature forcefully; modern technology requires an overabundance of power to fuel itself. Unlike these modern times people did not treat nature violently using big energy. People of the Edo period were mindful of each of their actions.”
“The life of the Edo Period is the accumulation of knowledge of civilizations that used only solar energy. It is the best concrete example of a solar energy society.”
“The key to using solar energy in making goods and materials and recycling them to the very end was the full utilization of plants. Almost all goods and materials for food, clothing and shelter were made from plants. In this sense, almost everything was made from solar energy, with the exception of stone, metal, ceramics and other mineral-based materials.
Author Ishikawa wrote that Japan in the Edo Period was not only an “agricultural country” but also a “plant-based country” that co-existed with and depended on plants for the production and recycling of everything.”
The Nishiki-E Principle
Eisuke Ishikawa, an expert on the Edo period, from whom you’ll see more quotes, explains the Nishiki-E Principle as follows:
“[…] that the intricate adjustment to individual needs can offset inconveniences of lack of quantity.”
One example of that is the Kimono:
“Kimono, the traditional Japanese attire, has remained almost unchanged from the mid Edo era to this day. Compared to western clothes, a kimono has a far simpler structure. […] As long as the fabric remains intact, you can sport a kimono from the Edo Period even centuries later with just a few simple adjustments. […] It can also be easily adapted to any occasion by how you wear it. You can present a new look just by choosing a different detachable collar on top or beneath. And there are many ways to adjust a kimono to any size or taste of the person wearing it, or to any temperature of the season.”
“Your favorite kimono can still be worn many years later by dyeing it a suitable color over and over again. This illustrates the kimono's superior longevity and versatility to western clothes that are made to a certain size, style or fashion.”
“It is clear that the form of kimono embodies the Japanese wisdom in those times to live abundantly with minimum resources. And this is exactly what we call the nishiki-e principle […].”
DIY: Buying a Product’s Materials Instead of The Finished Product
“Nowadays most people buy ready-made yukatas [a more casual Kimono], but before WWII and even up to the 1960s, the act of buying a yukata normally meant buying the material for a yukata. There were no doubt places where you could buy ready-made yukatas even in those days, but in an age when most women knew how to make a yukata, a ready-made article had far less added value than it does today, and I suspect that yukatas were rarely sold ready-made except as second-hand clothing. In households with children, it was usual for the mothers to sew their children's yukatas. After all, it would have cost money to have someone else do it, and but more than that, clothing one's children in hand-sewn yukatas of one's own making was regarded as one of the pleasures of motherhood, and also just the done thing.”
An Economy Focused On The Re-Use Of The Old Rather Than Prioritizing The Production Of The New
Lots of Repair, Re- and Ucycling Craftspeople & Shops
How many people do you know that make a living from repairing or upcycling stuff? Well, in the Edo Period such jobs were quite widespread:
“In his book, ‘Just Enough,’ Azby Brown introduces a number of the professions that led to this period of sustainability and we’ve listed some of our favorites below.
Tinkers: Tinkers were local craftsmen who repaired damaged pots and kettles. Often found carrying portable forges and bellows on their backs, they used scrap metal to repair holes and cracks that would otherwise render these essential household items useless. Scrap metal dealers would purchase unrepairable items from tinkers and exchange candies and toys with local kids for nails and other usable metal scraps they found while playing.
Paper lantern and umbrella repairmen: While most umbrellas in modern-day Tokyo are quickly lost or broken and disposed of, the raw materials that made Edo Period umbrellas often saw multiple lives with umbrella repairmen carving out a fairly lucrative niche for themselves. These repairmen would buy used umbrellas, assign a price based on the condition of the bamboo frame then disassemble, repair and resell them to new buyers. Discarded materials, such as the waterproof oiled paper would pass onto local butchers for wrapping fish and miso. With umbrellas and paper lanterns sharing essentially the same materials, umbrella repairmen would also cross over into the realm of lantern repair and often sub-contract this work out to low-level samurai.
Used clothes dealers: […] Brown says there were as many as 4,000 of them in Edo. With new clothes being unaffordable for the average family, when it came time to update the wardrobe, old garments would be washed and taken to a dealer to be exchanged for refurbished items at a small fee. These dealers would take apart kimono, dye them and reassemble them for resale, a task made easier due to the way kimono are designed. As clothes would begin to wear out, they found new life as aprons, diapers, pouches, cloths and eventually kindling before becoming ash which would also be repurposed. […]
Ashmen: Most daily items in the Edo Period were made from burnable plant-based materials such as wood, bamboo, straw and cotton. Rather than have worn-out rope, sandals, hats, raincoats or baskets end up in landfill, these items could be burnt to provide heat and turned to ash, which is where the ashman comes in. Rather than discarding of ash, households and businesses such as public baths would collect their ash and sell it to local ashmen. With ash from straw and cotton cloth containing large amounts of potassium, it was in high demand as an additive for fertilizer or for use in ceramics, dyes or sake production which created a lucrative business for motivated ashmen.”
“The cities of the Edo period boasted large numbers of specialized repairmen, and many of them plied their trade by wandering around neighborhoods, lugging their tools and calling out their services so that anyone in need of them could just pop out and call them over.”
“This may all sound like a very distant world, but the fact is that pan menders were still going around Tokyo neighborhoods as recently as 1965. [And] elderly knife sharpeners used to call at our home up to the mid-1980s.”
A Focus On Local Contexts
Living in Harmony With Local Conditions, And Innovating Within Those Natural Limitations Led To Novel Products & Diversity
“By creating specialties that are in harmony with local conditions, it was only natural for Japanese agriculture to develop tremendous varieties of products. According to historical records from the period, there may have been more than 1,000 different species of rice.
Variety applied not only to rice. The Owari district (the western region of Aichi Prefecture today) had a record of 143 types of barley, 65 wheats, 21 buckwheats, 161 foxtail millets, 75 barnyard millets, 21 daikons (or white radishes), and 24 taros.”
“Another effective method for using solar energy efficiently in agriculture was multiple cropping. The practice involved rotating different crops in several cycles within a year in the same field. As multiple cropping prevented damages caused by growing the same crop repeatedly, farmers eagerly developed unique methods for cultivation in each district.”
“In other areas with poor water resources, farmers planted crops in the order of rice, barley, pepo and soybeans in two-year rotations. This meant that the fields were only converted into rice paddies every other year.”
“Forestry, agriculture, and fisheries were not separated into independent industries during the Edo period. This was because most fishermen in coastal villages engaged in both farming and fisheries. They regarded their farmlands, forests, and oceans as onenatural resources.”
“During this period, commercial products were diverse and reflected how people adapted to climate and terrain.”
“Unlike today's petroleum-based society where industrial plants can be easily built anywhere, Edo-era people lived on solar energy which supported local product development.”
Zero Waste Thinking
Utilizing Shimogoe, Human Waste
“One of the remarkable features of Edo city is its cleanliness. Edo city is said to have been both the world’s most populous and most sanitary city, with one million people. This is an interesting contrast to the dense European cities of the same period, where people struggled with pest and cholera diseases derived from the inappropriate treatment of human waste. Populated areas like cities produce enormous amounts of human waste and ash.
Now, I want you to guess how people dealt with human waste in the Edo period. In fact, produced human waste and ash from cities were actually purchased by farmers from surrounding agricultural villages who used it as fertilizer called shimogoe. The waste was precious organic material and was an important source of revenue. This kept the city clean and helped farmers grow nutritious vegetables. I find this idea astonishing. Here is one more cool fact: apartment maintenance fees were paid with human waste to the property owner who traded it with the farmers.”
Rice has long been a staple food for the Japanese, and straw is one rice-making byproduct, the residue left after threshing rice to obtain grain. For every 150 kilograms of rice, about 124 kilograms of straw are produced. Straw was a precious resource for a wide range of uses relating to food, clothing and shelter in the past.
Farmers used about 20 percent of straw produced for making daily commodities [e.g. hats, sandals, bags, pot holders, roofs, matts…], 50 percent for fertilizer and the remaining 30 percent for fuel and other purposes. Ash left after burning straw was used as a potassium fertilizer. In short, 100 percent of straw was used and recycled back to the earth.
And there are even many more interesting insights and ideas from the Edo Period. Also, a lot that I haven’t had the time to explore yet. But if you are now as interested in the circular economy of Edo as I am, here are some great sources for further reading:
That’s it for this week! I hope this was inspiring and useful. If so, please consider sharing this article with your network!
See you next week!