View of a traditional Japanese village

The Quadra Project: Edo Japan

Maybe Edo Japan is an echo of our better past and can be a model for our better future. It was a period in Japanese history began with the consolidation of power by Tokugawa Ieyasu in 1603 and lasted until 1867, an ending that came as a result of the destabilizing effects of American and European traders who forced an isolated and sustainable Japan into the world of 19th century commerce and values.

The beginning of the Edo Period, as the Tokugawa Shogunate is known, brought to an end a century of political and military struggle among feudal lords (daimyo) that had left Japan in economic, social and environmental chaos. Internal warfare had created massive poverty as well as social disorder, and badly managed resources in the past had so damaged the natural ecology that it was unable to support the population of 12 million Japanese. By the end of the Edo Period, however, wars were long gone, Japan was comfortably providing for a population of 30 million, employment had established a meaningful place for everyone in the Japanese society, and the environmental problems had been corrected. So, what happened during the 264 years of the Edo Period?

To begin with, there was a consistent vision of what Japan should become and a disciplined implementation of that vision. A hierarchical order of power was sustained, everyone knew what they were required to do, they did it, and eventually came to realize that this worked for the benefit of both individuals and the collective society. The details are outlined in Just Enough: Lessons in Living Green from Traditional Japan, a book by Azby Brown and published by Charles E. Tuttle (ISBN 978-4-8053-1254-4). The details may not be directly applicable to our modern society, but the principles are worth considering.

The book’s title, Just Enough, comes from the notion that in a confined environment of limited resources, we should only use enough for a comfortable survival. Consequently, everything during the Edo Period was carefully used and recycled. Excesses were discouraged and simplicity was venerated. Ditch weed was used for thatching roofs, and after 20 years of service could be used as garden mulch or burned in little cooking stoves, and the ashes then used to enhance garden soil, or sold to buyers who would transport them for use by potters, tanners, and dyers. Ashes also had other industrial uses as abrasives. The same recycling system applied to rice straw, which was produced in large quantities. Tatami mats were made from this material, and their standard size meant they could be used from place to place. Their insulating value helped to keep houses warm, and after they were no longer useful, like roofing material, they could be burned for cooking, for ashes, or used as compost, as mulch, and as a bonding fibre in plaster.

Forests were carefully managed in detail for wild crops such as berries, nuts and mushrooms. Buildings, of course, needed wood, so cut trees were replanted with seedlings of the mixed species that naturally existed in the mountainous country. As these trees grew, they were branched and trimmed to produce the best possible timber. These branches were woven into webbing for the roofs of houses and the twigs were used for cooking fires. The larger pieces of timber needed for rafters, beams and other parts of the house were standardized sizes so they could be reused from building to building. Most buildings were tied or pegged together so they could be moved from place to place if necessary. These homes survived for generations, but even then the various parts could be recycled in new construction.

In the country, most toilets were of the composting design, with tubs to collect the seasoned feces for use in gardens and rice paddies. The urine was often collected separately for sale to such industrial uses as cleaning, tanning, dyeing and fertilizing because of the uric acid and high nitrogen content. In the cities, this “night soil” was gathered regularly and marketed profitably.

Tradesmen of many kinds wandered through the cities and villages to repair everything from broken pottery to shoji screens. Carpenters fixed houses that needed attention. Virtually all paper was recycled until no other uses were possible, then it, too, could be composted or burned for saleable ashes. Clothing was repurposed. It was woven and tailored such that the cloth could be cut into smaller but useful pieces. Old clothes, which most people bought, could be cleaned, repaired and sold, while large pieces could be dyed again and remade into other garments. Rag merchants were busy in this trade. At the end of life for a piece of cloth, it could always be added to the mix of fibre that made paper.

Houses did not have central heating. Charcoal braziers provided warmth in individual rooms, and people added clothes for warmth rather than attempting to heat the whole house. Doors, sliding windows and screens were designed and located for both light and ventilation during the hot seasons.

Of course, we don’t live at the beginning of the Edo Period. But our situation is potentially as dire as it was 400 years ago in Japan. We have the multiple threats of global climate change, of ocean acidification, of mass species extinctions, of forest loss, of the ubiquitous pollution by plastics and miscellaneous chemicals—some of which, such as PFASs last “forever”—not to mention the looming shortage of fresh water to supply our domestic needs and grow food for more than 8 billion people.

Granted, we also don’t live in a centralized control system of governance like the Tokugawa Shogunate. But we do have mass media, an instrument that could unite and focus us all in a common cause—in a collective effort that could be as environmentally effective and successful as Japan’s Edo Period. We have the resources and the technology to create something comparable. Now, all we need is the resolve and character to do so.

Ray Grigg for Sierra Quadra

Top image credit: Edo Period Theme Park Noboribetsu Date Jidaimura on Hokkaido – photo by kslee via Flickr (CC BY 2.0 DEED)

One thought on “The Quadra Project: Edo Japan”

  1. Thanks for sharing this: so inspiring to hear how a large community can rally together to do their bit to solve larger problems.

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