This is the first of a two-part series on the ecological awareness of Japanese culture. Today’s post explains how Edo-era Japanese society as a whole reflected the values of sustainability, while part two will take a closer look at the environmental connections in houses of the period.
Very few societies have been able to acheive a high level of cultural and economic activity while maintaining the health of their surroundings. Easter Island is often mentioned as a microcosm of the human tendency to misappropriate valuable resources, though it’s far from the only example. Jared Diamond’s recent Collapse enumerates many more cases of societies suddenly toppling, and posits five factors that contribute the pheonomenon: environmental destruction, changing climate, changing trade patterns, conflict with neighbors, and societal responses to the other four. Any two of these factors are enough to lead to collapse; ominously, he finds all five present in today’s society.
Are we, then, destined for failure? Are civilization and sustainability diametrically opposed? The case of Edo-era Japan provides a convincing argument that the answer is no. From the 1600s until they opened trade barriers in 1867, the Japanese maintained a stable population of 30 million almost entirely within their own borders – an area about the size of California. During that time, the arts and culture flourished, class and regional conflict were rare, and many of the forests that had been cleared in earlier areas were protected for restoration.
Shinto ideals of harmony with nature, as well as the minimalist outlook of Zen Buddhism, meant that having a small footprint was engrained in the culture. The result was a thriving economy of reuse, in which everything from candle wax to bamboo umbrella ribs was collected, remanufactured and resold by specialists. Rice straw, today considered a waste product, was employed in the creation of a variety of crafts, as well being used as fuel; farmers cleverly eliminated the need for both imported fertilizer and expensive, disease-harboring sewage systems by using human waste to fertilize crops.
According to most accounts, Edo-era Japanese were reasonably happy and well-provided for, but by American standards, the culture was hardly a utopia. A strong central government enforced a caste-like division of social classes, making upward mobility impossible. In a telling reversal of western values, the merchant class was considered lowest in the food chain, with craftsmen, farmers and samurai occupying the higher rungs. Most commoners had very few possessions, and even the rich lived modestly compared to their aristocratic contemporaries in Europe.
Edo Japan acheived remarkable success in creating a sustainable culture, and our own society could learn a great deal from its focus to reuse and material reduction. Still, the past can only teach us so much about our own situation – sustainable solutions, after all, must always arise from from their immediate context. If anything, Japan’s ecological society serves as a testament to what’s possible: in this time of great uncertainty over humanity’s fate, it’s good to know that somewhere, during a certain time, we rose to the challenge of limited resources to create a true partnership with the land.