How Japan Became a More Sustainable Society

In the early 1600s, Japanese leaders feared that the Christianity that European missionaries had recently introduced to the south of the country would spread.

In response, they effectively isolated the islands from the outside world in 1603, no Japanese were allowed out, and very few foreigners were allowed in. This became known as the Edo period in Japan and the borders remained closed for almost three centuries until 1868.

This allowed the country’s unique culture, customs and lifestyles to flourish in isolation, many of which have been recorded in art forms still alive today, such as haiku poetry or the kabuki theatre. It also meant that the Japanese, living under a system of heavy trade restrictions, had to rely entirely on materials already in the country, creating a thriving economy of reuse and recycling.)

In fact, Japan was self-sufficient in resources, energy and food and supported a population of up to 30 million, all without using fossil fuels or chemical fertilizers.


slow life

People in the Edo period lived by what is now called “slow life”, a sustainable set of living practices based on as little waste as possible. Even light was not wasted: daily activities began at sunrise and ended at sunset.

The clothes were patched and reused many times until they ended up in tattered rags. Ashes and human excrement were reused as fertilizer, creating a thriving business for merchants who went door to door collecting these valuable substances to resell to farmers. We could call it an early circular economy.

Another characteristic of slow life was its use of seasonal time, meaning that ways of measuring time changed with the seasons. In pre-modern China and Japan, the 12 signs of the zodiac (known in Japanese as juni-shiki) were used to divide the day into 12 sections of approximately two hours each. The length of these sections varied with changes in sunrise and sunset times.

During the Edo period, a similar system was used to divide the time between sunrise and sunset into six parts. Accordingly, an “hour” differed considerably depending on whether it was measured during summer, winter, night or day. The idea of ​​regulating life by immutable units of time like minutes and seconds simply did not exist.

Instead, the people of Edo, who would not have had clocks, judged the time by the sound of bells installed in castles and temples. Letting the natural world dictate life in this way fostered a sensitivity to the seasons and their abundant natural bounty, which helped to develop a set of environmentally friendly cultural values.

work with nature

From the middle of the Edo period, rural industries, including cotton and oilcloth production, silkworm farming, papermaking, and the production of sake and miso paste, began to flourish. . People celebrated seasonal festivals featuring a rich and diverse range of local foods, wishing for fertility during cherry blossom season, and commemorating the fall harvest.

This unique and ecological social system was born in part from the need, but also from a deep cultural experience of living in close harmony with nature. It needs to be brought back to the modern age for a more sustainable culture, and some modern activities can help.

For instance ,zazen, or “sitting meditation,” is a Buddhist practice that can help people create a space of peace and quiet to experience the sensations of nature. Currently, several urban temples offer zazen sessions.

The second example is “forest bathing”, a term coined by the director general of Japan’s forestry agency in 1982. There are many different styles of forest bathing, but the most popular form is submerged screenless time. in the peace of a forest.

Learn from Edo in Japan

Activities like these can help develop an appreciation for the rhythms of nature which, in turn, can lead us towards a more sustainable way of life, which the people of Edo in Japan could enjoy.

At a time when the need for more sustainable lifestyles has become a global issue, we must respect the wisdom of the Edo people who lived with the times through the seasons, valued materials and used the wisdom of reuse as something natural, and that he led a life of recycling for many years.

Learning from their way of life could provide us with effective guidelines for the future.

This article was written by Hiroko Oe, Senior Academic at Bournemouth University in the UK. It is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Articles in English

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