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Japan's sustainable society in the Edo period (1603-1867)

Part 1: Reuse and Recycling Practices

(from March 03 JFS newsletter)

In the history of Japan, the 265-year period between 1603 (when Tokugawa Ieyasu became the generalissimo or great "shogun" of the Tokugawa shogunate) and 1867 (when Tokugawa Yoshinobu formally returned political authority to the emperor) is called the Edo Period. Edo is the former name for what is now Tokyo. This period was given its name because the feudal government at the time was headquartered in Edo, rather than in Kyoto where it was previously located.

During most of the Edo Period, Japan was closed off to the world, suffered no invasion from the outside, and had virtually no exchange with other countries. For the most part, it was a peaceful period, with almost no war inside the country, and marked a remarkable time of development in the economy and culture of Japan.

The first national census, conducted around 1720, indicates a population of approximately 30 million people, which remained relatively constant throughout the entire two and a half centuries of the Edo Period.

The population of Edo, at the time the largest city in the world, has been estimated at 1 million to 1.25 million people. In comparison, London had about 860,000 people (1801) and Paris about 670,000 (1802).

Today Japan depends on imports from other countries for 78 percent of its energy, 60 percent of its food (caloric value), and 82 percent of its timber consumption. But for approximately 250 years during the Edo Period, Japan was self-sufficient in all resources, since nothing could be imported from overseas due to the national policy of isolation.

Japan holds only small reserves of fossil fuels such as oil. According to records, coal was used for making salt in the late Edo Period, but the quantity of coal consumption was negligible. Looking at this period from today's perspective, it was an interesting time for a part of humanity, as a period of peace and flourishing culture.

In recent years, an increasing number of Japanese have begun to realize that during the Edo Period their country had what we now recognize in today's terms as a sustainable society. The population was stable and the society did not rely on material inputs from the outside. Many are now trying to learn more about the social system of that time and apply the "wisdom of the Edo Period" in contemporary society and living.

Novelist Eisuke Ishikawa is one of Japan's leading researchers on the Edo Period. With reference to his book "The Edo Period had a Recycling Society," ("O-edo recycle jijo": published in 1994, Kodansha Publishing Company) we now introduce some elements of what made this sustainable society possible for 250 years. This month's issue of the JFS Newsletter focuses on the reuse and recycling practices of the Edo Period. Next month we will focus on its energy systems, showing that at the time Japan was a nation that functioned based on plants.

Japan is now promoting efforts to recycle end-of-life products and materials. A major motivation for this today is to reduce the burden on landfills and prevent dioxins and other toxic chemical emissions from incinerators. But people in Edo Japan recycled of goods and materials for another reason: they had very limited goods and materials in the first place.

As a result, everything was treated as a valuable resource, including materials that would otherwise be considered a nuisance, such as ash. Because brand new goods were expensive and newly manufactures items were virtually unaffordable for ordinary citizens, most "end-of-life" goods were not discarded as waste, but rather reused and recycled.

Many specialized traders and craftsmen were also engaged in reuse and recycling (though there was no word for recycling, since "recycling" was just a normal part of life). Below we introduce some of the specialized recyclers of the Edo Period.

- Tinker (repairers of metal products)
Tinkers repaired old pans, kettles and pots, even those rendered useless by holes in the bottom. They had special techniques to use bellows to raise the temperature of charcoal fires and repair holes using other metal pieces or by welding.

- Ceramics repairer
These specialized craftsmen glued broken pieces of ceramics with starch extracted from sticky rice and heated for coagulation.

- Truss hoop repairer
Until 40 to 50 years ago, people usually used wooden tubs and barrels to store liquids. Wooden tubs and barrels were made of wooden slats fastened by bamboo hoops. When the hoops aged and broke or warped, the craftsmen fixed the tubs and barrels with new bamboo fasteners.

There were many other kinds of specialized craftsmen to repair broken items, including paper lanterns and locks, replenish vermilion inkpads, and refurbish old Japanese wooden footwear, mills and mirrors, to name a few. They supported a society where nothing was thrown away but everything was carefully repaired, and used until it could truly be used no more.

Besides the repair experts, there were other specialized workers who collected and traded end-of-life materials.

- Used-paper buyers
These buyers bought old shopkeepers' books, sorted and sold them to paper makers. In those days, Japanese paper (washi) was made of long fibers of over 10 mm, and specialized paper makers bought and blended various kinds of used paper to make a wide range of recycled paper, from bathroom tissue to printing paper.

- Used-paper collectors
Some collectors were also specialized in used paper, but didn't have the financial resources to buy it. Instead, they picked up and collected trash paper by walking around the town and sold it to used-paper warehouses to get a daily cash income.

- Used-clothes dealers
Until the end of Edo Period, clothes were more precious and expensive than today since all clothes at the time were hand-woven. It is said that there were about 4,000 old clothes dealers in the city of Edo.

- Used-umbrella rib buyers
Umbrellas in the Edo Period were made of bamboo ribs with paper pasted on. Used-umbrella rib buyers bought and collected old umbrellas and sold them to specialized warehouses. At the warehouses workers removed oiled paper from the ribs, repaired the rib structures and then other workers were contracted to paste new oiled-paper onto the ribs to make new umbrellas. Incidentally, the oiled paper from used umbrellas was removed and sold as packaging material.

- Used-barrel buyers
When barrels became empty, specialized traders bought, collected and sold them to specialized warehouses. Japan today has private collection systems for beer and sake (Japanese rice wine) bottles, and collection/recycling ratios are high. Some of today's used-bottle dealers are descendents of those who conducted this business in the Edo Period.

- Singing collectors
Some traders walked around the town, singing, "let's exchange, let's exchange," and offered small toys and candies to children in return for old nails and other metal pieces the children found while playing.

These are some of many kinds of collectors and recyclers of the Edo Period who made it possible for the society to use all of its goods and materials for long periods of time and to reduce the amount of new materials needed.

To conclude, here are a few of the more unusual examples of Edo Period recyclers.

- Candle wax buyers
Wax candles were a precious commodity. Specialized buyers collected the drippings from lit candles.

- Ash buyers
Ash is a natural byproduct of fuelwood burning. During the Edo Period, buyers collected ash and sold it to farmers as fertilizer. Ordinary houses had an ash box, and public bathhouses and larger shops an "ash hut" for storage until buyers came by.

Professor Takeo Koizumi, of the Tokyo University of Agriculture, wrote in his "Cultural History of Ash" ("Hai no bunkashi") that although other cultures in the world also used ash, as far as his research shows, Japan is the only country where ash merchants buy ash from the city for use in other parts of society.

- Human waste dipper
Until around 1955, human waste (night soil) was the most important fertilizer source for farmers in Japan. In many parts of Europe, before construction of sewage lines, human waste was simply thrown from the window to the street below, and the plague occurred repeatedly due to bad hygiene conditions. In contrast, in Japan human waste was treated as a valuable resource in those days.

Farmers regularly visited homes with whom they had contracts and paid money or offered vegetables they had grown, in return for night soil to be used as fertilizer. As distribution channels became more established, specialized night soil warehouses and retailers emerged.

Landlords with many tenants made good money from the night soil produced on their premises. There are even stories of friction between landlords and tenants about ownership of the night soil. Some farmers were very particular about their sources of fertilizer. For example, certain areas were regarded as sources of highly-coveted night soil for growing exclusive brands of Japanese tea.

You may be surprised to know that even night soil was recycled in the Edo Period. It could be called the "ultimate recycling," and German chemist Justus von Liebig, often described as the father of modern agricultural chemistry, praised use of night soil as fertilizer, saying that it is an agricultural practice without peer in its ability to keep cropland fertile forever and increase productivity in proportion to population increases. And there is a record that the first Westerner who saw the town of Edo was shocked, having never seen such a clean city.

In those days, producers of agricultural crops used fertilizer, and the producers of the fertilizer were the very consumers who ate those crops. In the modern day, that connection between consumer and producer has been shattered, but during the Edo Period this "ultimate recycling" was possible because of the interdependent relationship between consumers and producers.

In the Edo Period, the reuse of goods was a common practice. There were many temple schools for children of commoners in Edo Period. Textbooks at temple schools were owned by the schools, not the users. According to records, one arithmetic textbook was used for 109 years.

As one could imagine, however, such extensive reuse and recycling systems embedded in society would limit the profits of paper makers, printing companies, publishers and shippers. In the economy of today, if people don't continuously buy new goods, the economy falters.

In contrast, according to a wage list of carpenters hired by the Edo feudal government, it took 200 years for wages to double, implying an economic growth rate those days of about 0.3 percent or so. According to today's economic yardsticks, the economy of the Edo Period did not grow much. But can we therefore conclude that systems of the Edo Period, with repeated reuse and recycling, were inferior to our modern economic and social systems?

Japan in the Edo Period could serve as one model of a sustainable society. The basis of its sustained economy and cultural development was not mass production and mass consumption for convenience, as we see in modern society, but rather the full utilization of limited resources.

It is certain that many things have changed today, but perhaps there are some hints for a sustainable future if we look at the past.

Part 2: Energy Systems

(from April 03 JFS newsletter)

In last month's issue of JFS, we introduced some elements of what made a sustainable society in Edo Period possible for 250 years, based on the research of Eisuke Ishikawa, one of Japan's leading researchers on the Edo Period, and his book "The Edo Period had a Recycling Society," ("O-edo recycle jijo," published in 1994, Kodansha Publishing Company).

The previous issue focused on the reuse and recycling practices of the Edo Period and this month we focus on its energy systems, showing that at the time Japan was a nation that functioned based on plants. Last month's issue: March 03 JFS newsletter.

As introduced in the previous issue, the population of Japan during the Edo Period was approximately 30 million people, a level that remained relatively constant throughout two and a half centuries. The population of Edo, at the time the largest city in the world, has been estimated at 1 million to 1.25 million people.

For approximately 250 years during the Edo Period, Japan was self-sufficient in all resources, since nothing could be imported from overseas due to the national policy of isolation.

The society of Japan during the Edo Period was driven only with solar energy. Plants transform solar energy, using water and hydrogen, into branches, wood, stems and fruit. If you harvest and use as energy the branches, plants and fruit that have grown in the past year, you are using the past year's solar energy in plant form.

During the Edo Period, about 80 percent of daily commodities was made from the solar energy of the previous year and 95 percent was derived from solar energy received in the past three years. This means that the Edo society was a sustainable society in which almost everything needed for living was provided by solar energy of the past two or three years.

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.

Take for example the lighting in the Edo Period. Commercial power generation and transmission started in November 1887 in Japan, when the first fossil fuel-driven power generator was put into operation. Until this moment, all lighting in Japan came from paper-made lanterns and wax candles using oil and wax produced here.

Oil for lighting was mainly from sesame seeds, camellia, rapeseeds and cottonseeds. People in regions where fishermen hunted whales used whale oil, and people in areas where fishermen caught sardines used sardine oil. Oil cake that remained after extracting the oil was also used as a quality nitrogen fertilizer.

Wax was made by squeezing the resin from the nuts of sumac and other trees. Since the production of wax candles was time-consuming and wax candles were very expensive, specialized buyers collected the drippings from candles, as introduced in last month's issue of the JFS newsletter.

In these ways, people used their own human power to extract solar energy from the previous few years stored in plants, and used the energy for lighting.

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, 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.

For clothing purposes, straw was used to make braided hats, straw raincoats and straw sandals, among other items. Farmers produced such items during the agricultural off-season for their own use and as products to be sold for cash.

Relating to food, straw was used to make straw bags for rice, pot holders, and covering materials to produce "natto" (fermented soybeans). Farmers also used straw to feed cattle and horses and cover feedlots. Animal waste mixed with straw residue made compost for farming.

In the area of shelter, straw was a common building material for outside and inside the house, including the roof, "tatami" mats and clay walls. As you can see, straw, a byproduct of rice, was used widely in daily life and once it was used or burned, it returned to the earth.

In addition to straw, silk, cotton, hemp and other field-made materials were used for clothes. Paper was made of the bark of "kozo" trees. Since only branches were cut to obtain bark, there was no worry of excessive cutting of trees. And there were many kinds of recyclers for used paper in those days.

For warmth, charcoal made from wood was used in "hibachi" braziers and "kotatsu" (a fireplace with coverlet). Firewood was used to heat baths. Because such wood fuels came from brush, rather than from long-standing forests, all this energy used for daily life was derived from the solar energy of the past one to two years, in the form of branches and wood.

Author Ishikawa made an interesting calculation. At present, per capita tree stock in Japan is about 50 tonnes. The average growth rate of trees is about 5 percent per year, producing a dividend of 2500 kilograms of trees per capita every year, which, if burned, would produce about 10 million kilocalories of energy.

Today, the average Japanese person uses 40 million kilocalories per year. This means that a quarter of our energy requirement could be met with firewood today if all of the annual increment was burned. Since Japan in the Edo Period had about a quarter of the current population, all of its energy needs could have been met with firewood, even at current per capita consumption levels.

Almost everything was driven by human power in the Edo Period so energy consumption then would have been a fraction of the current level. Also, the country's forest area was larger then than it is today, meaning that people in the Edo Period needed less than the natural annual increment of growing trees to satisfy their energy needs.

Source: Eisuke Ishikawa, "The Edo Period Had an Ecological Society," ("O-edo ecology jijo," published in 2000, Kodansha Publishing Company) by Eisuke Ishikawa.

Editorial Notes: From the Japan for Sustainability website. According to the JFS mission statement:
We share information on developments and activities originating in Japan that lead toward sustainability, with the aim of building momentum toward a sustainable path for the world.
Also on the site is a translation of the book from which these essays were drawn: The Edo Period Had an Ecological Society by Eisuke Ishikawa. Highly recommended if you liked these essays. All chapters are available online: Chapters 1 - 8 / Chapters 9 - 13 -BA

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