By now we are all extremely familiar with the litany of challenges we face as a global species, the threats of scarcity which pit state against state and community against community, problems manmade and visible in nature: growing population, increasing urbanization, deforestation, damaged watersheds, overconsumption of resources, energy shortages, waste, pollution….All of us could easily add to this list. We know there will be no easy fixes, no panaceas, but nevertheless as we try to set priorities and search for the most promising ways to approach these problems, many of us find ourselves looking to different cultures and to earlier eras for inspiration. In this regard, the Edo period of Japan has a lot to teach us. We could in fact use it as a model of how to flip impending environmental collapse into sustainability, primarily by allowing a rich and insightful mindset rooted in centuries of experience and wisdom to guide our decisions.
The Edo Period began in 1603, at the close of 200 years of civil war, and lasted two and a half centuries, coming to an end in 1868 as the country opened to the world and was first exposed to the fruits of the industrial revolution. Most of what we think of as "traditional" Japanese design comes from this era, when shoguns ruled and society was a strictly delineated hierarchical pyramid with samurai at the top, merchants at the bottom, and farmers and craftsmen, the bulk of society, in the middle. During this time the population rose to about 30 million, roughly comparable to Canada or Peru today, and the city of Edo — renamed Tokyo in 1868 — was home to over 1.3 million residents. At the beginning of the Edo period, the people found that they had deforested their mountains and were suffering from a cascade of ill effects, such as damaged watersheds and decreasing agricultural productivity. Most resources, such as iron ore and potential fuel sources, were scarce; firewood itself was at a premium. Even more significantly, there was very little arable land, and by the mid-18th century all the land that could be used for farming was already utilized. The period began with shortages and famine, but after two or three generations of wise regeneration, the large population was enjoying a quality of life arguably higher than in any contemporary European country. The forests had been saved, agricultural production had increased manyfold, and culture and literacy were on the rise.
The specialization that so distinguishes our culture and technology today — the very productive mental tools we have developed that enable us to break problems down into elements that can be worked on in isolation — would seem very odd, even incomprehensible, to a Japanese of the Edo period. True, the society was rigidly stratified and in that sense specialized, and people worked for years to master specific trades. A miso shop was unlikely to sell kimonos. But the culture as a whole was pervaded by a sense of time in which outcomes were measured in centuries, and in which it was nearly impossible to plan even simple tasks without a broader awareness of chains of consequences that would emerge from one’s actions, or of the origins, destinations, and connections among the people and things which supported human life like a vast web of interconnected spirit. As is the case in so many pre-industrial societies, people were trained from an early age to be generalists, to be multi-competent, and to always be aware of the big picture. Religion, particularly Zen Buddhism, but also Shinto and Confucianism, acted as a balanced bed of "common sense" which encouraged such thinking. Through the influence of these values, reflected in both commoner’s proverbs and in the writings of the cultured elite, problems were defined in such a way that the need for long-term thinking, conservation of energy and resources, the need to work with instead of against natural forces, and the importance of providing meaningful work for everyone instead of endlessly seeking to minimize labor, became requirements so well understood they rarely needed to be explicitly stated.
Consequently, a farmer planning an irrigation channel would find it impossible to do so without relying on his understanding of the forest, the seasons, and the wildlife that would be affected. A carpenter planning a temple would begin at the mountain from which his timber would come, analyzing the wind and watershed there. A blacksmith forging a hoe blade knew that the fuel he gathered for his fire would remain adequate to his needs only if he did not damage the forest while gathering it, and designed the blade to be repairable and replaceable as well. By nature and by training, at every level of society individuals learned to identify important nodes amid the myriad relationships they encountered in the natural world, little fulcrums, so to speak, where applying the right amount of effort would reap the greatest mutual benefit. Water and fuel were both precious, for instance, so Edo Japanese considered hot water nearly sacramental, transforming both tea drinking and bathing into important rituals; everything that produced and used hot water was designed to achieve the greatest economy of fuel and fresh water use. The visual appearance of these things — stoves, kettles, bathtubs, cups — could be robust, elegant, fantastic, or even all three at once, but if it did not also perform the "magic" of efficient and waste-free operation, of being either recyclable or able to be used for generations (and then recycled), it would be considered a poor design, an ugly thing to own and use. And this, I think is one of the best-kept secrets of traditional Japanese design: beauty depended upon how well a thing helped people fulfill a host of unstated requirements that lent life its meaning and purpose and helped sustain it indefinitely into the future.
In an environment such as this, what kind of thought had to enter the design process in order to produce successful designs, which would continue to be used for a long time? Of course the item has to perform the function for which it was intended. The material of which it is made must be abundant and collectable without using much energy besides sun, water, gravity, and human power. Wood, bamboo, straw, and earth satisfied these requirements best in most cases, and this was reflected in the low cost of most items. Similarly, the manufacturing process had to use a minimum of external energy. Because of this, iron and steel were quite expensive, and used sparingly. Beyond these basic requirements, the economics of reuse came into play as a set of secondary virtues. In particular, because wood was relatively scarce and its cutting was carefully controlled by law, a design that allowed wooden material to be reused would be very attractive. I don’t want to give the impression that traditional Japanese craftsmen and artisans consciously subscribed to a set of theories that promoted functional, sustainable design. Instead, the people who made these things were supported by a society for whom these values were givens. As designers, they gave form to their users’ expectations.
This way of thinking was stimulated by the scarcity of resources during this period, but even without scarcity as a motivator, this kind of awareness can undoubtedly lead people to a better life. Can design alone lead to a sustainable society? Probably not. But it can affect what we want, what we find attractive to own and use, and help initiate positive shifts in attitude. Once we start expecting everything we buy and use to embody less water and energy in its production, to be made from abundant and renewable materials, to be easily reused, reconfigured, and transformed into new items when worn out, and to see all this reflected in its form and appearance, then we will have planted the seeds of an Edo-like sensibility.
There is more to it, however. Edo society was literate and informed, and one of the government’s major roles was the protection of the environment, which it did through forestry ordinances, waterworks, and promoting good agricultural practices by sponsoring how-to manuals and almanacs. This was not through altruism or for the spiritual advancement of the rulers, but to ensure the safety and security of the realm and the longevity of the regime. Intriguingly, government policy was most effective when the goals and principles were laid out by the central bureaucracy and each region was encouraged to develop local solutions. In many ways, this local thinking and responsibility lay at the heart of the success of the program to achieve self-sufficiency and sustainability on a national scale. Though a very active national trade network existed, each of the dozens of fiefdoms into which the country was divided was encouraged to be as self-sufficient as possible. Each village in a fief was encouraged to do the same, as was each family in a village. The result was what we might call a "mosaic of economies," in which government and trades people were the most dependent on the cash sector, while villagers could meet most of their needs without every touching money, utilizing a "gift economy" in which surplus goods were circulated as reciprocal gifts until every household had pretty much what it needed. Ironically, most low-ranking samurai, whose fixed incomes –paid in rice — failed to keep pace with inflation, found themselves increasingly dependent on the same "gift economy" system. Unable to buy enough to eat, little by little they converted their urban pleasure gardens into vegetable plots, and, forbidden from selling their produce on the market, secured what they needed by circulating their surplus through a network that included their neighbors and relatives.
Edo period Japan was extremely fertile creatively, and extraordinarily inventive. It was a nation of makers and inventors. The importance of the cross-fertilization and innovation that emerges when most people in society are designers and practitioners of crafts is often overlooked. In the case of Japan, every household could be expected to have expert weavers, masters of straw crafts, fermenters, carvers, horticulturists and gardeners. They used very little of what we would call "machinery," depending instead on hand processes; you might say that Japanese training and experience produced a quality and consistency of production using handwork that the West only attained with machinery. Beyond this, the ethics of the professional craftspeople — carpenters, potters, blacksmiths, papermakers, and dozens of other trades — established a personal bond between maker and user, the former expected to keep an item in good working order for the duration of its useful life, the latter expected to show appreciation through small gifts and remembrances. The making of a thing in most cases was the beginning of a long-term connection between people, and that connection was cause for celebration and acknowledgment. If nothing else, our society suffers from a lack of this kind of connection, and the fact that many of us are now willing to pay a high premium to possess handmade items whose maker is known to us shows that the hunger for these connections remains.
Changing design sensibilities both reflect changes in values and encourage them. A shift in what people find desirable to own and use, like the one I describe, might seem radical or unlikely, but historically we have experienced similar conversions time and again. The shift to mass production and consumer society over a century ago, rooted in a new appreciation of machines and the machine-made, was as complete as it was unanticipated. At the same time it has never gone unquestioned, and handmade, locally produced items have never entirely disappeared. Most of us bought in to the mass-production aesthetic long ago, even if we are barely aware of it. Cars, iPods, furniture, appliances, kitchenware, tools, bathrooms — none of them would look the way they do if what was once called the "machine aesthetic" had not been rendered approachable and familiar by good designers during the last century. Those designers cribbed a lot of their best looks from traditional Japanese design.
Those who know the story of the emergence of Modernism in art and design know that when Japan opened itself to the world in 1868, creators of every stripe in the West were stunned by what they saw, and every artistic field absorbed Japanese influence, whether it was composition and color in the visual arts, low rooflines and open space in architecture, or structures made of simple, unadorned elements in furniture. True, there were a lot of lessons Western designers might have learned at the time from Japan but didn’t, such as energy efficiency, design for reuse, and how to use enzyme-based biological processes such as the ones which make traditional lacquer and washi paper possible. But it was the Japanese who first taught us how to see beauty in function. I would like to suggest that we are on the threshold of a new aesthetic shift fed by an altered awareness of our dependence on the environment and the importance of healing and preserving it that will permanently alter our sense of beauty. It might be going too far to call this an "Edo" aesthetic, but the values embodied in Edo culture will undoubtedly form a large part of its DNA.