Updated: Jul 20, 2021
Last month, I attended a webinar called ‘Culture & Sustainability: What are the Sustainable Elements from Japanese Culture?’ held by YUNGA Ambassador. Since I have been interested in sustainability in Edo period Japan, which is renowned for its effective circular society, this was a fun opportunity to listen to a presentation on circular economy and Japanese circular society by Yu Kato, CEO of Harch Inc. In today’s blog, let me share the points I found interesting about sustainability in Edo Japan.
First, I would like to make it clear what a ‘circular economy’ is. A circular economy is an economic system where production and consumption circulate like a closed loop based on sharing, reusing, leasing, repairing, refurbishing, and recycling products. In this model, materials and products are valued and made use of for a long period of time which minimises waste.
In contrast, a linear economy uses raw materials for production, then throws them away as non-recyclable waste after consumption. ‘Built-in obsolescence’ is an embodiment of such a conventional economic system. Built-in obsolescence, or planned obsolescence, is ‘a policy of deliberately planning or designing a product with a finite lifespan, so it will become obsolete or non-functional after a certain period’. This is to say, the shorter the product’s lifespan, the more the producer can benefit. A representative example of this system is the incandescent lightbulb industry. Surprisingly, American and European lightbulb manufacturers formed a cartel in 1925 and put effort into reducing the average bulb lifespan from 1,500-2,000 hours to 1,000 hours to boost sales by accelerating the consumption cycle. This poor lifespan became the new standard for the industry.
On the contrary, producers are incentivised to create more durable products within the framework of a circular economy. In practice, for example, there is a concept of ‘product as a service’ in which companies lend products to consumers. The idea is to expand from the traditional set of products (such as library books) which are leant. The number of companies that apply this system is increasing. For example, in Japan, car’s subscription is becoming a commonly heard word, and some stores of Aeon, one of the largest retailers in Asia, adopted a container reuse system called ‘Loop’.
Sustainable Life in the Edo Period
As the awareness of the circular economy increased, the Edo period’s sustainable economic system has entered the spotlight. The Edo period, which was from 1603 to 1867, is named after Edo (currently Tokyo), the capital of early modern Japan. This period is characterised by its flourishing economy and lively culture and arts. The significant basis of this Edo society was a circular economic system. With the mindset of trying to maximise available resources, there were customs and the venous industry which involved repair, reuse and recycle. For instance, kimono, the Japanese traditional garment, is made of one rectangular cloth which produces almost no scrap under manufacturing. It is usually designed to be worn by several people with different body shapes and lengths which makes it possible to be inherited through generations. Worn kimono was used as nightwear, baby's napkin and wiping cloth, then as fuel for baths and fires. Finally, the emerged ash was used as a fertilizer. In terms of business, there were various kinds of occupations such as collecting, reusing, repairing, and recycling business of used umbrellas, candles, ash, pots, brooms, dishes, tea bowls, keys, paper, shoes, etc. People in Edo made use of any material thoroughly.
One of the remarkable features of Edo city is its cleanliness. Edo city is said to have been both the world’s most populous and most sanitary city, with one million people. This is an interesting contrast to the dense European cities of the same period, where people struggled with pest and cholera diseases derived from the inappropriate treatment of human waste. Populated areas like cities produce enormous amounts of human waste and ash. Now, I want you to guess how people dealt with human waste in the Edo period. In fact, produced human waste/ash from cities were actually purchased by farmers from surrounding agricultural villages who used it as fertilizer called shimogoe. The waste was precious organic material and was an important source of revenue. This kept the city clean and helped farmers grow nutritious vegetables. I find this idea astonishing. Here is one more cool fact: apartment maintenance fees were paid with human waste to the property owner who traded it with the farmers. (Try this with your landlord next month!)
Thank you very much for reading.
 https://peatix.com/event/1894008?lang=ja  https://youtu.be/r5CGNh526ZQ  https://www.europarl.europa.eu/RegData/etudes/BRIE/2016/573899/EPRS_BRI%282016%29573899_EN.pdf  https://www.europarl.europa.eu/news/en/headlines/economy/20151201STO05603/circular-economy-definition-importance-and-benefits  https://www.oxfordreference.com/view/10.1093/oi/authority.20110803095534506  https://spectrum.ieee.org/tech-history/dawn-of-electronics/the-great-lightbulb-conspiracy  https://www.aeonretail.jp/campaign/loop/  https://www.gakken.co.jp/kagakusouken/spread/oedo/02/kaisetsu3.html  https://www.env.go.jp/policy/hakusyo/h20/html/hj08010202.html