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What we can learn from Edo Period about recycling

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The Edo Period (1603-1868) was seen by posterity as a phase Japan had to outgrow, the sooner the better. It was “pre-modern,” “feudal,” “stagnant.” True, perhaps, but it had at least one virtue that the 21st century, if not the 20th, has learned to value. The people of Edo were recyclers par excellence. They have much to teach us in that regard, says the bi-weekly magazine Sarai (Aug 20–Sept 3).

In old Edo (present-day Tokyo), nothing went to waste, nothing was thrown out. Take umbrellas for instance. An Edo umbrella was oiled paper stretched taut over a bamboo frame. When the paper tore, it was patched up or replaced. If the frame came apart, you sold it to a peddler, who sold it to an umbrella maker, who refurbished it, topped it with fresh oil paper and sold it for new, beginning the cycle all over again.

Peddlers and itinerant repairmen, says Sarai, were the lubricants of the Edo economy. You didn’t throw out an old pot or pan; you hailed a passing tinker to plug the holes in it. Clothes did not flit into and out of fashion as they do today; they were handed down from older child to younger child until they could be worn no more, then sold to old clothes dealers who darned them and mended them until they could pass for merchandise. Tokyo’s Nihonbashi area was famous in the Edo Period for its old clothes shops and markets.

The very ashes in your oven or hibachi (coal brazier) were a “precious resource,” Sarai finds. They, too, were bought and sold, peddlers purveying the ash from households to farmers who used it for fertilizer and potters who turned it into glaze.

Of course, those were simpler times -- simpler not only technologically but in terms of what people were satisfied with. The samurai may have had their noble pretensions and their appearances to keep up, but 70% of Edo’s rapidly expanding population were small-scale merchants and craftsmen whose material demands on their environment, seen from our perspective, were modest indeed.

Housing, narrow and cramped, was at least accessible and cheap, monthly rent for a unit in a typical “nagaya” row house corresponding to a mere two or three days’ wages. To set up a business, you needed no more than the tools of your trade -- lifelong possessions, thanks to the restorative skills of repairmen perpetually circulating through the neighborhood.

It’s hard for us to imagine a society without upward material and social aspirations. Two factors contributed to the Edo townsman’s tolerance of, and even contentment with, what to us would seem poverty.

One was the frequency of earthquakes and fires, frequent reminders of Buddhist teachings emphasizing the transience of all material things. The other was the simple fact that everyone around you was living life as close to the bone as you were. Envy-driven social climbing was not a major force in Edo life.

Mutual assistance and living happily within our means are virtues Sarai would have us relearn from Edo -- for the sake of the environment, if not of our souls. No doubt they would be good for us. Whether they are recoverable at this late date is another matter.

© Japan Today

©2019 GPlusMedia Inc.

16 Comments
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Japanese never "outgrew" the Edo Period just like US never "outgrew" theb Wild West. Both are still central cultural reference points and key drivers in social identity and state policy.

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Sarai is read by sixtyish men who grew up without hot running water and indoor plumbing, and somehow manage to feel nostalgic about the lack of sanitation/convenience during their formative years. Its articles provide time travel on the cheap, a harmless indulgence but one that doesn't dissuade readers from giving up their cars, cell phones or resort vacations in Hawaii.

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Beelzebub,

I see your point. But Edo was actually furnished with running water. Tamagawa Josui (waterworks) was finished in 1653. Water was taken from the Tama river at Hamura and came to Yotsuya through the Nogata canal and from there flowed underground through wooden gutters to the Edo castle and Toranomon. In later days water was supplied to Aoyama, Mita and even Nobidome, Saitama.

Back on the topic. Please don't forget the night soil. It was traded as fertilizer at a high price. Ultimate recycling.

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High value "night soil", or Samurai poop. Now that's a great product to revive!

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The author, while praising the lack of "envy-driven social climbing", fails to mention that people were born to a class and prohibited by law to "climb" to another.

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I like this article. We all need others to survive, and thus community. But I think unless youve lived long enough and had enough of your, say, cups, or pans broken, you cant really realize the efficiency of this lifestyle. When you live long enough, you can keep a high level of lifestyle by this type of Edo recycling, or you could almost call it disposable, but that would be way too political. Everything can be used to it's utmost, and it is made from products that can be recycled or renewed, or repolished and so on. Were we all able to do that, we would realize, you are living quite a high level of lifestyle, detailed areas being reatined to production from more resilient fabrics perhaps, and comfortable jobs. It is this production of 'work' that is commendable too. Giving style to the job. Tatami mats are also recycle-able.I also think that the weather dominates this sort of half-nomad style. Living on the edge if you will. You keep cleaning and cleaning and cleaning, and you realize it is much more comfortable to just throw, er, recycle what you have been using after some time. It keeps the lifestyle new.

And if nothing else, you certainly dont have to worry about insurance companies.

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I don't know whether we can really learn something from Edo Period about recycling. Anyway, we have already solid recycling concepts like zero-emission or reduce, reuse and recycling of resources.

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Japanese never "outgrew" the Edo Period just like US never "outgrew" theb Wild West. Both are still central cultural reference points and key drivers in social identity and state policy.

Now I see why alot of countries think that the US is all cowboys and indians and why all Japanese are samurai and ninjas.

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When I think of Samurai...I think of the "warring years/Shoguns ~ with Oda, Takeda, Toyotomi,Tokugawa and other great clans....The term "Cowboy" is so vast and broad....Samurai...honor...seppuku...never heard of a cowboy killing himself for "honor"......America is still trying to get into the eco-going society....

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I think the article is interesting, but to me it doesn't seem so relevant to recycling these days. As prices for things come down, replacement rather than repair makes more economic sense, and the repair places go out of business. Even in my lifetime, I remember when everyone went to shoe repair places to get new heels or soles. Few people do this anymore in the US, and in Japan the number of repair places is declining. Would you take your 600 yen umbrella to one of the few places in Japan where they can fix it? How much would the repair cost, I wonder...?

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Of course, those were simpler times—simpler not only technologically but in terms of what people were satisfied with.

Indeed they were. Even samurai had fish only about 3 times a month (meat was out of the question, of course), and the entertainment possibilities of Edo were quite interesting too: about 99% prostitution. Pleasant times indeed.

The romantic view on the Edo period is getting old.

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We can learn a lot about a humble life in harmony with nature form the Edo period. But what would all the hard working stressed out people do if they could not go consuming anymore and suddenly have to be happy with what they have. Huh, what a threatening thought.

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On a very simple level, the quality of everyday items we buy nowadays often does not have the workmanship of yesteryear.A pair of shoes made back in the day would probably have been made to last,from leather..with leather soles..these days trying to find a reasonably priced well-constructed pair is an arduous task.Even my favourite Blundstone boots are now made in China and the standard has slipped since then. Things nowadays are mass-produced with no attention to quality and little hope for reasonable repair.

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Which is why the product's material, if only, could take some more consideration from consumers.....Thats the hard part. Being on a replacement wave is good for business too, but breaking up the rubbish could be less costly were material seriously considered by consumers, it would also mean the specializing in a material, would also mean that repair were more available perhaps.

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Interesting time period. I suppose all countries have their glory days.

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No question that quality is lower these days, when commodities are more disposable and you might decide to buy multiple sets. It's now common to have several shoes, many clothes, even two cars or TVs for some.

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