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