March 31, 2003



Keywords: Newsletter 

JFS Newsletter No.7 (March 2003)

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.