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Home » Archives » July 2005 » The Edo Period had an Ecological Society

The Edo Period had an Ecological Society

Tuesday, July 5, 2005 Posted: 09:47 PM JST

Musashino Art University lecturer and writer Eisuke Ishikawa specializes in environmental and ecological issues during the Edo period (1603-1867). In his books he introduces the wisdom of people living during the Edo Period for sustainable living. He touches on technology, energy, resource management, and recycling systems. In 2000, Kodansha published his “The Edo Period had an Ecological Society” ("O-edo ecology jijo"). Japan for Sustainability recently finished the complete English translation of "The Edo Period" and put it online. We show a short extract here.

From "“The Edo Period had an Ecological Society” by Eisuke Ishikawa:

One characteristic of the times when people only depended on solar energy is a low capacity to manufacture commodities. As a result, the lives of our ancestors in the Edo period was very simple--in fact, it had to be so, because once they resigned themselves to being satisfied with a simple life, they could live with small amounts of energy. Though it is difficult to know objectively how our ancestors lived in the Edo Period, one clue is provided by some documents written and left by foreigners who came to Japan from the last years of the Edo Period to the beginning of the Meiji Period.

Harris Townsend, who established the first American consulate in Japan in 1856, wrote of a meeting with a Japanese Tycoon (a liege lord, shogunate) in his book:

--- "The dress of the Tycoon was made of silk, and the material had some little gold woven in with it. But it was as distant from anything like regal splendor as could be conceived. No rich jewels, no elaborate gold ornaments, not diamond hilted weapon appeared, and I can safely say that my dress was far more costly than his. The Japanese told me his crown is a black lacquered cap, of an inverted bell shape." "I did not see any gilding in any part, and all the wooden columns were unpainted. Not an article of any kind appeared in any of the rooms, except the braziers and the chairs and tables brought for my use."
--- Harris Townsend, The Complete Journal of Townsend Harris

Even in the illustrations of novels written during the Edo Period, we commonly only find tools such as braziers and folding screens. People living in big houses put their clothes in big chests called "nagamochi" in storage rooms. Those living in small row houses on back streets wrapped their clothes with a square piece of cloth called "furoshiki" and placed it at the corner of a room or on a shelf. This was sufficient as they had only a few clothes.

Alice Mabel Bacon, an American appointed to be a teacher at a Japanese school in 1888, described her impressions of the gatehouse of her school in the following way:

--- "In the living room there was a god-shelf, containing the family idols, with flowers set before them, and a little china cupboard, in which were the cheap but prettily decorated pieces of china that form the table service of any ordinary workingman's family. These things, with the omnipresent hibachi and tea-kettle, formed all the furniture of the room, except a pretty bamboo vase of autumn flowers that decorated the wall. Certainly, the independence of furniture displayed by the Japanese is most enviable, and frees their lives of many cares. Babies never fall out of bed, because there are no beds; they never tip themselves over in chairs, for a similar reason. There is nothing in the house to dust, nothing to move when you sweep; there is no dirt brought into the house on muddy boots ...."
--- Alice Mabel Bacon, A Japanese Interior

Keywords: culture_news

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The now legendary Sir Ernest Mason Satow (1843-1929) was a member of the British legation in Tokyo for twenty-one years. This classic book is based on the author's detailed diary, personal encounters, and keen memory. In it, Satow records the history of the critical years of social and political upheaval that accompanied Japan's first encounters with the West around the time of the Meiji Restoration. Fascinating.
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