In recent times, people around the world are becoming more and more aware of the need to recycle and conserve energy to create a more sustainable society, but what if we told you there was a place in the world that already achieved this centuries ago and kept it going for more than 200 years? 

Believe it or not, this was Japan more than 150 years ago! During the period from 1603 to 1868, also known as the Edo period (Edo being the former name of the capital city Tokyo), Japan enjoyed a long period of peace, and stayed closed off from almost all foreign countries under the military government, called the bakufu. This meant that the people living in Japan had to produce everything for themselves. At the same time however, Japan was on the verge of ecological collapse due mostly to deforestation. This compelled everyday citizens to come up with creative ways to conserve energy and resources. 

In recent years, people around the world are starting to recognize and appreciate the ways people during the Edo period used the principles of recycling and reuse in their everyday life, expressed best in the 2009 book Just Enough: Lessons in Living Green from Traditional Japan by Azby Brown. Let's take a look at everyday life in pre-modern Japan, and see what lessons it can teach us.


A diorama depicting a scene of the bustling life during the Edo period. ©Edo Tokyo Museum

Life in edo japan

By around 1720, Japan had already reached a population of over 30 million people. Also, would you believe that Japan was also home to the world's largest urban population center at the time? Edo was already home to as many as 1.25 million people! For comparison, London's population at the time was only around 860,000 and Paris' at 670,000. 

What kind of people made up this population? Most of the population fit into Japan's hierarchy system, shinōkōshō (士農工商), with samurai at the top, peasants below that, followed by artisans, and finally merchants at the bottom. While the emperor was the ceremonial ruler, the shōgun held the real political power as the head of the samurai class. He controlled the daimyō, feudal lords that governed the pre-modern Japanese prefectures. Of the four classes, peasants constituted the vast majority at around 80% of the population, most being farmers, as well as some fishermen and woodsmen.

Peasants mostly lived in village communities of around one to four hundred households. A typical farmstead would be located near the mountainside covered in trees, as well as a grove where they could harvest bamboo. There would be a farmhouse and yard, and sheds for firewood, straw, fertilizer, ashes, and rice. Outside they would also have a pond, a well, probably a vegetable garden, and a rice paddy. Unlike many European farms, Japanese farms typically did not use draft animals for farm labor, since it wouldn't be worthwhile to set aside land for growing feed. 

A typical house might have a main entrance leading into the doma. An enclosed and covered area with a dirt floor where you would find the kamado oven. From this room people would remove their shoes and step up into an elevated living space with wooden floors. There would be a living room, a sleeping space (including closets for storing bedding), and a zashiki (座敷) tatami mat room, often with a small Buddhist altar. A bathroom would usually be connected to the house, but far away from most of the living space for sanitary reasons. Most houses didn't have much beyond what they needed to live in what we think of as a pre-modern agricultural society!

A woodblock print, Nihonbashi, from "53 Stations of the Hokkaido" by the famous Utagawa Hiroshige.

A woodblock print, Nihonbashi, from "53 Stations of the Hokkaido" by the famous Utagawa Hiroshige.

Conservation, Recycling and reusing in daily life

Ironically, the term recycling did not exist in the Japanese language at this time, since recycling most items was simply part of daily life. In pre-modern society, a lot of materials we think of as commonplace now didn't exist, making recycling a much more feasible task. What were some of the ways Japan found to recycle and reuse materials?

Most households used a plaster clay kamado oven, which could run easily with virtually any twigs or wood scraps, giving it good fuel economy. People used metal pans and kettles for cooking. If they ended up with holes in them, people wouldn't just through them out. Instead, ikakeya (鋳掛屋, tinkers) would weld the hole shut. If a piece of metalware really had reached the end of its lifespan, then it could be disassembled and turned into smaller metal tools, such as blades, straps, and hooks. 

Meals of course required a lot of hot water. During the warmer time of the year, people would intentionally leave jars filled with water outside during the day so that they could absorb the sun's heat, and would require less fuel to heat in the evening for tea, cooking, and the occasional hot bath. Afterwards, any leftover water could be put into the wastewater pond so they could use it later in the garden or rice paddy.

Believe it or not, the Edo period actually had a very vibrant reading culture. The literacy rate among the peasants was around 60%, making it possible to disseminate agricultural knowledge. When books were no longer wanted, they could be resold, and the paper could also be recycled to make bathroom tissue or printing paper. Some people would also pick up paper scraps they found on the streets and sell them to warehouses for cash. 

All households needed clothing, and there wasn't any mass production going on at this time, so all clothing was handmade and quite expensive. Something really interesting you might notice about Japanese clothing is the square shape, including the sleeves. Not only does this making folding easier, but it also prevents wasting any precious fabric. Reselling clothes was very common at this time, and records show that there may have been around 4,000 used clothes shops in Edo alone!


Utagawa Hiroshige’s Suruga-chō, “From the “One Hundred Famous Views of Edo.”

Possibly the single most ingenious Edo period Japan recycling method created was the system to recycle human waste, referred to as "nightsoil." Instead of simply throwing it away like we do now, people would actually trade nightsoil with farmers in exchange for goods they grew. Nightsoil was actually prized as a fertilizer! A great side effect of this was that Japanese cities tended to be much cleaner than European cities where waste was simply thrown into the streets. You could say that in Japan, not even waste was wasted!

making japan green again 

The one material we haven't really discussed in depth yet is the most important of all - wood. Like we mentioned above, deforestation had Japan facing an ecological crisis after years and years of extravagant construction projects. This meant that above all, conserving and recycling wood was crucial. Fixing this actually required people to change their individual habits, and changes in how the bakufu and villages managed the forests. 

When peasants needed firewood, they wouldn't cut down trees. Instead, they would only take fallen tree limbs, dead trees, or trees that were felled by storms or rot. Furthermore, the wood they used had a surprisingly long life cycle! A large wooden plow that broke might be turned into several handles for axes and other tools, which might in turn be recycled into kitchen tools before eventually becoming firewood. The ash from firewood would even become part of the farmers' fertilizer! Meanwhile, for charcoal peasants would cultivate "coppices," small clusters of oaks and other hardwoods that regrew quickly, minimizing environmental impact. 

At first, the bakufu tried to enforce this environmental policy by appointing official forest overseers and designating certain areas the "Lord's Forest" and off limits to peasants. However, peasants easily found ways around the regulations. Eventually, forest management became a community job, meaning that average villagers all took part in guarding and managing this precious resource. 

It wasn't until after Japan was forced to open up to the west that they really started to adopt western technology and abandoned this model. However, as we can see from these ideas, advancing technology doesn't always equate to a better society! While the Edo period was nowhere near perfect, they came up with some creative ways to care for the environment in their daily lives, lessons that might be more applicable than ever today!