Bill Totten's Weblog

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Back to the Future

The Edo Biosphere

by Thomas Daniell (December 19 2008)

1. Postwar Japan

Japan's phoenix-like emergence out of the urban firestorms triggered by incendiary bombing campaigns during the final months of the Second World War is a story that has been told often enough. The incredible collective willpower that rebuilt - or better, reconceived - the nation during the postwar period (albeit under the benevolent guidance of the American Occupation for the first seven years) enabled decades of unprecedented industrialization, urbanization, modernization, democratization and a welcome reentry into the global community of nations symbolized by the 1964 Tokyo Olympics and the 1970 Osaka Expo.

It was a long haul from the brutal, favela-like conditions of Japan's cities at the end of the war, confronted as they were with overwhelming homelessness, unemployment, inflation and material scarcities. The turning point was 1960, the year Hayato Ikeda (a career bureaucrat in the Finance Ministry) became Prime Minister and announced his 'income doubling plan' and 'politics of patience and reconciliation': slogans that equated to massive industrialization and a concomitant suppression of societal disagreement. Ikeda built on his own late-1950s policies of preferential financing for heavy industry, advocating huge government investment in transportation infrastructure and an uncompromising commitment to economic progress. The environmental and social consequences were immaterial. Ikeda's personal ruthlessness was no secret: he had been appointed head of MITI (the Ministry of International Trade and Industry) in 1952, but was forced to resign within a month as a result of his infamous statement that in the pursuit of national industrialization, 'it makes no difference to me if five or ten small businessmen are forced to commit suicide' {1}. Heartless as this may sound, Ikeda's crime was merely an overly blunt expression of a generally accepted Japanese principle: individual suffering is irrelevant in the pursuit of collective wellbeing.

Boosted by US investment and the Korean War, the Japanese economy succeeded far beyond expectations. Within a few years, Japan had a Gross National Product second only to the US, an affluent citizenry with a remarkably flat distribution of wealth, a superb educational system, the highest literacy rates in the world and local industries producing an array of consumer goods that had turned the label 'Made in Japan' from a contemptuous warning into an assurance of quality. The 1960s also nurtured the Metabolists, a group of young visionaries who attempted to give architectural form to the utopian promises of technological progress, infinite growth and development without consequences {2}. The spirit of the times is encapsulated by Kenzo Tange's 1960 Tokyo Bay Plan, an enormous, potentially infinite, extension of the city out across the water, with housing and other facilities sprouting from a central infrastructural spine.

The parallel story is one of appalling and tragic environmental damage that gave Japan the sadly deserved reputation of having the worst pollution problems of any developed country. Since the late nineteenth century, incipient industrialization had been causing serious damage to local ecosystems and their human inhabitants, but the problems exponentially increased after the Second World War. A series of notorious ecological disasters during the 1950s and 60s resulted in outbreaks of incurable illnesses, birth defects and deaths, as the natural environment became poisoned by industrial waste: arsenic (Morinaga Milk Powder poisoning), sulfur dioxide (Yokkaichi Asthma), mercury (Minamata Disease), cadmium (Itai-itai Disease) {3}. Such incidents were initially confined to rural areas, a result of provincial governments trying to stimulate their local economies by attracting industrial investment - mining, chemical production, wood pulp treatment - that directly and indirectly destroyed the health of their farming and fishing communities. Protests were initially suppressed or ignored, with the wider population all too content in their new prosperity. Media coverage of the problems and successful compensation claims eventually led to the enactment of strict new environmental legislation in 1970 and the establishment of the Environmental Agency in 1971.

This was another turning point, coinciding with the World Expo in Osaka - a paean to progress and technology, dominated by the Metabolist architects. Again Kenzo Tange made the definitive contribution, a vast spaceframe roof covering the Expo grounds. For the general public the utopian idealism of it all was no longer inspiring, but rather a callous display of the gap between these fantastic visions and the degraded reality of their living environment. It fueled a burgeoning backlash to modern affluence and progress - the dawning feeling that something was deeply amiss, that a historical wrong turn had been taken. This was the genesis of the 'Edo Boom' (or more accurately, series of booms): a flourishing popular interest in the premodern Edo period (1603-1867). Once regarded as laughably backward, an embarrassing episode best forgotten in the forward thrust of Japan's manifest destiny, during the 1970s a stream of books, lectures, exhibitions and television shows began to valorize Edo as an innocent, Edenic period of social and ecological sustainability. This reached a crescendo during the second half of the 1980s, precisely coinciding with the most shamelessly unsustainable period of Japan's postwar economic growth, the so-called 'bubble'. Since the burst of the bubble at the beginning of the 1990s, the fascination with Edo culture has only deepened. An Edo-Tokyo Museum opened in 1993 and new publications on the subject continue to appear, ranging from serious, substantial historiography to the most superficial, self-congratulatory 'nipponology'.

2. Edo Japan

The Edo Period began in the wake of a century of devastating civil wars, with a military regime (the Tokugawa Shogunate) taking control of the nation and imposing a somewhat Taliban-like peace, stability and unity. Japan was run for the following two-and-a-half centuries by a series of warlords - de facto rulers based in the de facto capital, Edo, while the nominal ruler, the Emperor, lived in secluded irrelevance in the official capital, Kyoto. The new rulers invented a strict social hierarchy (a five-tier caste system), regulated architectural form and aesthetics (preventing wealthier commoners from building houses that might compete with the aristocracy), banned and confiscated all firearms (ensuring the dominance of the samurai sword) and most importantly closed the country to the outside world. Foreign trade and communication were almost entirely prohibited. The Edo Period ended with the restoration of the Emperor to power in 1868, together with the official relocation of the nation's capital from Kyoto to Edo (the latter city was then renamed Tokyo). Japan was reopened to the world, and like a child starved of novelty began to enthusiastically and uncritically import Western ideas while dismissing the older ways as primitive and worthless.

Yet during those centuries of self-imposed isolation, Japan was a closed system, a laboratory for an extended experiment in sustainability. Without significant fossil fuel reserves, unable to import energy or manufactured goods, Japan effectively became a solar-powered nation. Recycling was not a choice or an ideology, but a life-or-death necessity, so pervasive that the word itself did not exist. The exquisite minimalism of the arts and crafts was not a rejection of luxury and decoration, but the only available option. Edo society teemed with itinerant artisans specialized in repairing various materials: welding metal cooking pots, gluing broken ceramics, repapering lanterns and umbrellas, refurbishing footwear, replenishing ink pads. If an object was beyond repair, it was repurposed: kimonos became diapers became cleaning rags. Finally, the component materials were collected and reused: scrap metal was melted down, coagulated wax from old candles was made into new ones, used paper was pulped and turned into clean sheets. {4}

A balanced integration with the wider ecosystem was crucial for long-term survival. Centuries of small-scale farming and forestry around Japanese villages resulted in a kind of hybrid natural-artificial landscape known as satoyama {5}. A word that today evokes an idyllic, rural lifestyle, satoyama are usually defined as coppice woodlands maintained in a sustainable equilibrium with adjacent paddy fields and human communities. Forests were regularly, judiciously thinned and the wood used for charcoal and construction. The inedible straw left over from the rice harvest was turned into coats, hats, footwear, bags, embedded into clay walls as reinforcement, woven into tatami mats for floors and used as fuel for fires. Ultimately, everything was returned to the earth, whether directly or as ash after being burned. The main source of fertilizer was 'night soil' (human excrement), often collected directly from residences by farmers who paid for it in cash or crops. It was valuable stuff: dealers set up warehouses, landlords argued with their tenants over ownership and farmers became connoisseurs - different neighborhoods commanded different prices and the best shit was used for cultivating the highest grades of green tea. One side effect was cities that were extraordinarily clean by medieval standards (no one would pour potential wealth out the window, European-style). Equally important was the daily reminder that humanity was intimately, necessarily connected with the cycles of nature.

Unsurprisingly, a society of reuse and recycling is not good for business. Without constant disposal and demand for new products, the economy stagnates. Historical analyses show that the Japanese economy grew insignificantly during the Edo period, averaging 0.3% per year {6}. The picture painted by the Edo Boom is undoubtedly a simplistic idealization of what must have been a grueling existence for much of the population. Admittedly, not even the most extreme of the contemporary Edo-philes are proposing a return to that lifestyle. More than an unwillingness to abandon modern conveniences, this is the acknowledgment of an insurmountable problem: the sustainability of Edo Japan was predicated on a far lower population (throughout the Edo Period, the nation held a stable thirty million people) and a correspondingly higher proportion of arable land and natural forest.

Interlude: Biosphere 2

Though national in scale and multigenerational in duration, the isolated ecology of Edo Japan might be seen as a precursor to Biosphere 2, the largest artificial closed ecological system ever constructed. Intended as a microcosm of the earth itself (that is, Biosphere 1), Biosphere 2 comprises an array of enormous greenhouses in the Arizona desert. From September 1991 to September 1993, eight humans were sealed inside together with 3800 other living species spread across seven biomes (rainforest, desert, ocean, savannah, marshland, agriculture and a 'cultural' habitat for humans). There was to be no material input, with the entire system powered primarily by sunlight, and rigorous crop rotation, animal farming and waste recycling providing all necessities for the duration. Given the complexity and originality of the experiment, calculation errors and unforeseeable events inevitably intervened. Insects destroyed much of the crops. Oxygen and food ran low. The team was forced to slaughter all the pigs and chickens, eliminating the absurd inefficiency of raising vegetables only to be used as animal feed - one outcome was evidence that a vegetarian diet and abnormally low body weight will significantly increase human health and longevity (as had already been proven with laboratory animals). Yet, inadvertently perhaps, Biosphere 2 was a social experiment as much as a scientific one. Destabilized by the shortage of food, the participants soon divided into two factions with a relationship that was, at best, icy {7}. Violence was only averted through a determined commitment to civility and the creation of ad hoc food-related festivals - not unlike some primitive agrarian society - intended to inspire a sense of community. The widespread media criticism of Biosphere 2 notwithstanding, it was a compelling confirmation of the experience of Edo Japan: the creation of a closed system exponentially increases the importance of efficient recycling, of maintaining a high ratio of cultivated land to human population, and of ensuring a strict social order.

3. Japan now

With a population of close to 130 million overwhelmingly middle-class consumers, contemporary Japan simply cannot sustain itself without a constant influx of new resources. Indeed, the nation is now one of the world's main importers of raw materials and energy (oil, natural gas, uranium). Yet grassroots activism on issues of energy, recycling and pollution has spread into national awareness, exemplified by the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, the nature-themed Aichi Expo 2005 and the bid for a carbon-neutral Tokyo Olympics in 2016. Japan is now a world leader in solar power research and usage. Maverick architect Tadao Ando, after four decades of creating sublime yet uninsulated raw concrete dwellings, is focusing his energy and fame on planting trees. In a droll echo of Tange's 1960 proposal for extending human habitation out into Tokyo Bay, Ando has been promoting a 480,000-tree 'Sea Forest' on a garbage landfill island in the bay. As in many First World countries, Japan now has an increasingly popular back-to-the-land movement {8}. Following decades of rural depopulation due to youth invariably moving to the cities, idealistic new communities are resettling abandoned villages and publicly funded volunteer groups are rejuvenating the satoyama landscapes.

Yet however admirable, without broader action these trends are deeply quixotic. Their success is predicated on a far smaller population willing (or forced) to make do with far less and an understanding of the human world as being integral to the natural world. Premodern Japan lacked a sharp distinction between nature and culture, conceiving each as inextricably embedded in the other. Time was seen as circular: any one life follows a linear trajectory from birth to death, but the collective rides cycles of eternal recurrence and renewal. Balance must be maintained and the individual must stay strictly subservient to the group. The mentality of modern Japan has arguably undergone a shift toward a Western, linear conception of time. At worst, this manifests in lunatic fantasies of infinite growth or even more insidiously the End of Days: if our present moment is located somewhere between a creation and an apocalypse, the 'moral' thing to do is use up our divinely bequeathed resources before time runs out.

While Japan may have belatedly recognized the urgent need to shift course nationally, globally the situation is only being maintained through massive imbalances in regional wealth. The idealized self-sufficiency of Edo Japan is no longer tenable. For true sustainability, everything removed must be replenished. The flows of material into Japan and the rest of the First World are themselves unsustainable. As formerly Third World populations increase in affluence - cars for the Chinese, refrigerators for the Indians - there will not be enough to go around. Priority must go to tackling new frontiers in intensive agriculture and technologies for resource recycling and procurement (seaweed farms? alchemical transformation of plastic waste? towing mineral-rich asteroids into earth orbit?). Failing that, the problem becomes disturbingly simple: without realistic recourse to global vegetarianism or global war, the closed system of our planetary biosphere now holds more human beings than it can sustain.


1. Chalmers Johnson, MITI and the Japanese Miracle: The Growth of Industrial Policy, 1925-1975 (Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 1982), page 202.

2. Their manifesto was presented at the World Design Conference held in Tokyo in 1960 as Metabolism 1960: The Proposals for New Urbanism (Tokyo: Bijutsu Shuppansha, 1960).

3. Jun Ui (editor), Industrial Pollution in Japan (Tokyo: United Nations University Press, 1991).

4. The information given here about recycling in the Edo Period is primarily drawn from Eisuke Ishikawa, Oo-edo Risaikuru Jijou [The Recycling Situation in the Edo Period] (Tokyo: Kodansha, 1997) and Atsushi Tsuchida, Ekorojii Shinwa no Kouzai [The Value of Ecology Myths] (Tokyo: Hotaru Shuppan, 1998).

5. A comprehensive survey of historical and contemporary satoyama is contained in Kazuhiko Takeuchi, R D Brown, I Washitani, M Yokohari (editors), Satoyama: The Traditional Rural Landscape of Japan (Berlin: Springer, 2003).

6. Eisuke Ishikawa, Oo-edo Risaikuru Jijou [The Recycling Situation in the Edo Period] (Tokyo: Kodansha, 1997).

7. The two sides of the story are recounted in Abigail Alling, Mark Nelson, and Sally Silverstone, Life under Glass: The Inside Story of Biosphere 2 (Tuscon: Biosphere Press, 1993) and Jane Poynter, The Human Experiment: Two Years and Twenty Minutes inside Biosphere 2 (New York: Basic Books, 2006).

8. See, for example, John Knight, 'The Soil as Teacher: Natural Farming in a Mountain Village', in Pamela J Asquith and Arne Kalland (editors), Japanese Images of Nature (Richmond: Curzon, 1997), pages 236-256.

Bill Totten


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