Sustainability | Japan

“Nothing was superfluous”

The notion of recycling and saving resources was already an everyday reality in Japan 300 years ago. Makiko Yamaguchi reflects on the Edo era

Illustration shows a wooden bridge over a river. Several people are crossing the river with luggage and carts. In the background there is a city of low houses and two mountains

Japanese woodcut showing the city of Kyoto in the Edo era


Ms Yamaguchi, you co-curated the art festival “reEDOcate me!” in Berlin, which deals with sustainability and refers to the Japanese Edo period. What is that all about?

The Edo period began at the beginning of the 17th century, a time when resources were  very scarce in Japan and the colonial power claims of the Europeans were increasingly perceived as a threat. Therefore, Japan sealed itself off from the rest of the world for over 200 years. During this time, the country was completely self-sufficient.

How did this scarcity of resources come about?

The population grew rapidly and more and more people moved to the cities, especially to Kyoto, Osaka and Edo, today's Tokyo. In order to obtain more fuel and building material, many forests were cleared. At the same time, there were terrible floods, followed by droughts and famines.

Such crises have often led to the collapse of civilisations in human history, for example on the Easter Islands. But in Japan, things turned out differently.


While in countries like England coal was burned to drive industrialisation, in Japan there were hardly any fossil fuels. Almost only renewable, vegetable materials were used. And because even these quickly ran out, investments were made in reforestation and a complex recycling and repair system was introduced.

How did this system work?

Nothing was superfluous, everything was reused. A kimono, was worn until it fell apart. Then it was often made into a blanket - and if that broke, it was turned into cleaning rags. Everything that was left over was burned and used as ash to fertilise the fields. Even the rubbish was bought by collectors who went from house to house.

And sushi also came into being during that time to use up cold rice to save fuel. What I find particularly exciting from an artistic point of view is that the Edo period was also a period of cultural flourishing, despite the scarcity. Because a lot of what is associated with Japanese culture today comes from this era.

For example?

Japanese ukiyo-e painting, for example, while Japanese Japanese literature and theatre also experienced a heyday. Kabuki theatre, which today is more of a kind of museum art, was very socially critical at the time.

How did this epoch end?

Probably mainly with the fact that on 8 July 1853, four US warships entered Edo Bay and forced the opening of the Japanese market. What followed was modernisation along Western lines. Japan went to great lengths to become an industrial country as quickly as possible.

Thus, previous achievements and ways of life were devalued as backward and outdated.

How is this era remembered in Japan today?

In my school days, this time in history - although it was accompanied by a 260-year period of peace - was conveyed as a dark time, comparable to the Middle Ages. And indeed, society at that time was strictly hierarchically organised in a feudal system, with a great divide between the poorer people and the rulers.

Nevertheless, the Edo period can serve as an inspiration for us. And that is also what we wanted to inspire with our art festival: to react creatively to current crises and to learn to deal with scarcity.

Interview by Gundula Haage