I don’t normally review books on this blog but there is this one book that I just can’t ignore, it is easily my favorite book about Japan, and also strangely enough, about our future. “Just Enough – Lessons in living green from traditional Japan” by the scholar Azby Brown happens to be the only book I know that actually provides practical answers to the predicament we all face today, overpopulation, peak oil, peak water, basically peak everything. The fact that humanity is wreaking all sorts of havoc on this planet can’t have escaped anyone. Our social and economical systems are based on a theory of infinite growth in a finite world, something that is both practically and theoretically impossible. Too many humans are using up too many resources, there is an ever accelerating rate of loss of species, biodiversity, forests, farmland, natural resources, accessible water, etc. Our oceans are acidifying, overfished and polluted. Or quest to feed an ever more hungry economy forces us to use ever more expensive and damaging systems of extracting fossil fuels, farmland is turned into shopping malls, forests are turned into desserts and in most places these changes are irreversible.
We can either start changing our lifestyles right now, when we still have choices, or we can just wait for the whole modern system to run into the brick wall of system collapse. One of the main reasons we don’t want to change though, is because we have no role models, we have no examples where humans have managed to turn an ecology on the brink of collapse to something resembling a sustainable society, but unknown to most westerners and ignored by many Japanese, there is one. Azby Brown, an American scholar based in Tokyo has written a book about the one and only human society to have functioned more or less sustainably, the one of Japan in the Edo period (roughly 1600-1868). In this book he describes Japan as it was before the Edo period, rocked by civil wars, overpopulation, rapid deforestation, pollution and the loss of farm land to erosion. Pre-Edo Japan was very similar to our global society today, as an isolated island nation it was heading towards irreversible ecological and social collapse. However, something happened, an enlightened and clever political regime came into power that saw the problems and had the intelligence and willpower to act. During the Edo period, ever aspect of life in Japan, from the lowliest commoner to the lords of the country, changed. Every single human activity was remodeled to be sustainable and fit into the large scheme. Nothing was wasted, everything manmade was well thought out and designed to perfection, every scrap of nutrition was recycled and although the country was almost completely isolated and had access to absolutely no other energy than muscle power, the whole country went from being on the brink of collapse into becoming a prosperous, socially and technologically advanced culture with a stable population of 30 million (including the biggest and cleanest city on Earth at the time, Edo, with 1,4 million people), no deforestation and farmland that actually became more and more fertile generation after generation.
This book, of which I have read both the English and the Japanese versions many times (as you can see from the worn out cover of my old hardcover copy) describe this remarkable change and the sacrifices that were necessary. Obviously not all of these would be immediately acceptable to us modern humans, but in the end they proved both successful and sustainable for the people of Japan. Azby Brown’s work and this book might just be one of the most important books ever written about sustainable societies for a modern audience. It is certainly the only book that is able to provide an example of a human society that actually did work. When I get depressed thinking about where our modern society is going and the damage we are doing to our planet I like to pick up this book and imagine again a society that was proof that humans can live long and prosper, without relying on finite resources or the plundering of our planet.
You can get this book on Amazon here, or the Japanese version here. I actually bought many of the Japanese version to give out to like minded friends. The book is well illustrated and so full of facts, charts, explanations of everything from recycling to kimono patterns that is great fun to read or even to just dip into and pick up a fact here and there.
Even if you are not interested in ecology or the future of the planet, the books is fantastic because it will explain so many things about Japan, the Japanese society and the Japanese language that you’d certainly never be able to gather from just living here. Even my Japanese friends who read this have had an Aha! experience on nearly every page. Wandering around in modern Tokyo with this book I am able to find in almost every block, even after 160 or more years later, many traces of the old sustainable Edo, even in my own block, and in my landlord’s family history, it all matches up. I can not recommend this book enough. Please check out its official website here.
National Geographic Review.
The San Francisco Chronicle Review.
TED Tokyo Talk – The Edo Approach.
The Atlantic article on Urban Farming by Azby Brown.
If you are ever on the man made Yume-no-shima island in Tokyo’s Koto Ward you can take a few minutes to visit the Daigo Fukuryu Maru exhibition hall. The ship exhibited is an ordinary wooden fishing vessel built in 1947. On a fishing trip in the Pacific Ocean in 1954 the ship had the bad fortune to be hit by nuclear fallout from a US hydrogen testing at the Bikini Atoll, known as Operation Castle Bravo. All 23 members of the crew suffered from acute radiation poisoning and 7 months after the event, the ship radio operator, Mr. Kuboyama died from the radiation poisoning, quite possibly the first human to have been killed by a hydrogen bomb. Later on another 10 members of the crew would die from radiation poisoning. The bomb itself was over 1000 times as powerful as either the Hiroshima or Nagasaki bombs and while the crew of the Japanese ship suffered greatly the fate of the poor native islanders were far worse, many of whom suffered genetic damage and had to be evacuated. The islands will probably never again be inhabitable by humans.
At the exhibition hall you can read in great detail about the atomic bomb testing, as well as see some gruesome photos of actual radiation poisoning in humans.
You can read more about the sad story here.
Some more costumes from the photogenic Kyoto Jidai Matsuri, the festival of the ages! One of my favorites are the gorgeous costumes worn by the women with the pointy white headwear. I think they might be saleswomen but I am not sure what era they recreate. The warriors don’t look half bad either but I always wonder how effective their bows could have been in combat?
It’s just a few more months until the colorful Jidai Matsuri, the festival of the ages, hits Kyoto, and then a little later Tokyo. I took these photos last year, and I especially liked the men in the blue costumes, representing warriors from the Yamanashi Clan of present day Gunma and Tottori prefectures. The tall halberd carried by the man in the last photo is a naginata, one of the traditional weapons of Japan. These days it is a modern sport mostly practiced by women. I have never seen it performed live but there are sometimes very impressive show fights on TV where one woman with a long naginata blade incapacitates two or more sword fighters on her own! And of course, the little kids put up a great show, this parade lasted the better part of a day, winding its way through central Kyoto. The sunlight was harsh that day so I walked in front of them until about midpoint until I found a spot with a proper shadow to even out the light a little.
All of these costumes are historical representation, more or less faithful to how the originals looked back in old days. Isn’t it interesting how even the most average looking old man looks warrior-like in these costumes?