Tokyobling's Blog

Recommended Reading – Just Enough

Posted in Opinion, Stuff by tokyobling on July 27, 2013

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.

More links:
National Geographic Review.
The San Francisco Chronicle Review.
TED Tokyo Talk – The Edo Approach.
The Atlantic article on Urban Farming by Azby Brown.



19 Responses

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  1. C said, on July 27, 2013 at 5:46 am

    Very interesting, and timely too, as I’m currently working on a ranch in rural California that’s on edge due to little rainfall last winter. When I go back “to civilization,” it’s interesting to see everyone else living in a bubble and not realizing how precarious life in the American West can be. It’s easy to insulate oneself in a city busy with an office job, or distract with shopping in a mall, or similar manmade places.

    Perhaps if more people would experience the fragile state of the environment, then they’d be ready for some of the ideas in this book? Kinda like when I went thru the earthquake simulator at Ikebukuro Bosaikan — the moment I got back here, the earthquake kit and emergency water and food were finally purchased and put in order. But without that direct experience, I probably would have kept going along with life as usual. So just going out for a hike in nature isn’t really enough (especially now that people are just trashing it), but experiencing what farmers and ranchers go through to bring us food could be? I don’t know the answer, but it’s great food for thought (no pun intended). Thanks for the article links!


    • tokyobling said, on July 27, 2013 at 10:49 am

      Thank you for the thought provoking comment! At least one thing I know for certain, and that is we, as a global society needs to learn to reevaluate everything we take for granted today!


      • C said, on July 29, 2013 at 4:46 am

        You’ll need to use all of your marketing prowess to convince others of that certainty! For example, could you convince an urban dweller to use a composting toilet? Probably not, as you can’t sell people on stuff by saying it’s a sacrifice nowadays — but it would be cool to figure out, say, how to better separate black water from grey in cities. (Some of that is starting to happen, i.e. I’ve seen signs for gardens/golf courses/green spaces that say things like: do not drink, gray water used for irrigation)

        I didn’t realize the book was on my Amazon wish list for eons, and found it at the library today. Did the quick first read in an hour and think it’s a great resource for urban planners and engineers when the you-know-what hits the fan (no toilet pun intentionally intended). It does make me feel good that a lot of Bay Area and Pacific NW cities are doing many of these things tho! Then again, this region tends to be the experimenter and trendsetter. It will take a decade or two before things like permaculture and urban farming wind their way east. (It took “esoteric” things like yoga a few decades, from what I gather. Closest analogy)

        Anyway, thanks for getting me to read this! Good stuff.


        • tokyobling said, on July 30, 2013 at 2:47 pm

          You know me, I am all for composting toilets! However, I don’t think I have the skills necessary to debrief a human race coming down from a spending high and used to water based toilets… (^-^;) Grey water is popular in some Japanese places, like the way they use old bath water for washing clothes by connecting a pipe from the tub to the washer. Brilliant! Much more could be done though. I wish I could nudge my lifestyle to be just 1% more sustainable. But there is only so much you can do in the middle of the largest city on Earth… Thank you for the kind and thoughtful comment C!


          • C said, on July 30, 2013 at 6:20 pm

            What’s that saying, you’re either part of the problem or part of the solution? 😉

            Composting toilets are great in theory (as usual). There are quite a few reasons why they won’t work too well in many places in reality, although clever designers are figuring out some good options. They should get women involved in the design of these things too, however ::cough::

            When I stayed with a Tokyo family and saw the converted bath water to the washing machine, wow that was smart. Too bad the bath culture of relatively clean water afterwards doesn’t translate outside of Japan. However, my Israeli friends are hardcore — when starting a bath, capture the interim water for plants. If there’s a sustainability book around on Israel, I’ll bet that would be a good read.

            You already live a pretty sustainable lifestyle if you don’t add to the consumption frenzy and keep material goods down. I’m pretty lean myself. The only vice is living in a post-A/C world, but I’m not cut out for it. Solar panels will keep me in the 68-72 range for life, someday…

            If everyone could do just one thing different, that’s all it would take to get the ball rolling. Use your Marketing Moxie for good and remember that it’s Progress, not Perfection 🙂


          • tokyobling said, on August 24, 2013 at 6:09 am

            I’m afraid the vast majority of our time spent on this Earth is while being part of the problem (^-^;)

            Another way to use non flushing non electric toilets would be to just bury it in the classic outhose style. Or the ultimate would be the Okinawan style, just have the toilet connect to the pig’s feeding trough. Ultimate recycling!

            I think even dirty water from the bath tub or shower would work well. All the soap suds and the shampoo in the water would make the need for detergents even smaller! Cleaner clothes and cleaner bodies. (^-^) Israelis never do anything half assed when it comes to water. They know the value of it!

            One day I’ll start writing my book on these things…


          • C said, on August 25, 2013 at 2:33 pm

            If you have the perspective that we’re the problem, then that’s all you’ll see. People have, can, and do live peacefully with Earth; that just needs to be showcased more, as you’ve shown with this book.

            What would your book be about? I like reading books about these things but skew more toward solutions for modern life to treat ourselves and the planet well. One can live comfortably and be a good steward of the land and water, I think. I see it around here all the time. No need to go hardcore to prove a point 🙂


          • tokyobling said, on August 25, 2013 at 3:21 pm

            Well, one subject for a book would be how to live better without being so ecologically damaging. However, economists would hate it.


          • C said, on August 25, 2013 at 6:18 pm

            There has to be a way to make that work, tho. (Besides ignoring economists, which I do all the time, heh)

            I like Teddy Roosevelt’s perspective that this is conservation — a much more palatable word, perhaps? And now after working with farmers and understanding their perspectives, there are ways to phrase “green living” to show that it does save money and resources. To me, it feels like it’s all in how it’s marketed.

            I guess a lot of it is that immediate issues are regionally-based, but we’re all interconnected and need to be concerned about what others do. Persuading others to change habits is hard, but people are doing it, i.e. over here, the plastic-bag ban has gone into effect this summer — stores can’t use them, they’ll charge 10 cents for a paper bag, and signs everywhere encourage you to bring your own. So habits can be changed. It’s up to us to come up with clever ways to get people to change.


          • tokyobling said, on August 26, 2013 at 12:39 pm

            Every little step helps but I am afraid we will need many little steps to offset the damage done!


  2. yoshizen said, on July 27, 2013 at 9:18 am

    Without reading the book I’m not sure whether I should put comment about it or not.
    Yet still, at least I know something about Edo period. —– I couldn’t draw such “Ideal” picture from Edo.
    Just one fact I’ll point out was that sustainability then was made out of artificial population-check = infanticide
    “Mabiki” (間引き) and abandonment of old “Obaste” (姥捨て) = no so-called human right there then at all.
    —– has the American author discussed about this in the book ?
    Don’t forget a fact, in Edo period a farmer who grow rice couldn’t eat their rice even a single grain, since
    all the rice harvested went to the tax = “Nengu” (年貢) (This is the reason why Japanese having many Fancy
    foods such as “Kuzu-mochi” (葛餅) made out of a starch from the roots of plant no other culture regard
    it as a food source, since poor farmer had to find something to eat)
    IS this sustainable society ? —– surely, the system continued 300 years. It didn’t mean it was sustainable.


    • tokyobling said, on July 27, 2013 at 10:55 am

      Like I mentioned, not everything about the edo period is agreeable to us as modern human beings, especially infanticide, lack of human rights, class system etc. But those things were taken for granted by ALL human societies at that era. Some western societies practiced slavery as a form of production, other genocide and warfare, others had caste systems or unbelievable squalor for the poor. The author does mention all that you take up, and many more things as well, such as religion, etc. Still, if there is one thing human history has taught us it is that humans will, like the biblical locust, eat and consume everything until their society collapses from over use of resources or overpopulation. There are many modern societies where we can see this in action right now. The Edo period of Japan however, was thousands of times more sustainable than anything similar to that level of sophistication and size, up until now in human society. That is the purpose of this book, to show that there are sustainable methods that can give us a decent level of life without the worst forms of human abuse so common in all other societies on the planet up until today. Combined with more modern technologies and science there are some aspects of Edo society that we could even improve upon.

      The Japanese Edo period was the most diverse in terms of food production in human history, I remember reading somewhere else that no other culture has had so many different sources of food, over 11 000 plants and animals, whereas many European societies had less than 200 to chose from. There are also plenty of examples from modern periods of starvation in Japan (when the population had grown to become dependent on fossil energy) when rice was 100% confiscated that rural populations found ways to survive in far better situations than urban populations. The author mentions how many farmers (if not most) managed to hide parts of their rice harvests for personal consumption.

      “IS this sustainable society ? —– surely, the system continued 300 years. It didn’t mean it was sustainable.” In absolute terms, of course it isn’t, in comparison with other human societies, and certainly the one we live in now, yes it was far more sustainable. I challenge anyone to find a model of a sophisticated society to function in a more sustainable manner at that level of population and resources, I have really been looking and I can’t think of anything.

      I recommend you read the book! There’s plenty of things to learn from it.


    • C said, on July 27, 2013 at 2:16 pm

      I hadn’t thought about the flip side of the this era, thanks for pointing that out. I found the author’s website, and he also does a good job of addressing your question. (And mine too — I’m busy and while it’s interesting to learn about history, I’m into “give me some real, practical solutions” at the moment. This page does a good job of that, too)


  3. yoshizen said, on July 27, 2013 at 5:25 pm

    In the point of survivability, in comparison to another culture and society, I agree with you.
    Strangely, the Chinese who tested all sorts of plant for their medicine and notoriously eat anything,
    when disaster struck, their survivability seemed no better than Edo people, but their disaster got
    dimensionally different scale.
    To see the material for crafts etc, Edo period had in deed having had amazing achievement.
    —— Then turn the eyes to the Japanese now, (as I’ve born 1945, I remember our lowest moment)
    I’m very skeptic, “Is this the same people who endure the time after war, not mention the descendant
    of Edo people, who supposed to have the same base of Ethos. —– .

    I heard from my friend, they eat A Mago fruit which carry 3000yen price. Not only x3 price rice, Japanese
    seemed to lost of common sense.
    By the way, when I staid in Switzerland (who used to be the poorest in Europe) , I noticed that they are
    the surviver.! They still keep the mind and Ethos of poor people. (Though, their prosperity has been
    sustained by the conflict in the world (their largest export is weapon), and the interest of the banking
    for filthy rich, now)


    • tokyobling said, on July 30, 2013 at 2:42 pm

      Well, survival depends on sustainability in the long run but sustainability has nothing to do with survival, at least not necessarily. The Chinese system was maximized and in good years they could feed an enormous amount of human beings, but in bad years they would have epic starvations. They also used more energy and resources than what was sustainable, and still do (just like all countries on Earth do today).

      Personally I think a mango could really well be worth 3000 yen, it is the product of hard work and skill by a craftsman (the farmer), it provides enjoyment and nutrition to the person who buys it. And anyone who spends 3000 yen on a mango is rich enough to afford it. It is a far better use of money than to buy a whole crate of cheap mangos from some plantation where workers are paid almost nothing and that rely on insecticides and chemicals, or even better than to have the money locked up in a bank account or spent on securities or derivatives in some financial scheme some where doing no good at all.


  4. dinahmow said, on July 28, 2013 at 12:28 am

    Ordered! I also refer to One Straw Revolution [Masanobu Fukuoka (1913-2008) ] for sensible advice.
    I suspect that many westerners will not feel it could apply to them, but this poor old world needs help, from whatever quarter, right?
    Thank you for the links.


    • tokyobling said, on July 30, 2013 at 2:42 pm

      Great! Yes, that book is permanent classic! I absolutely agree with you!


  5. Victoria said, on August 3, 2013 at 11:56 am

    I just placed an order for it. Thank you for an interesting recommendation. I doubt I would have found it on my own, but this is the sort of topic I enjoy. Plus, the Edo period is one of the most fascinating in Japan’s history for me.


    • tokyobling said, on August 24, 2013 at 6:17 am

      Thank you Victoria! It must have arrived by now. I hope you like it. It is useful on so many different levels. Even if you are not into the ecology part of it there is so much explained about the history of Japan that you will learn a lot from it anyway! (^-^)


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