Transition Culture

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11 Dec 2014

Knowing what ‘just enough’ is: Azby Brown on Japan’s Edo period – Part Two


So how did you set about researching the book?

I was really fortunate because there are quite a few excellent researchers in Japan who have done a lot of the groundwork, and researchers overseas as well. Of course a lot of it was academic research. And again, the specialisation was interesting, because I met people who knew everything there is to know about forestry and timber transport for instance, but who didn’t necessarily know about other issues, agriculture, water, etc. I found people who knew everything there is to know about public baths but who didn’t necessarily think about the use of metal or charcoal etc. So none of them were linking up their knowledge with other specialists. I approached it specifically looking at the connections.

I have been in Japan for quite a long time and particularly as a traditional architecture specialist I already was very familiar with how buildings were built, how the materials were used, and how cities were built. So from one standpoint it involved following the traces. I knew how timbers were shaped and used in a building but I said – but where did they get the timber from, and how did that whole system work? And then looked on the downstream side – what did they do when the building was being demolished? Where did all that wood and tile and other materials go?

It was really interesting simply expanding this network of the stream of materials and energy through the system in order to illustrate the overall connections.

How has the book been received in Japan?

CoverIt’s very interesting because the Japanese edition was published just a couple of weeks before the disaster of March 2011. It was very well received. I was asked to write articles in some very high profile Japanese magazines about these ideas. There was an incredible new receptivity towards this kind of thinking, a very common perception that the way that Japanese society had been doing things, certainly since the Modern period, that there was something fundamentally wrong.

We read stories of people in the Tohoku area that was affected by the tsunami that there had been stone markers set there centuries ago saying that tsunami came this far. Don’t build below this point. And they were warned. Their forebears warned them not to build on these low lying vulnerable areas, but that was ignored. So there’s a sense that there was an incredible amount of knowledge and information that was bequeathed to current generations by their ancestors that had been ignored. And why have we ignored all this stuff – is it a crisis of thinking?

I really felt that that society was ready to turn a corner on things like energy policy, environmental policy. And I think it sparked quite a lot of discussions and quite a lot of networking. But I hate to say it, we are 3½ years past this disaster and I feel that I was naïve in expecting changes to happen as quickly as I did.

So I’m very happy that the ideas that I talk about in the book have gained much more currency. There’s much more of a grassroots understanding, lots of people in the rural regions of Japan are trying to integrate a lot of this kind of thinking into their own lifestyles. But overall, the direction that economic and industrial policy and energy policy has not changed, and I don’t know what it will take to change it.

At the moment the economy has gone into downturn again in Japan after a period of quantitative easing that seems to have made the rich richer and not really helped anybody else very much. Do you see any conscious degrowth movement emerging in Japan that is inspired by these kind of ideas?

There are people, colleagues of mine who talk about this a lot. Interestingly, another researcher called Yuko Tanaka, who has approached the Edo period through literature and writing; she and another colleague called Kebo Oiwa have discussed the implications of the conscious economic degrowth policy and the successes of that during the Edo period.

A shared courtyard in the Edo period.

In terms of what we can learn from it now and how it might have important lessons for us, there are people, very good scholars, writers, thinkers, activists who are talking about this. It is a very alien idea to people, however. A very foreign idea. Our assumptions are that constant growth is necessary. The idea that we can have an economic cycle that is very vital and positive, that does not require the kinds of interpretations of growth, of constantly utilising more resources, new markets, this is something that is so alien to people’s way of thinking that it’s hard to really talk to people about it.

But there are lots of grassroots movements. There are even alternate currency movements in Japan. There are lots of places, and again these tend to be rural areas, where people have gone back to small towns, to be farmers, to be more self-sufficient, to live closer with the natural environment. This is a network but really it is a small minority within this society, as these things often are.

One of the questions I often get asked about Transition and the idea of intentional localisation is “surely we need everybody to be trading with each other?” and I  say – well, up to a degree, but when different communities are more able to meet their own needs, and have an economy when they’re more self-reliant, not self-sufficient, but there is that cultural sense that people are able to turn their hands to address issues that arise rather than each community, each settlement being completely unskilled and dependant on imports for absolutely everything. Then the quality of the relationship between those two settlements is very different. When two people meet each other and they’re both very skilled, adaptable, resilient, can turn their hands to anything, it’s a very different relationship to two people meeting each other who don’t have those skills. I wonder what your sense is from your study of the Edo period in terms of how that was. What was the quality of the relationships between neighbouring settlements and how they maybe differ from today?

They were overall very self-sufficient to begin with. Of course, there’s variations in the natural topography and what resources their particular local environment may have provided. There were not many things that villagers needed to buy from the outside. One, interestingly, was salt. Another was metal ore for making iron implements etc. Other than that, there was the conscious desire to make do with what was naturally provided and to set limits on the consumption of these resources. Among other things that this led to was an incredible recycling, reuse and the design of things for recycling and reuse.

Politically, it’s difficult to talk about the political and economic situation because on the one hand, it was a very advanced system in terms of information. This was largely based on the literacy that I mentioned. You had peasants who were very well educated and certainly the leadership of the villages were well educated. They had economic systems with their neighbouring villages that were actually very lively, trading goods, trading farm goods etc. with each other. Not that it was necessary, so much.

And then a large part of the farm economy was based on providing things for the cities. So the urban-rural interchange was really the engine for a lot of the economic activity and particular regions. For instance, if your area was very well suited for growing peaches then you would have a concerted effort by local leadership to maximise that and to find the markets and the shipping etc. to provide these to the cities.

The cities were very, very large. The city of Edo had 1.3-1.4 million people. This made it one of the largest cities in the world, if not the largest, until it was probably overtaken by London at some point. They needed everything, particularly food. This was an interesting relationship. The peasants knew they were needed. They were heavily taxed by the feudal lords, and yet the feudal lords did everything they could do to keep them content, happy and to provide them with an improving quality of life. Again, this is one of the remarkable aspects of this.

Despite this conscious, constant effort not to over consume, quality of life did improve steadily. This seems to be an oxymoron to us – how is it possible to have a better quality of life without consuming more? It was a question of consuming more intelligently based on a good understanding of the environment, of what was available, of what was changing and of how to utilise it as optimally as possible.

Are you able to in any way infer or suggest that people were happier than they are in Japan today?

This is one of those great questions and again this is where we might run the risk of over-romanticising. If there was a happiness index then I think that Japanese peasants would probably have ranked fairly high. There were occasional famines. We mentioned that there was no real mobility. The feudal government allowed a certain amount of expression of discontent, of petitioning for reform and for redress, but they drew a firm line when it came to armed uprising and were very harsh on this.

An urban farm in the Edo period.

So it’s as if you’d say – well as long as they didn’t overstep their boundaries, they were allowed to do pretty much anything they wanted. This seems very, very clear. In terms of free time, in terms of things that we tend to evaluate for our own happiness, they had that in abundance. The merchant class in the cities, again if their life was about business and business opportunity then it was a very business-oriented society as well.

The cities were fantastically dynamic, lots of entertainment, lots of food. Pretty much everyone had what they needed in terms of food and a place to live. Some people were able to have a lot of luxuries and there was a lot of social mobility, economic mobility for the merchant class and the craftsman classes who lived primarily in the cities.

The people who suffered the most, ironically, were the Samurai. The Samurai were technically at the top of the pyramid. But the system was rigid. Their incomes were set on stipends based on the situation generations previously. They were not able to get more income except by somehow advancing in rank and there were limited opportunities for that. So ultimately you had, in effect, a horrific inflation that affected the Samurai classes, who were unable to make ends meet with their government stipends.

They were trained as warriors, but with centuries of no war they ultimately became salaried workers. They would go to an office somewhere and do some paperwork a few times a week, but they really could not better their lot and they were prohibited from doing business or from selling things. One of the fascinating results of this was that gradually they converted their ornamental gardens. Every Samurai really needed to have a garden for formal reasons when they were receiving people ranking above them, they needed to be able to receive them in an appropriate way. They gradually converted their ornamental gardens to vegetable plots.

We saw during this period a tremendous amount of urban farming, primarily for the Samurai to feed themselves. This led to an exchange economy. Again, because they were prohibited from participating in the cash economy, if you grew a lot of apples or aubergines, you were welcome to share those or trade them with your family, with your neighbours, and this was a very lively sharing economy that was happening at the same time. So you had the cash economy and within this was the sharing economy and it continued for well over a century and eventually fell apart when the nation opened itself to the global economy.

You mentioned that your background is in architecture, and in building. There’s a quote from the book I was really taken by, where you say “we’ve become accustomed to living in spaces that are bound by characterless materials with neither sensual richness nor history.” Given the quality of most modern industrialised buildings, what do you think we’ve lost by moving away from the kind of construction rooted in local materials, local culture that you set out so beautifully in the book, and can we get it back?

This is an area that I am conflicted about for a lot of reasons, because I am interested in wooden building, I do love wooden building. I think in many places in the world it has an unparalleled sensual quality, physical quality, environmental qualities. And yet sometimes I feel that because of our deforestation, our poor management of our forests, maybe we should decrease the use of wood in construction. So I’m really torn about this.

What I do see that the Japanese building of this period had and gave to its society was a sense of time, primarily. A sense of connection, a sense of ageing, a sense of continuity. The buildings lent themselves, particularly the way they were designed in Japan, to being modified, to growth, to adapting, being adapted as needs changed without changing the fundamental character or quality of the buildings or the towns. This is a property that towns or buildings and cities have always had, we could even say they still do even if they’re built with industrial materials to some degree. But it’s not really recognised as a fundamental need for buildings.

We basically assume that buildings will be used for a certain number of decades. In Japan, it’s currently assumed that a building will be used for 20 or 30 years and then will be demolished, scrapped and something else built. So we have lost buildings that speak to our society, that speak to ourselves about who we are, where we came from, what we have valued, what we care about.

I grew up in New Orleans, in the United States, which is one of the oldest cities in North America, where this was valued. No matter what neighbourhood you would walk through, you could see how people lived 100 years ago and how we still appreciate some of the same things they appreciated, and how, if we value that and take care of it, it really beautifies and enhances our lives and enhances our identity.

A Samurai House and Garden.

And I realise in the United States there’s not a lot of places where you can say that. In Japan, I think people understood that. There’s still some kernel of understanding about it. But they feel that newer is better, that the older buildings were somehow inadequate. They were dark, they were gloomy. They don’t understand how in the West, certainly the United States and I believe in the UK, when people wanted to reuse old buildings, when they started to want to go back to the city centres in the 1960s and 70s, people said “hey, we need to find ways to bring electricity into this old building, we need to improve the plumbing, we need to find ways to improve the insulation”. The market demanded it, and industry responded. And this has not yet happened in Japan. People just assume older houses will be cold and draughty. It’s really a lack of imagination and I think they’ve been sold a false set of ideas by industry and advertising.

The Japanese love their old buildings, they just don’t think that they are appropriate for their life today. They have not seen what I have seen, which are examples all over the country of people taking old buildings, renovating them, upgrading them, retrofitting them to be more comfortable, to be safer, more structurally secure for earthquakes etc. This is a fantastic movement and it’s been happening for decades here in Japan. It’s just not widely recognised by people throughout most of society.

The last question I wanted to ask you was this.  Our theme this month is ‘Less is More’ This was a culture, a time that clearly lived with much less than today in terms of energy demand and resources and so on. In what sense could it be argued that they had more than we have today?

Often the kind of things that people possess, the kind of things that we enjoy, that we benefit from, that enhance our life, are the ones that go unremarked because they are so common and so pervasive and form the connective tissue of our daily lives. The Japanese people of this period possessed a remarkably sophisticated knowledge and understanding of their environment, of how to use things, of how to get things done in a very efficient and beautiful way – which if they would stop and look and compare, if they had been able to compare to European cities at the time, they might have realised how special what they had was.

But in fact, they were living it from day to day, it was emerging from internal needs, from what they wanted to do and how they liked doing it. I think they didn’t notice what they had. This made them very vulnerable to images of Western superiority in the mid-19th century when the American warships showed up with steam engines and they saw images and models of the railroads and fantastic large buildings. They were vulnerable to regarding Western culture, particularly material culture, as somehow superior and more desirable. This is when they started to throw these things away and discard them in an attempt to match the West.

What happened to a demolished building during the Edo period?

If I had been a leader in Japan at the time, I don’t know that I would have done it differently. They managed to avoid being colonised, they managed to integrate and adapt the best of Western technology, and for a long time managed to preserve a lot of the traditional ways as well. But ultimately the shift in value, the shift in energy sources particularly, the shift towards using coal, fossil fuels as prime energy sources instead of these carefully husbanded forest supplies was one of the main drivers of the shift away from traditional practices.

But their lives probably were quite poetic. Constantly reminded of what they considered beautiful, what they considered desirable. A lot of their knowledge was quantified literally in poetry and in song. If you went into a Japanese person’s house, if they were above the poverty line, of course there were some poor people as well, there was a visual harmony to everything they had in terms of colour and texture and material. Their life was filled with gardens, not just in terms of the Samurai and their vegetable gardens but the cities were full of very extensive tree canopies throughout the entire city. They benefited from a very comfortable and environmentally harmonious and visually harmonious lifestyle which they probably were not aware of, except maybe artists who would highlight these things for them.

At the same time, daily life depended upon a lot of physical effort. They walked everywhere. They did not use draught animals very much at all. They did not have lots of carriages and things. People walked, they pushed handcarts, they used boats in the cities a lot. But it was assumed that there was a lot of physical effort that would go into your life. They were not seeking leisure. Leisure seeking in itself was considered morally and ethically suspect. It’s a fascinating set of values. If you have two ways to do things, one is to invent a machine to do it and one is simply to employ people who will do the work. They would just employ the people to do the hand labour.

If we think of comfortable life as meaning a life of leisure, well, they might not have had it so much in the sense of free time. But if you think of a comfortable life as meaning one when you’re well embedded in your very communicative and supportive community of likeminded people, of people who celebrate who they are, where they came from, people who celebrate the gifts of their environment through their festivals and their shrines, then it was an incredibly rich society by any means. 

If you would like to hear the interview in full, the podcast is below: