The world's largest city between the 17th and mid-19th centuries--and maybe the most sustainable one--was Edo, now Tokyo. After spending last week there for a family wedding, it's hard to imagine Edo lurking beneath today's concrete city of 12 million souls.
Japan is famous for overfishing, conspicuous consumption, and overpackaging. You can't buy a pocket notebook or pair of chopsticks without the clerk meticulously wrapping it and taping the bag shut. Tokyo's not quite a Blade Runner set, but the neon walls of the Ginza, Shibuya, Shinjuku, and electric town Akihabara make Parisian boulevards and New York avenues seem candlelit by comparison.
The throngs of suited businessmen and skirted-and-stockinged professional women riding trains at wee hours live a 6-day workweek more brutal than the Western metro-boulot-dodo or gray-flannel-suit grind. Yet as Momus explained via Wired, many young Japanese, who came of age during a numbing recession, are subscribing to the Slow Life ideal.
Without knowing a lick of kanji, hiragana, or katakana, I could only guess from clues such as a leaf or green sign if a shop stocked organic goods. It didn't help my quest for greenness in Tokyo that some family members shunned sushi for McDonald's. If you must eat fast food, support Japan's Mos Burger chain instead. The company works closely with vegetable farmers to reduce the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Mos cooks orders on the spot instead of heating prepared patties, composts its leftover veggies, and even uses ceramic cups.
How else does Edo live on? The Zen aesthetic is evident in electronics designs, such as biodegradable DoCoMo cell phones. Most obviously, Tokyo offers public recycling bins. The no-waste ideal hearkens back to Edo-era collectors who--similar to the rag men common in America's streets until several decades ago--recycled paper, umbrella parts, clothes, candle wax, and even used human waste for fertilizer. As the Japan for Sustainability Newsletter pointed out three years ago:
Today Japan depends on imports from other countries for 78 percent of its energy, 60 percent of its food (caloric value), and 82 percent of its timber consumption. But for approximately 250 years during the Edo Period, Japan was self-sufficient in all resources, since nothing could be imported from overseas due to the national policy of isolation.
Japan is now promoting efforts to recycle end-of-life products and materials. A major motivation for this today is to reduce the burden on landfills and prevent dioxins and other toxic chemical emissions from incinerators. But people in Edo Japan recycled of goods and materials for another reason: they had very limited goods and materials in the first place.
As a result, everything was treated as a valuable resource, including materials that would otherwise be considered a nuisance, such as ash. Because brand new goods were expensive and newly manufactures items were virtually unaffordable for ordinary citizens, most "end-of-life" goods were not discarded as waste, but rather reused and recycled.
Gaijin like myself can barely scratch the surface in a visit that ate up less than two percent of my year. Once I recover from jet lag and unpack my memory cards, I'll share a little more. In the meantime, subscribe to the JFS newsletter.