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Sustainable Living Tips from Japan: A Review of Azby Brown’s Just Enough

Detail of a screen at Koyasan.

As the world faces a future of global warming, increasing economic disparity, and a fiery mix of political turmoils, Azby Brown asks us to take a moment to look back to find the solutions. Just Enough: Lessons in Living Green from Traditional Japan (Kodansha, 2009) takes readers on an intimate tour of Edo Period Japan (1603-1898). In it, Brown points out that then as now, Japan faced severe environmental degradation, economic crises, and a discontented population. Yet, shortly after the country entered a time of unprecedented economic and environmental stability. Brown believes answers for today can be found in these previous times.

“Nature itself had endowed Japan well for human habitation, but by the early 1600’s the land was suffering from over-exploitation by the larger population,” writes Brown. However, Japan managed to emerge stronger and more stable. Brown attributes this success partly to “technological advances and government direction” as well as a mentality of conservation that understood and appreciated natural systems. He also points out that this mentality “encouraged humility, considered waste taboo, suggested cooperative solutions, and found meaning and satisfaction in a beautiful life in which the individual took just enough from the world and not more.”

While people today fear that conservation may lead to job loss, Brown shows otherwise. Such careful management of resources also resulted in a vibrant economy. Tinkerers found ample work repairing everything from ceramics to metal tools. Carpenters found employment not only in building but in dismantling buildings and then reusing the components in new projects. Public baths made efficient use of water and fuel while offering a place where community members gathered to talk. Food vendors also made efficient use of fuel by cooking large quantities for sale to supplement the evening meals. Many of these traditions – public baths and the daily purchasing of prepared food – carry on today.

Broken into three sections two-part sections, Just Enough introduces us to three distinct parts of traditional society. We begin in the countryside as travelers walking to Edo (Tokyo’s former name). The most common form of transportation at the time, it gives Brown the opportunity to show us all there is to see. The first half of each section introduces us in incredible detail to the setting (rural, urban Edo, and the samurai home) the activities of the people around us (farmers to carpenters to villagers, townspeople and tradesmen), buildings (homes, temples, and shops) and community life. We meet individual families, explore their homes and workplaces, watch as they interact with each other, their landscape, and larger community. Such vivid descriptions serve as more than background, but introduce daily practices, designs, materials and systems. We see how each person and thing interacts in the web of society and how sustainable thinking informs everything. Brown also describes the infrastructure of laws, cultural norms, and customs that shape the lives and vocations of those we meet. We leave each part of our journey with a broad and comprehensive understanding of life in these times.

The second half of each chapter shows how these same principles can be incorporated into our lives today. A list of points and practices followed by thoughts on implementation follow. Some require grand infrastructure thinking (remove highways from above waterways) to cultural shifts (leave room for public foraging) to personal choices (grow a green curtain or reuse and recycling) to design (build in methods for using gray water or to make the most of sun and shade in the home) to name just a few. Brown’s lists are exhaustive and give us plenty of good ideas to think about.

Hundreds of illustrations illuminate the book and prove as engaging as the text itself. These black and white line drawings make it easy to see how a street peddler managed to carry all his equipment on his back as he roamed the streets in search of business; how farmhouse, outbuildings, and fields sat in relation to each other; how sunlight moved through a home throughout the year. Others depict the details of the life cycle of the rice plant, the integrated layers of male and female clothing, or the different types of watercraft that plied Edo’s waterways in trade.

The only downfall of Just Enough is where the original impetus of the mentality of reuse, the understanding of natural systems came from. Was it the push of government policy, religious values, and peer pressure in light of impending environmental disasters that made the population happily tow the line? Brown mentions high penalties for unlawful removal of trees and a self-policing quality of the population, but exactly how the rapid evolution of attitude occurred remains something of a mystery.

What does emerge, though, from the illustrations, the literal wanderings down memory lane, and the best points to ponder is a comprehensive picture of historic Tokyo with an eye trained on the sustainability of it all. We learn about various trade ships not just because they are interesting, but to realize that the country was thriving economically. We study period clothing not just to see how it’s different, but to understand that standard designs made the most efficient use of available materials from silk to cotton. The life cycle of rice shows perhaps most poignantly how a single thing serves not just as a source of food, but fuel, footwear, fertilizer, and income. Nothing is wasted, everything has multiple uses.

Just Enough is a perfect example of how the past can inform the present, how traditional technologies and mindsets can provide answers to modern problems. People, writes Brown, “…overcame many of the identical problems that confront us today – issues of energy, water, materials, food, and population.” Brown’s detailed picture of life in Edo and how sustainable principles were incorporated into daily life to create a high standard of living is as inspiring and thought-provoking as it is engaging. Such ideas may also be what saves us in the end.

Joan Bailey
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Joan Lambert Bailey lives, eats, writes, and farms in Tokyo. Follow her random adventures getting dirty, eating good food, and visiting farmers markets at Japan Farmers Markets.
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