Light and Shadow from the Edo Era


国際協力研究科 Patricia Sippel


   Since its establishment as a full ministry in 2001, Japan’s Ministry of the Environment (MOE) has worked to address long-term global environmental problems through programs that seek actively to establish a society based on positive environmental values and practices. One of its keynote achievements is a series of ambitious laws that aim to create a “sound material-cycle society循環型社会” (SMS), based on the three R’s of Reduce, Reuse and Recycle. A report prepared by MOE in 2008 explains: “The nation’s new challenge is to take an integrated approach to the establishment of a low-carbon society in order to counter the major problem of global warming, to create a society in harmony with nature that helps conserve ecosystems and will allow people to enjoy the blessings of nature for many years to come, and to establish a SMC Society.”[1]

   In its plans to promote a sound material-cycle society, the MOE has derived light from the Edo period (1600-1867). After examining Edo period practices such as the recycling of night soil for use as fertilizer, the strict regulation of waste disposal, the recycling of clothing and bedding, and the careful use of daily use items in keeping with the spirit of mottainai, the MOE report concludes: “Japanese society in the Edo era is believed to have been a SMC Society based on community activities. People in those days were engaged in social activities involving lower carbon emissions and lived their lives with a deeper awareness of being in harmony with nature. Efforts taken during this period clearly suggest that a sustainable society can be established through the comprehensive promotion of a low-carbon society, a society in harmony with nature and a sound material-cycle society.”

    But if the Edo era experience offers promises for the 21st century, it also offers warnings of environmental problems to come. The Edo era was one of remarkable non-industrial growth, supported by the vigorous development of natural resources—trees, rocks, and water. In fact, one could say that the Edo era marked the high point of a distinctively Japanese tradition of civil engineering. From the early 17th century, government leaders encouraged the clearing of land for agriculture in order to support a growing population. River courses were changed, irrigation channels dug, streams were dredged, and ponds and dams built. Forests were cleared to make room for fields and housing. Cities, too, were the product of radical engineering. In constructing Edo, the world’s largest city, experts drained swampy land around the bay and leveled a small mountain to supply soil and rocks to fill the lowland. To promote river transportation north of the city, they directed the Ara River to join the ocean miles from its original mouth.

    But as mountainsides, river valleys, and flood plains were converted into farmland and settlements, Japanese timber reserves were depleted and newly developed areas became susceptible to flooding. By the turn of the 18th century, floods were reported almost annually along major rivers, including the Tone and Ara Rivers in the Kanto region and the Kiso, Ibi and Nagara in the broad Nobi plain that faces Ise Bay. Although the Tokugawa government did not entirely abandon land development projects, it was forced to shift its attention to the major environmental challenge of the day: flood control and repairs to water damage. Government-authorized public works built specially-designed dykes, widened river channels, and diverted water flows. Yet flood risks to agricultural communities, crops, and even to the great city of Edo did not diminish. Moreover, an explosive growth in gold, silver, and (later) copper mining produced economic reward for its government sponsors but water pollution in some nearby farming communities.

    What warnings does the experience of the Edo era offer? First, given their recent increase in scale and intensity, we are inclined to think of environmental problems as a modern or contemporary issue. Indeed, they are a central focus of scholars who see risk as a central characteristic of contemporary global society. However, environmental risk is much older, predating industrialization and modernization. Although the Edo era may have been sound material-cycle society, it was not pristine. Its physical environment was engineered by humans, who were responsible for a variety of environmental problems, including chronic floods and incipient water pollution.

     Second, the Edo era experience points to the difficulty of finding lasting solutions to environmental problems. For example, although the Tokugawa government made continuing and serious efforts at flood disaster control, it cannot be said that it developed a system for managing the environmental risk of flooding on a national level. More importantly, it is hard to argue that its flood control work, however complex and expensive, was effective. While many Edo era people, from government officials and outside experts to ordinary farmers, grasped the relationship between aggressive land development and flood damage, the very fact that floods visited the same areas, year after year, suggests that neither the government nor the local communities were able to address the basic causes. Flood damage continued into the modern era. Moreover, although advances in science and technology as well as management and funding have allowed remarkable progress, the battle against flooding continues in some communities to this day.

   Finally, we can conclude that the experience of the Edo environmental past casts shadows as well as light on the present. While the scale of contemporary problems such as global warming encourages nostalgia for a simpler past, a focus on their origins can be productive in bringing about constructive change. Clive Pointing concluded his classic Green History of the World with the comment: “Past human actions have left contemporary societies with an almost insuperably difficult set of problems to solve.”[2] Both as a sound material-cycle society and as a society that produced new environmental problems, the Edo era casts both light and shadow on the environmental heritage of contemporary Japan.

[2] Clive Ponting, A New Green History of the World: The Environment and the Collapse of Great Civilizations, Penguin Books, 2007.