300-year-long self-isolation policy developed one of the world’s most sustainable societies
At the beginning of the 1600s, Japan’s rulers were concerned that Christianity, which had recently been introduced to the country’s southern regions by European missionaries, would spread.
In response, Japan effectively sealed off the islands from the outside world in 1603, prohibiting Japanese citizens from leaving and allowing very few foreigners to enter. Japan’s Edo period began here, and the borders remained closed for nearly three centuries until 1868.
Whatever the reasons may be, this allowed the country’s unique culture, customs, and ways of life to flourish in isolation. It also meant that Japanese people, living under a system of severe trade restrictions, were forced to rely entirely on materials already present in the country, resulting in a thriving economy of reuse and recycling.
In fact, Japan was self-sufficient in resources, energy, and food, and it could support a population of up to 30 million people without using fossil fuels or chemical fertilizers.
They followed what is now known as the “slow life,” a set of sustainable lifestyle practices centered on wasting as little as possible. Even light was not wasted; daily activities began at sunrise and ended at sunset. Clothes were mended and reused numerous times until they were reduced to tattered rags. Human excrement and ashes were reused as fertilizer, resulting in a thriving business for traders who went door to door collecting these valuable substances to sell to farmers. This could be classified as an early circular economy.
Beginning in the mid-Edo period, rural industries such as cotton cloth and oil production, silkworm farming, paper-making, and sake and miso paste production began to thrive. People held seasonal festivals with a wide variety of local foods, wishing for fertility during the cherry blossom season and commemorating autumn harvests.
This one-of-a-kind, eco-friendly social system arose partly out of necessity but also as a result of the profound cultural experience of living in close harmony with nature. In order to achieve a more sustainable culture, this must be recaptured in the modern era.
For example, zazen, or “sitting meditation,” is a Buddhist practice that can help people carve out a space of peace and quiet to experience natural sensations. Zazen sessions are now available at a number of urban temples.
In an age when the need for more sustainable lifestyles has become a global concern, we should respect the wisdom of the Edo people, who lived with time as it changed with the seasons, who cherished materials and used the wisdom of reuse as a matter of routine, and who lived for many years with a recycling-oriented lifestyle. Learning from their way of life could provide us with useful future guidelines.