With countless environmental issues we face today, every country, company, and individual is trying to find ways to be eco-friendly and lead a sustainable life. I believe we should learn and get ideas from our ancestors. Before industrialization, they were able to live without mass production, disposable items, and durable plastic materials.
The Edo era (1603 – 1868) was a time when Japan’s national isolation policy (sakoku) was in force. National borders were closed, and trade with overseas countries was strictly prohibited. Unlike Japan today, the country was completely independent with its natural resources, technology, food, water, and people. Therefore, during this Sakoku period, Japanese people naturally formed and led a sustainable life with a small ecological footprint. Obviously, we have much to learn from the customs and methods that the people of Edo practiced.
Living with limited natural resources for almost 300 years, meant having to continuously reuse and recycle materials. As a result, the demand for skilled repairers increased, and many job opportunities were created. Each repairer had their own specialty, such as pots and pans, ceramic ware, or wooden barrels. Exchanging also became a popular method to save materials, and people called exchangers became mediators for exchange between citizens. They would roam the streets and call out to the neighborhood for materials that people no longer needed. Along with exchangers, collectors also roamed the streets. They collected ash to make manure, clothes to reuse the fabric, and paper for its fiber.
Though these methods are not practiced today, the mottainai concept remains deeply rooted in Japanese culture. Children are constantly told not to throw food away, not even to leave one grain of rice. Some parents tell their children that every grain they leave in their rice bowl, represents the number of tears of the rice farmer. The concept of mottainai, contains the following connotations; to use things so that they fulfill their purposes, to have respect towards things, and to use things until they can be used no more in order to save or avoid buying or consuming new ones.
The Japanese culture of mottainai, enabled Japan to culturally strive and become more civilized even during the Sakoku period. As we face the risk of depletion of materials, we must seek, practice, and achieve sustainable life methods. The best approach is to look back into history, and learn from our ancestors’ successes and failures.