January 14th, 2015
Blame it on too many Kurosawa movies, but when I think “samurai” the image that comes to mind is never exactly urban. But that was the reality through the two and half centuries of Edo Period Japan, the era when just about everything that we think of as quintessentially Japanese — the complex simplicity, the rich spareness, the poetry of just about everything including violence — came to full fruition. The city-dwelling samurai were the ones who ushered that golden age into being, although I doubt that was their intention.
No, their goal was simply to avoid catastrophe, because in 1600, Japan was a civilization on the verge of collapse. Hundreds of years of war, environmental devastation, overpopulation, a damaged and limited agricultural base and dwindling natural resources meant that Japan was staring into the abyss. But the ruling samurai, the ones who had presided over the downward spiral, managed to change just about everything they were doing and the story of how they avoided the train wreck makes you hope that history really does rhyme.
In the same way that we are a society powered by oil, Japan was a solar powered culture, which is another way of saying that it was all about harvesting sunlight through plants and particularly trees. Tools, transportation, farming, building, you name it, it was about wood. Japan had the good fortune to begin with a lot. The islands are mountainous and forested and, once, those forests must have seemed limitless. Indeed, for a long time, the problem wasn’t too few trees, but too few fields; arable land was scarce in Japan, where perhaps one acre out of ten was suitable to farm.
So the farmers worked the rice paddies in the flats between the mountains and along the shoreline, while the forests were mined and not just for timber. Forest ecosystems were also the source of clean and dependable water for drinking and irrigating. All heating, cooking, pottery manufacture and metal smithing was dependent upon wood. And the fields that fed Japan were fertilized by leaf litter and grass that came from the woods. For a long time, the extraction model worked — until Japan’s population grew to the point where it didn’t.
Somehow, the Tokugawa shoguns who came to control Japan in the Edo Period understood that saving their society meant saving their forests. They instituted a forest census, measuring and counting individual trees, cataloging written descriptions of individual woods and forests. Draconian laws were enacted to protect the forests; illegally cutting a tree could earn you a death sentence. In parallel, Japan’s farming villagers drew on traditions of community cooperation that they had always used in their own fields and and began to apply it to the hills beyond the fields. What they did was restore the clearcut hillsides with carefully managed plantation forests which produced enough timber, fiber, fuel and building material — but just enough.
This — the notion of just enough — was the key, not just to the restoration of the forest, but to everything in Edo Period Japan. Somehow, when confronted with physical limits, they found a way to invert their way of thinking, from taking as much as possible in the pursuit of well-being to a philosophy which aimed for maximum well-being from minimum consumption. It began as an ethos, became philosophy and eventually flowered into an aesthetic, a limitation transformed into a strength. The simplicity and spareness of classic Japanese architecture, design, poetry, warfare and art is a reflection of this, how distilling anything to its essence produces a stronger impact than just piling on more. It’s society and culture conceived as a perfume instead of an all-you-can-eat buffet.
Of course, it’s easy to romanticize, so let’s understand that Edo Period Japan was far from an ideal society. Working from Confucian ideals of stability, the Tokugawa shoguns instituted a rigidly hierarchical, four-tier society, with their class, the samurai, at the top. They were perhaps eight percent of the population, completely ruling the peasants, the farmers, fisherfolk and woodsmen, who comprised 80%. True, a samurai had the right to kill any peasant for showing disrespect, but at the same time, the peasants had genuine status because everyone knew that the society depended on their work and production. Below the peasants were makers of less essential things, the artisans and finally, at the bottom, were the merchants. Beyond the caste system were outliers ranging from the emperor and holy men on one end to criminals, actors and prostitutes on the other.
Social mobility was almost zero; your life was largely determined by the station you were born into. That said, it wasn’t all what you’d expect. There were peasants much wealthier than some samurai and artists and artisans who lived at the highest strata of society.
The Tokugawa shoguns, rulers of the Edo Period, implemented one other significant change, namely, they sealed Japan’s borders, making their island nation into an economic and political island. Some small trade continued, but contact with the Europe was tightly controlled and any foreigner confused enough to attempt to land anywhere but the four “gateways” to the outside world would be immediately killed.
The result of this transformed culture was dramatic. From an overpopulated island with exhausted resources, Edo Period Japan renewed its resources, reforested the islands, increased its well-being, found centuries of peace, built the largest city on the planet and did it all while actually growing in population and then settling into a perfect state of equilibrium.
There’s a interesting parallel to fifteenth century Europe, a civilization that was also exhausted from war, overpopulated and facing down dwindling resources. Europe found salvation by moving in the exact opposite direction of Japan, by expanding. Invading the New World and launching the global aggression of colonialism fed new resources into Europe while giving all those extra people some place to go. It was the start of a treadmill of expansion that finally ran out of room in the twentieth century, leaving us back where we started 500 years ago, with too many people, dwindling resources and lethal environmental degradation, only now with no where left to go.
The Tokugawa shoguns closed their borders for political reasons; by choking off trade, the shoguns undercut the ability of the lower nobles to rebel. But it also meant that they had to face a biophysical reality that we, as global citizens, can’t seem to — accepting that they lived on an island. Being an island civilization means understanding that what you’ve got is all there is, and that if you want to go on having a civilization, you have to fix the mess you’ve made and embrace whatever changes are necessary to make the repairs.
The shoguns made a new society that was by and for their own benefit. They put their caste — the samurai — at the top of the chain. They demanded a 40% tax in rice from the peasants who were eight out of ten people in the land. And in places like the capitol, Edo, their dominance was even more clearly delineated.
By 1800, the Edo Period was in full flower. Edo (now Tokyo) was the largest city on earth with 1.3 million people and of those people, fully half were samurai. They lived in special districts, leafy and spacious neighborhoods on high ground woven through the city, far from the noise and noisomeness of the artisans and merchants. Their elegant homes, surrounded by gardens, occupied 63% of the land in the city, while the 600,000 commoners they shared the city with were crammed into only 18% of the area.
Though the samurai of the long Edo peace still went about their days with swords at their waist, they were much like members of the modern professional class. They were educated, sophisticated and status-aware, and also living beyond their means. The samurai “lifestyle” demanded a certain style, certain clothes and accessories, meant offering hospitality even when there was no money for it.
The beautiful, formal gardens of each house were part of this, a measure of elegance and sophistication and a stage set for the intricacies of samurai social ritual. There was an entry garden, a kind of courtyard that you entered the house through, and another garden designed to be seen from the reception rooms inside. But over the decades and centuries of Edo Japan, the samurai garden evolved another part. It was by far the biggest part of the garden and was shielded from view of the house’s public rooms. It was the farm.
Money was a problem for the samurai. Dependent on stipends from their lords, forbidden from engaging in the money economy, they nevertheless lived in a society fueled by trade, mostly in food. As the commoners flourished and grew richer, the samurai effectively became poorer; increasingly, it was becoming a choice between living up to one’s social responsibilities and eating. So the bulk of those ornamental gardens were torn up and reworked into what can only be described as small urban farms.
Vegetable plots, fruit trees, fish ponds all became standard. Samurai could not sell their produce, but they could barter it with one another, and so a sharing economy sprang up, undergird by the strength of the samurai themselves. In a samurai household, most labor was handled by the women and servants, but when it came to tilling the soil, the head of the household and his sons could be found out back, stripped to their fundoshi. There was no shame in this; working the earth to provide sustenance was understood to be inherently noble.
In one way, it was return to fundamentals. Self-sufficiency was central to the samurai ethos, and many samurai traced their heritage back hundreds of years to a time when they were a class of landowning farmers, far out in the countryside. But in another way, this was not what they had planned for. They were the top of the heap, the unquestioned rulers of their world, each and every one of them endowed the power of life or death over their inferiors. But the world of war and conquest which formed them had faded away even as generations of samurai walked to work, their kataginu, hakama and swords becoming as much a uniform as any Wall Streeter’s suit, tie and suspenders.
History dates the start of the Edo Period to 1603, but if you were standing on the shores of Edo Bay in that year, it wouldn’t have looked like the sustainable society I’ve described. Instead, it would come across a lot like what you see in a newspaper today — chronic warfare, faltering resources, economic distress, all of them signs of the exhaustion of a social system and the natural system it depends upon. The story of Edo Japan is inspiring because it is one of the very few examples (I cannot think of another) of a society consciously transforming itself instead of imploding while trying to keep the old system going.
Pre-Edo Japan, just like twenty-first global capitalism, was run by the people at the top of the heap, the ones for whom any change is a threat. The wonder of pre-Edo Japan is that the samurai at the top of the heap understood that their position didn’t matter at all unless the heap itself was protected. Now, you’d think that wouldn’t be a difficult notion to grasp, but then again, things look different to those on top, where the only direction all paths lead is down.
And it may be that the samurai had one particular advantage that we lack. It was part of the samurai’s philosophy to believe that any notions of self-protection were not merely dishonorable, but worse than useless in the crucible of battle. To paraphrase the legendary sixteenth century warlord Uesugi Kenshin, “when you leave the house determined not to see it again you will come home safely; when you have any thought of returning you will not return.” Already dead, so to speak, the samurai of Edo Japan were free to make brave and radical choices which, 250 years later, did in fact bring on their destruction as a class — but not before birthing one of the golden ages of human culture and nurturing a society that for most of its members for most of their lives, was a good one.
Now, of course, the samurai live on only in movies and Edo glimmers fable-like through the window of its art. The lesson is there, unambiguous and unmistakable, a final cultural gift — if we can somehow open it.
And that’s a big “if.” The ruling classes and entities of our time have done a thorough job of arranging the world to support their place at the top and it’s human nature not to want to lose your most prized possession even when reality keeps insisting that something has to change. The samurai of Edo faced reality and changed who they fundamentally were. In the end, it meant that they lost everything, even their own existence. But in so doing, they forever kept their most prized possession, their dignity. And maybe that’s our problem, because how does anyone find the courage to risk everything when your most prized possession is a possession?
If you’re interested in the sustainable society of Edo Period Japan, I strongly recommend reading my source, Azby Brown’s “Just Enough.”