Why the World Should Learn Sustainability from Old Japan | Guidable - Your Guide to a Sustainable, Wellbeing-centred Life in Japan

Why the World Should Learn Sustainability from Old Japan

By Yasin Rahat Jun 7, 2024

When you think of Japan, what comes to mind? Anime? Manga? Great technology? But, if you look at Japan more closely, another thought might come to mind – their minimalist approach to almost everything. Look at the traditional Japanese home, their food habits, and even how Japanese dress. You may notice a bit of sustainability in their daily lives.

But why is this so?

The answer lies in Japan’s rich history and centuries-old practices. In this article, we’ll share some of the sustainable practices rooted in the history of the land of the Rising Sun and what this modern world should learn from those today.  

How the Zero-Waste Philosophy of Old Japan Encouraged Sustainability

sustainability items with zero-waste written on chalkboard

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The zero-waste movement has recently become very popular. However, living a zero-waste life takes a lot of effort and commitment. The old Japanese approach is a rather interesting one.

150 years ago, Japanese society developed a philosophy. The main idea of their philosophy is that wasting anything is a matter of shame. They called it “mottainai”. This philosophy was inspired by using every element of life more carefully and consciously, as waste was considered disrespectful. Although in recent years, small aspects of the Japanese lifestyle would contradict this, as a whole, the idea of recycling and reuse is highly appreciated and encouraged in society. 

Though the Edo period was when mottainai was highly practised in society, but this idea still exists today. A great example of this is when eating a meal prepared by someone. A Japanese friend once told me, “if you eat all of your rice and leave your bowl clean without a single grain remaining, it’ll make the cook extremely happy”. After hearing that, I felt the need to polish off every grain of rice wherever I ate. I guess Japan’s small food portions saved me from getting a stomach ache! 

The mottainai spirit set the stage for the many sustainable practices we often see in Japanese society. 

The Responsible Use of Natural Resources

The responsible use of natural resources is a big part of sustainability. 

Ancient Japanese communities understood the importance of utilizing natural resources efficiently long before others did. They focused on valuing each item independently to reduce waste – because they had limited materials with which to create things from. 

Around 1603-1868, Japan excelled in sustainability through professions like tinkers, who repaired household metal items, ceramic repairers, and umbrella repairmen, who gave new life to umbrellas through repair and resale. 

Other workers collected items no longer needed such as used clothes dealers who refurbished garments for resale. These practises were not by choice but out of necessity due to restrictions on foreign imports. This showcases a circular economy with a sustainable approach in ancient Japanese society, one that today’s Japan has started to work towards recreating. 

Sustainability in Architecture 

Minimalist Japanese living room with natural lighting

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You’ve probably seen traditional Japanese homes around Japan, you might be amazed to know they are mostly made from locally sourced sustainable materials. These architectural styles developed hundreds of years ago which influenced today’s architects.

A great recent example of an architect incorporating sustainable practises while adding traditional elements is Kengo Kuma a Japanese architect. Kuma’s approach is less “scientific” sustainability and more “aesthetic” sustainability. He tries to lean away from the scientific side, stating that sustainability isn’t just science-based in the eyes of Japanese architects. 

From ancient times, Japanese architects have used nature-centric elements to create living spaces that complement the environment. Look at paper sliding doors (shoji), tatami flooring, and roof thatching. This is an example of sustainable practices that have risen above time. Shoji doors allow natural light to pass through, which reduces the need for artificial lighting. Tatami flooring made from natural materials provides comfort and contributes to a healthier indoor environment. Thatched roofs offer excellent insulation, regulating indoor temperatures naturally. 

From ancient times to the modern era, traditional Japanese architecture has evolved while maintaining its eco-friendly essence. These architectural practices offer valuable lessons in sustainability, emphasising a deep connection with nature and a commitment to sustainable living. 

Eco-Friendly Practices in Daily Life

In ancient Japan, sustainable living was naturally integrated into the everyday practice of Japanese people due to their isolation from the outside world.

In the Edo period (1603-1868), using natural fibres such as cotton, silk, and hemp was prevalent, chosen over synthetic ones. This showed their deep respect for nature and a mindful approach to consumption.

Another long-standing tradition in Japanese culture is seasonal eating. For centuries, people have embraced locally available, seasonal foods, supporting local agriculture, shrinking carbon footprints, and enjoying healthier diets.

These simple, everyday sustainable practices from ancient Japan offer valuable lessons for today. From composting to embracing natural fibres and seasonal eating, they show us how to reduce waste, protect the environment, and live in harmony with nature.

Waste Recycling 

Composting waste, sheddings of carrots, lettuce, potatoes and egg shells

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Waste recycling also played a crucial role in the daily lives of ancient Japan. Composting was a widespread habit among Japanese society, and people recycled food scraps and even human waste to create nutrient-rich compost for their gardens. 

Paper recycling was widely practiced. Waste paper from various sources, such as manuscripts and packaging, underwent collection and processing, including pulping and filtering. Eventually, emerging as fresh paper products, which showcased their commitment to sustainability.

Similarly, old or damaged clothing and textiles received careful attention. Skilled artisans meticulously repurposed them, unravelling, sorting, and weaving. They then crafted new textiles or patchwork designs. This approach significantly increased the lifespan of materials and minimized waste generation.

Metal recycling is also a prominent practice. The process was similar to today – broken tools and utensils were diligently gathered, melted down, and transformed into new items using casting and forging techniques. This not only conserved valuable metals but also mitigated the environmental impacts associated with mining.

Integrating Old Japan’s Sustainable Practices

These sustainable practices deeply rooted in the history and culture of Japan offer invaluable lessons for the world to embrace. By adopting these principles, the world can plan for a more sustainable future for the following generations. 

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