Azby Brown answers questions about “Just Enough: Lessons in Living Green from Traditional Japan”

What inspired you to write this book?

Over the course of my years in Japan studying traditional architecture and crafts, I became increasingly aware of a fundamental environmental soundness that was reflected in the way almost everything was made and produced, that allowed them to continue to be practiced for centuries without damaging the environment. I felt that people who were interested in sustainability would like to know more about this.

This environmental soundness was something I had made note of almost from the start. I had touched on it in my first book, The Genius of Japanese Carpentry, and often shared anecdotes with my colleagues abroad.  When The Very Small Home came out in 2005, I was surprised at the strong interest from the green design community, many of whom immediately latched onto the energy-saving potential of Japanese-influenced small-footprint home design. 

Although the houses I described incorporate cutting-edge technology and engineering and were intended to accommodate very recent demographic trends and lifestyle aspirations, in example after example their success can be traced to features and ways of thinking which have been handed down from traditional Japanese home design.

I was invited to make a presentation about this kind of home design at the Sun Valley Sustainabilty Conference in 2006. After hearing the various specialists’ goals and concerns, and seeing how skilled they had all become at collaborating and adapting ideas from other fields into their work, I immediately realized that this community in particular might find inspiration from successful traditional Japanese environmental practices.  So this book was inspired by my desire to inspire others.

Does a sustainable society that no longer exists really have something to teach us? Didn’t it ultimately fail as a viable working social and economic system?

The huge irony is that the Japanese sustainable lifestyle didn’t disappear because it had failed. If left alone, it could have continued indefinitely. It disappeared because the closed-cycle imperative that existed for centuries was ruptured when the country opened itself to the West—to foreign goods, like textiles, and the need to export large quantities of agricultural and industrial products. If Japanese leaders of the Meiji period had the benefit of our hindsight, I think they would have found ways to develop industry and participate in the global economy without dismantling so many of the practices that had been safeguarding the environment for so long. 

Are these three characters—the farmer, the carpenter and the samurai—a true representation of a cross-section of the population?

I think they are. They are all squarely in the middle bracket socially and economically, neither wealthy nor destitute, and are members of classes represented by large populations.  They live essentially productive lifestyles and are linked into the material and food production and use cycle in representative ways.  And describing their lifestyles and where and how they lived provided an opportunity to describe households both higher and lower on the material scale as well. Describing the carpenter’s tenement home, for instance, meant talking about shops and shopkeepers too. 

That said, it might have been nice to include a description of the life of Buddhist monks who, because they usually lived communally, had particular economies and efficiencies in how they used food, fuel, and other resources. Maybe that’s a good subject for another book.

There was a tremendous diversity and lots of local variation in Japan in everything from house construction to weaving technique, and certainly food and other resources.  Just Enough focuses on shared characteristics, but explains them through specific examples.  Edo, for instance, was the largest city and was unique in many respects, but the features I call attention to were characteristic of Japanese cities of the period in general, or had parallels.  The same is true for the farm village I depict. I’m confident that I’ve captured the most salient representative features of how Edo society interacted with its environment.

Many of the suggestions in the “Learning” sections are very conceptual. Can you give a few that people can start acting on today, in their daily lives?

I intentionally included lessons that are very broad and far-reaching prescriptions, that can help guide social policy—like “use water more fully” and “reinvent the urban waterway”—as well as more immediate suggestions that individuals and households can implement.  For the most part, my suggestions reflect the growing consensus among sustainability specialists about 1) what actions will have the greatest quick positive impact, 2) which ones are essential but will only show results after years of effort, and 3) which ones we’re still unsure of. That said, I’d suggest the following:

--If you don’t have a garden, make one.  As Edo shows us, gardens can be made to thrive almost anywhere, on balconies, in flowerpots, on roofs.

--Grow your own food, even if it’s only a little bit, and find out where wild foodstuffs can be gathered in your area.

--Use foods preserved without refrigeration and that can be consumed without cooking

--Integrate wetlands into your garden, even if it’s only a small pool or basin.

--Compost your kitchen scraps and garden clippings and use it to fertilize your garden.

--Plant trees, both in your own garden and by participating in large-scale planting activities.

-- Build a green curtain for your home to help cool it in the summer

-- Support alternative energy initiatives in your community.

-- Get involved in groups that make things. Shared abilities lead to effective action.

--Try to find products that enable zero-waste.

-- Try to make your life as locally-sourced as possible

-- Promote higher standards of environmental ethics in your day to day interactions and political choices.

Taking on so many illustrations must have been a daunting task. Why did you want to do the illustrations yourself?

All of my books have been heavily illustrated, and with the exception of The Japanese Dream House, which mainly used historical photos, I’ve always done the illustrations myself. Over the years I’ve become very comfortable with making architectural illustrations, and like to think that I’ve developed an accessible style that is nevertheless clear and informative.  When I first envisioned how this book should look, I was inspired by the work of Eric Sloane, a fantastic mid-20th century illustrator who wrote several books about early American life, most of which I own and treasure.

But this book presented me with a host of issues I had never had to deal with before.  I had never really drawn pictures of the natural environment, for instance, of plants and trees and mountains and waterways. So there were many things I had to learn and practice.

Through drawing, however, I refined my thinking, grappled with gaps in my knowledge, and gradually learned how to tell the story visually.  Overall, I’m satisfied with the results, and I hope it’s an enjoyable book to look at.

Did the people of the Edo period really exist in such a peaceful and coexistent society? How does this mesh with the Samurai culture and what seems to be often portrayed as a more violent and harsh existence?

Make no mistake, Edo-period Japan was not an egalitarian society, and most of us would have found the social limitations and lack of rights intolerable. There was a massive authoritarian apparatus devoted to maintaining the social power imbalance—similar in many respects to feudal Europe, and a little bit like the totalitarian regimes we’ve known in the recent past. 

But samurai movies are fantasies that don’t reflect the historical reality of the period very well. Abusive warrior bosses existed, and people suffered occasional hardship and famine. But in practice, commoners were left alone and could improve their economic well-being and relative social standing through diligence and hard work.  In terms of health, nutrition, and education, the average Japanese of the period compared very favorably with us.

The legal justice system allowed people to air their grievances and seek redress. When commoners felt they had been treated really unjustly and their grievances had not been taken seriously enough, they would revolt.  There were quite a few of these peasant revolts, or ikki, throughout the period, some of them quite violent. And though they were usually put down very harshly, government leaders were forced to give in on at least some of the demands.

Finally, as I point out in the book, for most average samurai social status did not equal economic status, and by the end of the period so many samurai, even feudal lords, found themselves in such financial debt to wealthy commoners that they ended up having to treat them with kid gloves.  So commoners knew that it was possible to become wealthy enough to be able exert control over warriors.

How aware is the typical Japanese of the values of the Edo period? Are the Edo values appreciated in today’s Japan?

There is a great deal of interest in Edo culture, and this is reflected in many ways. Historical dramas have never been more popular, but these usually center on personages and conflict, and even when the surroundings and lifestyles are portrayed accurately, we actually don’t get a very good idea of what daily life was like.  Social problems such as spotty education and broken families have led some people to re-examine the Confucian values that held Edo society together and how returning to these ideas might help, and there have been books written recently about this. 

In terms of the environment there is a growing awareness of the soundness of Edo period practices, and a number of popular books have appeared, leading to a popular consensus that “Edo was sustainable.” It seems that almost everyone is aware of at least one anecdote, whether it be about recycling, or zero-waste, or energy use.  This is a good thing. 

But in terms of society as a whole, it’s still somewhat a superficial, even romantic attitude. There are a lot of excellent books and museums that deal with specific aspects of Edo period life, but just how Edo Japan achieved sustainability, and how everything fit together, has not been well presented.  It may be ironic, but people overseas who read Just Enough will probably end up with a better overall picture of Edo environmental awareness than most Japanese today.

Does the Japanese government today embrace environmental policies?  If so, is this a result of the mentality that you write about in this book?

The record is mixed. On one hand, the cost of energy is so high that economizing has become second nature. Cars and appliances rate very highly in energy efficiency because the market has demanded it for a long time. Similarly, once the public understood the importance of recycling, they quickly embraced it with a thoroughness that should be a model for the West. And there are a lot of areas where grassroots movements—for forest preservation, wetland preservation, or against unnecessary dam construction, for instance—have called attention to important work that needs to be done and political pressure that needs to be brought to bear. 

The government, for its part, moves at a glacial pace. Though it has taken a strong stand against emissions (hosting the Kyoto Conference in 1997 for instance), it almost always sides with industry when industry interests collide with those of the environment. We can cite resistance to fishery and whaling quotas as very visible examples, as well as involvement in tropical deforestation in Asia. The government also continues misguided and disproven methods of waterway and coastline control, burying everything in concrete, in order to help the construction industry. It has not supported environmentally friendly agricultural methods, and has been very slow in supporting green energy.

But in recent years it has become clear to most leaders that the environment of the country suffers tremendously from the actions of its neighbors, particularly China, and so they have begun to take stronger stands on international environmental issues.

Finally, whereas an anti-waste sentiment has become stronger recently under the slogan “mottai-nai” (“what a waste!”), that consciously harkens back to the way things were done in the past, and a handful of new magazines devoted to green lifestyle information have cropped up, the fact remains that Japan is a voracious consumer society whose entire structure, economy, advertising, and popular culture demand that people throw things away and replace them with new items, be they clothes, appliances, furnishings, or household items.  People are made to feel embarrassed by using old things, and from appearing to have “less,” and until this aspect changes, it will be difficult for deeper environmentally focused social change to take hold.

Some people might say that looking backwards is thinking small, that we should be looking at new technologies and new energy methods for a better chance of saving our planet.

I’d answer that inventiveness is always vitally important, and Just Enough is less about the past than it is about inventiveness.  At the same time, new technologies alone won’t solve the underlying problems, which really are problems of values. 

From time to time we’ve undoubtedly benefitted from unforeseen technological developments, but they’ve all eventually showed a downside. The automobile saved our cities from being buried in horse manure, but the way we used it ended up destroying our cities and our atmosphere.

It’s very attractive to us to rely on a deus ex machina, some miraculous technological fix that arrives in the nick of time and frees us of the responsibility to think for ourselves and make changes in how we live individually. New technologies such as wind and solar are definitely poised to help relieve the energy crisis, but the problems are much larger, and all interconnected. It would be foolish to expect a technological fix for a population problem that is partly rooted in education and literacy, or to refill fossil aquifers, or to make it possible to simultaneously use land for rainforest and cattle grazing.

So I’d answer that while new technologies will be essential for solving some of the pressing problems, we won’t make any headway without a sincere reexamination of how we live, and a reaffirmed commitment to environmental ethics.

Are you aware of any other societies with such large populations that developed using sustainable systems? If not, what made Japan so unique?

Japanese rice paddy agriculture came from China and Korea, and the three have a lot in common. From what we know they were equally sustainable. The Chinese and Koreans continued to farm the same paddies for centuries—even millennia in some cases. As far as forestry, watershed protection, population control, fuel use, and urbanism are concerned, I would not be surprised if there were shared sustainable characteristics as well.  (I hesitate to say because I haven’t investigated those regions very thoroughly). I will venture that compared to Japan, not enough information about these aspects of Chinese and Korean life has come to light.

Crucially, Japan was isolated in a way the others weren’t, and had a unique political and social structure, and these features both reinforced the need to be sustainable and enabled it. On certain levels we can point to environmentally sound practices that existed in medieval Europe, for instance, or in the early period of North American settlement.  And what we know about many smaller societies, such as hunter-gatherer groups on several continents, or the indigenous agricultural villages of New Guinea and the Americas, indicates that sustainable practices were the norm. 

Yet the European systems don’t seem to exhibit the high degree of integration that Edo Japan did, the settlers in the Americas were able to exhaust land and forests and then move on, and the other examples don’t include large populations.  Maybe if we look at Ancient Egypt from this angle, or historical India, we will find a lot of good ideas.

Still, I don’t think we’ll find another example of a society that was forced to be as totally self-sufficient as Japan was, and which nevertheless achieved such a high cultural and technological level and supported such a large population.

Was there anything in your research that caught you by surprise?

Many things I learned were eyebrow raising, particularly concerning the extent of recycling that went on in the cities of the period and how specialized and evolved that market was. The fact that there were specialty lumberyards for recycled timber in Edo, for instance, or that one could sell used ashes and cooking oil. 

Reading accounts of how regenerative forestry was developed, in scholarly books by Conrad Totman and in Jared Diamond’s Collapse, was profoundly moving as well. The same was true when I realized the full implications of the cycle of rice straw use: the diversity of uses people found for the material, the quality of the craftsmanship they devoted to simple things like straw mats, and the uses they found for the ashes that were left over after they burned the rice straw as fuel.  There were a few cases of my being taken totally by surprise, but more often I was astonished by the extent of practices I had heard of already, like urban farming by samurai, and by the full implications of them.

Is there anything in the book that you think is particularly relevant to American readers? Something that resonates in American traditions as well?

It was impossible to think about how erecting a farmhouse or thatching a roof in Japan involved the entire community without relating that to American barn raisings. Our cultures all have strong agrarian roots, and rural life continues to represent a sort of ideal, even if the image we have is partly based on misinterpretations and fantasy.

When we think of Edo urbanism, and about the scale of pre-industrial cities, Edo has a lot on common with towns like Boston or New Orleans, which were very green cities that centered on port activity, were designed for pedestrians, and had distinct neighborhoods and mosaics of subcultures. But Edo was vastly larger, and the environment of Japan itself is different enough from that of North America that a lot of ideas and methods don’t translate very directly.

In terms of important and desirable features that were fully evolved in Edo and which may or may not have existed in America, I’d include urban farming, having an extensive tree canopy in the cities, and making sure waterfronts are well integrated into city life. Not to mention separating sewage systems so that “black” water doesn’t enter the fresh water supply. With the recent explosion in businesses being run out of the home, Americans can also probably appreciate how Japanese houses were designed to accommodate cottage industries.

Americans who read about Edo-period community organization and participation in neighborhood activities may relate that to community groups and neighborhood associations they’re familiar with. They are similar in many respects, the big difference being that in Edo Japan participation was compulsory. 

Finally, I’d like to suggest that the constant drive to do more with less, to improve processes and devices, to transform trash into usable things, all reflect what we’d call a “hacker” spirit today.  Some guy sitting up late with a pile of junk and some tools, and experimenting until he comes up with something that has potential. It was a society of tinkerers and hackers.

Did you change anything in your lifestyle or way of life as a direct result of writing this book?

It certainly changed how I look at things, what I notice in the landscape and cityscape, and what continuity I see in everyday things—like kitchen utensils, wooden buckets, the bath, and the layout of homes and gardens. I have been looking at Japanese architecture for a long time, particularly small-footprint homes, and there are a lot of cases where thinking and attitudes of mine that were influenced by what I had seen before starting this project have been strongly reinforced.

There are many things I’d like to try to integrate into my home life.  I’m trying to learn how to grow vegetables in my tiny side garden, but so far have only attempted tomatoes and goya (bitter melon), and I’ve begun a compost heap.  I’ve never had a green thumb—quite the opposite—but I think it’s important, and I’m doing what I can to get my family onboard. I’ve also become very interested in reforestation, and am hoping to participate in regenerative forestry projects with Akira Miyawaki, and to get my son’s school involved.  But I’d say the biggest effect on me personally has been that I notice more. Then I want to know more, and I want to tell people about it.

Would you have liked to live during this period? And, if so, at what level in society?

In all honesty I wouldn’t like to live in any era other than the one I was born into, but it would be nice to have the opportunity to experience life in Edo Japan for a short time.  It’s a fantasy of course, but if I was able to spend time observing and interacting with people, I’m sure I’d notice a lot of valuable ways of doing things and pick up a lot of ideas.  In terms of temperament, I suppose I could enjoy experiencing the life of an Edo artist-scholar, or spending time in various workshops. 

I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t want to be a warrior or laborer, but it might be nice to run a print shop or be involved in a pottery.  When all is said and done, we can piece together Edo environmental consciousness from the written accounts that have comedown to us, from visual sources and surviving buildings, artifacts, and environments, but a lot has been lost.  It would be really nice to actually see it in action.

Taru wo shiruTaru_wo_Shiru.html

HOME      IMAGES      PRESS      EVENTS      VIDEO      Q&A      TARU WO SHIRU