Artifacts of Our Work

Artifacts of Our Work: What makers can learn from Edo-era Japan

During the Edo-era, Japan isolated itself from the rest of the world. All resources were precious. Re-use and recycling were the norm. Not because they loved and cherished nature, though that may have played a role with their Shinto backgrounds, but out of necessity. With limited contact with the outside world, Japan had to be self-sufficient. As a result, communities worked together to make sure that nothing went to waste.

Umbrellas were made of bamboo and paper. Once they started showing wear and tear they were refurbished. The bamboo was repaired and new oil paper was attached. The old paper was sold as packaging material.

Starch extracted from rice was used to repair ceramics. Human waste (night soil) was bought by farmers and used as fertilizer in their fields.

This kind of reuse of by-products was a part of life in the Edo period and the effects still reverberate in modern Japan. Letting excess go to waste even has its own word in Japanese: “mottainai”.

While we aren’t usually concerned about letting excess go to waste, mottainai is uttered on a regular basis in Japan.