The Design Observer Group

Posted 03.29.10

Azby Brown

Bent by the Sun

The characters engraved on this stone basin from Ryoanji Temple in Kyoto comprise a visual pun which can be read "I know what just enough is" ("Ware tada taru wo shiru"). All illustrations by Azby Brown, from Just Enough: Lessons in Living Green from Traditional Japan.

Sometimes a simple investigation can lead us along an unexpected path. This spring I will have lived in Japan for 25 years, as a student, artist, designer and teacher. My interests here have taken me from a study of traditional architecture to a long, deep look at the urban development of Tokyo to several books on manufactured housing and small-footprint dwellings. But it has only been recently that the thread that unites these varied areas, a seemingly inexhaustible vein of connected and sometimes startling ideas, has become clear to me. It's not simply "design in Japan." Rather, I feel I somehow stumbled upon a set of widely applicable design principles of the sort we now urgently need.


I was initially drawn to Japan by its carpentry. Having grow up in New Orleans, I felt I had an ingrained sense of the continuities that bind life in past eras with our present, and Japan, with its vastly deeper history and cultural longevity, promised a valuable window into a form of knowledge that had been lost elsewhere. I was drawn to Japanese carpentry by its beauty, which seemed to me to lie primarily in its puzzlelike complexity and the virtuosic skill that its craftsmen wielded. That it appeared to be a physical embodiment of Buddhism was an added attraction, as was the ethical code and discipline that shaped the carpenters' worldview. For a child of the ’60s embarked on a psychic journey, a temple carpenter's workshop in Nara was a good stopping place, and looking back, I realize that what seemed at the time to be incidental conversations with craftsmen were in fact formative experiences that have led to my current immersion in the world of Japanese sustainability.

The first crucial conversation was about time. Tsunekazu Nishioka, considered the last of the great Japanese temple carpenters, at whose workshop I studied for three years, was telling me how dismantling a 1300-year-old temple provided him the opportunity to study the ring structure of the old columns, which he estimated had been cut when they were 1000 years old. "So," I observed, “the tree was 1000 years old when the temple was built, and the temple is 1300 years old now, so in all we're talking about a time span of 2300 years.…" "Yes," he replied. "And compared to that, a human lifespan is next to nothing."

The next conversation was about water. I had asked another old carpenter working under Nishioka how he had shaped the curved handle of his adze, which fit his arms and body perfectly. I thought he had ignored my question at first, but when we broke for lunch and were walking outside, he pointed to a puddle on the ground that reflected the July sun with a blinding glare and without breaking stride said simply, "Water." He gestured for me to touch it, and I did, and of course it was warm. After mulling this over for the rest of the day, I asked him that evening, "So, you leave the wood in the water under the summer sun for a while until it gets soft enough to bend, right?" "Right." came the reply. It was a lesson conveyed in only two words.

The final conversation was about microclimates. Master Nishioka was describing to me how important it was to match a tree to its structural use in the building, based on where on the hillside it grew. "Valley trees are too wet for most uses, trees at the top of the hill sprout a lot of branches because they don't have to compete and are very knotty, but trees from the middle slopes compete with others and have long trunks with branches clustered toward their crowns. Those make the best beams, because they're straight and fairly free of knots." He went on to describe how trees from the north face differ from those found on the south, and so on.

From the first conversation I understood that Nishioka and his peers had inherited a cultural tradition that considered centuries and millennia. From the second I understood that the carpenters were accustomed to letting nature do the work; the sun’s power was enough to transform a material simply by adding a moderate amount of heat. From the third, I understood that these craftsmen had a deep grasp of the effect of small environmental variations on the nature of growing things. While now, after two decades, these three lessons stick out as particularly valuable ones to me, time and again what I learned about the practice of Japanese traditional crafts called attention to their fundamental environmental soundness. And this is what ultimately led me to learn as much as I could about the relationship between preindustrial Japanese material culture, its design, and the constraints imposed by life on an isolated archipelago that had limited resources.

During the Edo period, from the early 17th to the mid 19th centuries, Japan faced environmental problems similar to ours: large population, fuel scarcity, limited arable land, deforestation, a damaged watershed. Through well-thought-out policies that reinforced existing cultural values, and through technical and economic innovation, the nation brought itself back from the brink, and did it in beautiful ways. Being a designer, I hoped to find useful lessons there.

Perhaps at this point I should clear up a few potential misperceptions. Japan’s was not, emphatically, an egalitarian society, but caste-based, though life was good for most of the people most of the time. True, many of us would have found life under their system intolerable. Samurai did indeed have the right to execute commoners on the spot for showing insufficient respect, though this privilege was rarely exercised. Urban commoners of the merchant class were segregated into crowded living areas and carefully monitored, but by and large were left alone to accrue wealth according to their abilities and connections. And while peasants occasionally suffered deprivation due to famine, for the most part they prospered as well. The most recent academic research indicates that by most of the measures we would use to determine quality of life — health, hygiene, longevity, nutrition, housing and education — Japanese common classes of the Edo period enjoyed a standard at least as high as that of their Western counterparts, if not higher, particularly as the 18th century gave way to the 19th. The farming peasants were required under penalty of law to turn over a large portion of their rice yields to the government, in what amounts to a 20- to 30-percent income tax. But the ruling classes needed the rural peasants and urban commoners to be productive, and that required positive motivation and efforts to keep them happy.

Appreciating the achievements of Edo-period Japan in design, agriculture, forestry, environmental management, transportation and other areas does not mean romanticizing it or being blind to the downsides, or turning back the clock. What it requires instead is the ability to discover the fundamental principles that underlay the systems developed in this era, and to learn to discern deeper attitudes toward design that may be applicable to our current situation. Some designs transplant readily — we can use Japanese traditional pottery just as it is, and can adapt architectural features such as sliding doors and floor cushions fairly easily as well. But many more significant design lessons can be found.

One of the most important lessons is that the primary design response to material and energy shortages of the era was to seek multiform solutions, designs that solved many problems at once. We see this in the easy convertibility of the traditional Japanese interior, which allows rooms to be used for a variety of purposes. But the same attitude led to the development of rice paddy irrigation systems, which were almost entirely gravity-fed, acted as cascading filters for the water supply, and could function as solar-heated warm-water tanks for processing hemp and other plant-based textile fibers. The system allowed the paddies themselves to function as wetland habitat for many species in addition to growing food. The design of the ubiquitous dismantleable Japanese jointed wooden building frame facilitated reusing the posts and beams elsewhere, helping to reduce the stress on forests for lumber supplies. The constantly refined design of earthen cookstoves minimized fuel use and helped keep fuel consumption well within the available supply, further minimizing the stress on forests. Forest management was recognized early on as essential for preserving the health of waterways that were vital for transportation and as a food source. In these and countless other examples, design solutions were considered adequate only if they addressed a number of secondary problems in addition to the primary purpose.

Most needs were served by technologies that required very few energy inputs other than solar energy and human labor. The urban water system was also gravity-fed, and transportation and agriculture were progressively refined to largely eliminate the need for draft animals, accommodating themselves to an economy that prioritized the use of arable land for food production for people as opposed to livestock. The near total absence of meat-eating reinforced this efficiency of land use, while a highly developed water transportation system both in the cities and along the coasts largely eliminated the need to move large loads overland with the aid of animals. Compared with their European or North American contemporaries, Japanese city streets were free of animal manure and therefore healthier and arguably more pleasant for the inhabitants. In these and other ways, shifting to less polluting energy sources helped solve a number of problems at once.

Metal, mainly iron, whose production depended upon a high expenditure of energy in the form of large quantities of charcoal, was an extremely valuable commodity. Designs in all areas of life both minimized its use — spades and hoes, for instance, were designed with wooden cores to which narrow metal blades were attached as cutting edges — and facilitated reconfiguration and recycling. The near total absence of metal nails in architectural structures, depending instead on mortises, tenons, pegs and wedges, and the fact that nails were carefully salvaged and reused whenever possible, attests as much to the desire to minimize energy consumption in the form of embodied energy as it does anything else.

The achievement of this nearly entirely waste-free material production system required a constant process of innovation, experimental and incremental, in which design proposals were subjected to a number of overarching "meta-requirements." Can this be done without consuming fuel (like weaving)? Can it be made from a rapidly renewed material (bamboo for baskets, or reeds for thatch)? Can it take advantage of recycled material (a broken iron pot becomes a blade)? Is it scalable and able to be customized to suit specific regions, households or individuals (like kimono)? What is the desired degree of durability — is it better to make it last for generations (like cabinetry) or remade every year (like straw boots)? Is there a way to use the material at end-of-life (use the straw as fuel, convert worn cotton fabric to pouches)? In most cases, these requirements were never spelled out in cost-versus-benefit calculations, but were inherent assumptions for Japanese of that period. Design questions were invariably viewed in the context of their implications for the wider environment and for sustaining the lifestyle indefinitely into the future. These considerations taken as a whole formed the basis for a vernacular sustainability of a completeness and refinement difficult to find elsewhere, which ultimately was successful because of how adeptly it satisfied such abstract requirements. Understanding and utilizing the underlying principles in designs for today should rarely lead to results that look "Japanese"; learning from Japanese design in this regard does not mean mimicking visual aspects, function or even materials.

What about Japan today? Though a great many of the underlying values — anti-waste, frugality, reuse, conserving energy — persisted well into the 20th century, by and large the intricately interconnected sustainable material production system broke down with the advent of the industrial revolution in Japan in the late 19th century. The widespread introduction of fossil fuels, coal primarily, broke the bond between people and the forests that had supported them, in a way that has had many unforeseen negative consequences. Beyond that, once integrated into the global trade system, the imperative to remain self-sufficient as a nation largely vanished, with repercussions felt down to the community and household levels. Japan is a paramount consumer society now, and despite tremendous strides in energy efficiency and recycling, particularly in the building and automotive sectors, its economy depends on planned obsolescence — on rapidly replacing consumer goods with new ones as soon as they become slightly worn or unfashionable. The huge irony is that, as was the case with Master Nishioka and his colleagues, the value of the intellectual approach so clearly evident in these traditional methods — which are actually extremely successful centuries-long experiments in sustainable production — and their applicability to us today has gone largely unrecognized by the Japanese public. Most failed to appreciate them until foreigners expressed an interest. Now is the time to take notice of traditions such as these, and to strive to discover underlying principles applicable to our own situation. Because these behavior-based forms of knowledge can disappear suddenly without a trace, and we will all be the poorer because of it.