Just Enough

’We are on the threshold of a new aesthetic shift fed by an altered awareness of our dependence on the environment and the importance of healing and preserving it that will permanently alter our sense of beauty.’

(Azby Brown)

The Edo period of Japanese history lasted a little over two and a half centuries (1868-1603) and most of what you recognise as ‘traditional’ Japanese art and craft has its roots in this period. Though I am no history buff, the Edo period was one of such startling inventiveness and beauty I confess to feeling irresistibly romantic about its particular genius.

I had not made the connection that the impetus for all this creativity arose in a period of great resource depletion and insecurity. In particular, I was struck by the deforestation crisis (which you can read about in more detail in Jared Diamond’s “Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed”.) This, of course, had a major impact on infrastructure. It also forced people to think in completely new ways about the use of resources. Hot water, for example, was an extraordinarily precious resource. Two special rituals I’m particularly partial to—tea ceremony and bathing—arose in response to the new, care-filled attention given to the elements of fire and water.

This fine article by Azby Brown entitled “Living with Just Enough” looks at sustainability and the true health and beauty that emerges in concert with it, done right. There are two guiding principles undergirding the long view. The first is the sense of time : ‘How is it,’ Mary Catherine Bateson asked in a recent OnBeing interview, ‘ that we are living longer and thinking (ever) shorter?’ In the Edo period, outcomes were measured in centuries and all actions were undertaken with a sensitivity to effects on the entire web of life. The second principle concerns the sense of value. A ‘maker economy’ (as opposed to a consumer centred economy) certainly aids in this; which is to say that the bond between craftspeople and users is unique, powerful and like no other. It involves a deep trust and responsibility: something humans crave. Further trust was cultivated in the practice of the ‘gift economy’ which not only kept the craftspeople sweet, but on a larger scale ‘surplus goods were circulated as reciprocal gifts until every household had pretty much what it needed.’ An old-style share economy, if you like.

I warmed to the ideas that the young would be ‘trained as multi-competent generalists always aware of the Big Picture’ and that ‘problems [were] defined in such a way that the need for long-term thinking, conservation of energy and resources, the need to work with, instead of against, natural forces, and the importance of providing meaningful work for everyone instead of endlessly seeking to minimise labor, became requirements so well understood that they rarely needed to be explicitly stated.’

The phrase ‘Just enough’ reminds me of a poem of Nanao Sakaki’s:

Soil for feet

Axe for hands

Flower for eyes

Bird for ears

Mushroom for nose

Smile for mouth

Songs for lungs

Sweat for skin

Wind for mind

– Just Enough –

 JUST ENOUGH (juu bun)



2 thoughts on “Just Enough

  1. I love this and wish we could go back to those days and practices. I remember being struck by the Hobbits’ practice of “mathoming,” which is that when someone gives you a present, you take one of your own possessions and give it to them. This happened to me one day about 20 years ago, when I went to visit the president of my university to thank her for a grant I’d received. I gifted her a pretty trinket for her shelves and she took it out of the box, admired it, and walked over to one of her shelves, where she exchanged it for something on it. She then took that item, put it into the box, and handed it back to me, quite charmingly. My own firsthand experience with mathoming. It’s a perfect idea.

    Thanks for the lovely post.


  2. Kate gave me this poem many years ago, which is in an unvarnished frame in my study. It is an anchor-point.


    (father of the same)


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