Harmonious Co-existence between Nature and Mankind

Kunio Iwatsuki
Director, Museum of Nature and Human Activities, Hyogo
Professor Emeritus, The University of Tokyo

Foreword – The Sustainable Use of Biodiversity                


一庫景観2.JPGThe sustainable use of biodiversity is the focal point of the Convention on Biological Diversity, adopted in 1992.  Activities for sustainable use have been conducted for last two decades, in line with the international cooperation.  Nevertheless, biodiversity on earth is still far from being managed soundly.  This is due to adverse effects on the global environment caused by human activities which have not decreased at all.


In order to attain the objective of the sustainable use of biodiversity, careful consideration of our basic lifestyles is required: we must consider how we should live with nature.  The term “sustainable use” clearly expresses the stance that sustainable plans are necessary when mankind as “the lords of creation” uses “products of nature.”  The sense of consumption as a virtue has been nurtured by increases in resource consumption.  We have judged the value of natural resources from an economic perspective, and artificially placed a high value on them.  But still, the idea that only the costs need to be met for harvesting and that raw materials are free of charge has been common.  We have effectively used natural resources by making the best use of advanced technology, and eventually apply unyielding pressure on the limited resources of the earth.


As a result of the unexpected deterioration of the global environment, the 3Rs (reduce, reuse and recycle) concept has been promoted in order to put an end to resource usurpation.  However, due to the high priority of cost-effectiveness, the promotion of costly activities is considered to be difficult.  A material- and energy-minded lifestyle is at the fore, and the idea that material wealth is the condition for happiness is taking precedence.  But I am anxious that we will not be able to halt the deterioration of the global environment if we continue with this lifestyle. 


I would like to work out guiding principles for sustainably using natural resources through seeking the possibility of a fundamental transformation of our lifestyles.  At the same time, I think we would benefit if we could remember precious knowledge from the traditional Japanese lifestyle.




 “Mottainai spirit

The late Wangari Muta Maathai disseminated a Japanese word, “mottainai,” to the world.  Today, this word is used in the sense that “it is wasteful if the value of something is not properly evaluated and it is not fully utilized.”  This definition was cited from the 6th edition of the word encyclopedia “Kojien,” but, this definition is (rather derivatively) positioned as the third.  Originally, “mottai” means “objects” or “things.”  According to the Kojien, the first definition of mottainai is “something inconvenient or unscrupulous to the gods or magnifico,” and the second definition is “something blessed, esteemed or appreciated.”


When I was a boy I used to take meals at my mother’s house.  When I accidentally spilled a few grains of rice, my grandmother picked them up with saying “mottainai, spilling a few grains of rice is mottainai.”  A few grains of rice may not have much economic value, but she cared a lot about them, and picked them up.  In addition, the mottainai spirit was based on “Namu amidabutsu” (the Namu Amida Buddhist recitation).  Mottainai was a warning that every object is blessed by the gods and it would be profane and ungodly to deal with it without awe, rather than meaning that it is wasteful if its value is not properly evaluated and fully utilized.




Reuse and Recycle in the Edo Era

ムニンツツジ.jpgThe spirit of mottainai was actually applied in the cleanliness of the city of Edo.  Edo in that period was home to a population of one million people.  Both Paris and London were also million person cities in that period, but it is said that Edo was far cleaner than those two cities. 


In Edo, people used all the things with care.  For example, when a kimono got dirty, people unseamed, washed and restitched it.  After several washings, the seams of the kimono were worn out.  Then, the kimono was reworked for a child.  If such a kimono became more damaged, it was reformed as a patchwork futon cover. After that, it was again reused as diapers or dusters.  Threadbare dusters were dried and used as elements of fuel.  They were burnt to ashes and used as agricultural fertilizer.  Rice water (togijiru, the white milky water you get when you wash uncooked rice) was used for watering plants.  Wastes were merely produced in the city of Edo.  Small amount of garbage was gathered in limited places and used for land formation.


Body waste was not waste, and it was utilized as it is also “mottainai.”  It was gathered on boats, carried to villages in the Kanto region, and used as manure. Sanitation concepts in that period were of course different from those of today, but this is the difference of eras.  When I was a boy, manure of body waste origin was still commonly used in villages.  Some say that people in Edo even sold body waste in order to make a little money because they were poor.  However, the discarding of body waste should not have been undertaken in Paris or London, even if the people there were rich.




Harmonious Co-existence between Nature and Mankind

柏原八幡山.jpgOur ancestors who settled in the Japanese archipelago lived in a rich biodiversity.  But at the same time, they had to cope with natural disasters occurred frequently in a disaster-prone archipelago.  They developed the archipelago and cultivated farmlands making the use of limited flatlands and water-convenient valleys.  However, even now, only one fifth of the archipelago is utilized.  In addition, they retained sacred places for the gods after developing forests where the gods live.  Since they built shrines (yashiro, 屋代, 社) as places for the gods in the forests, such forests came to be called “chinju-no-mori (鎮守の杜).”


Of course, the more population increased, the more resources were needed.  Natural resources such as firewood were taken from hills located behind villages.  Such routine logging of firewood formed the forests of satoyama, accordingly.  Even though half of the archipelago remained as okuyama*, and people praised these as sacred places for gods.  Satoyama functioned as buffer zones between okuyama for gods and villages for people.  When animals made appearances, they were quiet during the daytime, and became active after people returned to the villages.  In this way, the harmonious co-existence between nature and mankind was conducted.

*Okuyama are deep places in the mountains where people rarely enter.  People consider that okuyama are the fields of gods and places where the souls of the dead return to.


Co-existence with Nature living in an abundant world

In the Japanese archipelago, the co-existence with nature was maintained for a long time, and Japanese people did not eradicate even one species of middle or large animal.  However, after the Meiji Restoration**, they adored western culture single-mindedly in order to catch and pass it in line with the policy of increasing wealth and military power.  And accordingly, firm pressure symbolized by species extinction was applied on biodiversity.  The present situation of endangered species represents the model which accurately symbolizes the dynamic state of biodiversity.  If we call for global sustainability, we have to prevent crises affecting biodiversity.  What we have to do is not to raise issues by words, but to seek lifestyles for living harmoniously with nature through raising the awareness of all citizens and recognizing the preciousness of things.


** The Meiji Restoration, also known as the Meiji Ishin, was a chain of events that restored imperial rule to Japan in 1868 under Emperor Meiji.


Not so long ago, awareness about biodiversity was increasing also in Japan, but it is going to decline now.  We have to cope with various issues in our everyday lives, but, I hope that all of us can recognize that the most important issue for us is to seek ways to live harmoniously with nature for the sustainable use of biodiversity.  The sustainable use of biodiversity can be obtained without suffering great inconvenience.  I believe we can realize a world where we can be blessed with the wealth brought by civilization and enjoy affluent lives, in harmony with biodiversity.

Photo 1: Traditional view of satoyama (Kurokawa District, Kawanishi City, Hyogo Prefecture)

As charcoal made from chrysanthemum is still produced, a patchwork of forests is seen on the slope due to routine logging.  Typical satoyama views are no longer seen now and abandoned forests are developing in hilly and mountainous areas.


Photo 2: Rhododendron boniense (native to Chichijima, Ogasawara, planted by the botanical garden of The University of Tokyo.)

The Rhododendron boniense was in a perilous state.  After culturing at the botanical garden of the University of Tokyo, it was planted and cultured in Chichijima.


Photo 3: Chinju-no-mori (Hachimanyama, Tamba City, Hyogo Prefecture)

When I was a boy, my father took me to this forest for New Year’s visits. The guardian god of the region and the forest surrounding the shrine can be seen.

 Profile of Kunio Iwatsuki

Dr. Kunio Iwatsuki was born in 1934 in Kaibara-cho (now Tamba City), Hyogo Prefecture, Japan.  He specialized in botany at the Faculty of Science of Kyoto University and completed a Bachelor’s Degree.  He also finished his Master’s Degree and earned his PhD. Degree at Kyoto University (Botany).  He served in various positions such as professor at Kyoto University, The University of Tokyo, Rikkyo University and The Open University of Japan, president of The Botanical Society of Japan, and member of the Science Council of Japan, the Central Environment Council, and Japanese National Commission for UNESCO.  Now he serves in a variety of posts including director of Museum of Nature and Human Activities, Hyogo, and Professor Emeritus of The University of Tokyo.

In 1994, he was awarded a Duke of Edinburgh Prize by The Japan Academy for his research, “Systematic Study of Plant Biodiversity and Conservation Biology on Threatened Species.”  He was also named a Person of Cultural Merit in 2007.

Museum of Nature and Human Activities, Hyogo: http://hitohaku.jp