Circularity in Japan

With the help of our partner Shibaura House, we’ve put together a brief summary of the difference that circular design could make in Japan. Scroll on to take a closer look at the challenges and opportunities facing this region.

Finding a common language

Circularity in Japan is often understood as an aggregation of techniques related to reducing waste, rather than a paradigm shift of the way we live on Earth. This means that in business and in policy, there is a major focus on industrial concepts like de-carbonisation and de-plasticisation. On the one hand this makes sense, because Japan’s waste management systems are being stretched to the limits. Tokyo’s landfill, for example, will be reaching its capacity in the next generation. But there is also an urgent need to expand the conversation beyond economics and marketing. How could creatives help develop a common language to communicate ideas and principles behind circularity — in a way that is more familiar to Japan?


Satoyama as a local model of circularity

Forty percent of Japan is covered by a unique production landscape called satoyama, meaning “mountains near human settlements”. A typical satoyama consists of woodland, grassland, rivers, and rice paddies, which generate manifold blessings for humans. Living in harmony with nature is achieved by human activities that foster the landscape’s productivity and biodiversity. However, an ageing population has led to a decline in management of the satoyama. With younger generations moving increasingly into cities, there are few successors to inherit the wisdom of co-living and crafts. Circularity inspired by satoyama could be a starting point and inspiration for designers.

A fast-paced lifestyle

Japan has one of the longest average working hours in the world. With many people living alone — in cities like Tokyo, 40-50% of homes are single households — there is a great need for convenience and efficiency. Products and services are often advertised with the word jitan, meaning “time-saving”.  Citizens value items that are fast to prepare, such as obento (microwavable lunch boxes) or osozai (pre-made dishes) in supermarkets. These make practices such as slow cooking and repairing less attractive for the urban resident. Designers need to consider this fast-paced lifestyle when designing for the Japanese context.

Furoshiki packaging

Furoshiki is an internationally recognised form of traditional Japanese packaging. This form of textile wrapping is versatile and its uses are diverse. More materials and forms exist, however. Wood, bamboo, leaves, hay, paper, and clay were all common packaging materials used in centuries past. Today, some are trying to revive the use of materials like these as a way to reduce the need for synthetic materials like plastic. Unfortunately, many of these alternative methods are not compatible with contemporary manufacturing realities. They also require a level of craftsmanship and knowledge that might be forgotten or lost to many. Could designers help reverse or remix this trend?


To accelerate Japan’s transition to a circular society, we must bend the line where it matters most. Here are some key opportunities to consider:




  • What if you could make long-lasting, imperfect things more attractive than their disposable, homogeneous counterparts?

  • How could you create new forms of packaging inspired by traditional methods, and find ways to produce them at scale?

  • How could you incentivise busy urban residents to engage with practices like reusing or repairing?

  • What could you do to give older generations a platform to share their wisdom on how to live in harmony with nature?