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Keywords:

  • dematerialization;
  • industrial ecology;
  • material flow analysis (MFA);
  • material intensity;
  • resource flows;
  • societal metabolism

Summary 

The notion of a (socio-) metabolic transition has been used to describe fundamental changes in socioeconomic energy and material use during industrialization. During the last century, Japan developed from a largely agrarian economy to one of the world's leading industrial nations. It is one of the few industrial countries that has experienced prolonged dematerialization and recently has adopted a rigorous resource policy. This article investigates changes in Japan's metabolism during industrialization on the basis of a material flow account for the period from 1878 to 2005. It presents annual data for material extraction, trade, and domestic consumption by major material group and explores the relations among population growth, economic development, and material (and energy) use. During the observed period, the size of Japan's metabolism grew by a factor of 40, and the share of mineral and fossil materials in domestic material consumption (DMC) grew to more than 90%. Much of the growth in the Japanese metabolism was based on imported materials and occurred in only 20 years after World War II (WWII), when Japan rapidly built up large stocks of built infrastructure, developed heavy industry, and adopted patterns of mass production and consumption. The surge in material use came to an abrupt halt with the first oil crisis, however. Material use stabilized, and the economy eventually began to dematerialize. Although gross domestic product (GDP) grew much faster than material use, improvements in material intensity are a relatively recent phenomenon. Japan emerges as a role model for the metabolic transition but is also exceptional in many ways.