Japan's Fatal Forest Mistake, and the Force to Fix It

Japan's ancestral forests couldn't be replaced by just any trees.
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Japan's Fatal Forest Mistake, and the Force to Fix It

By Catherine Gilon


Japan's forests may have a lesson or two for current efforts to replenish Earth's trees.

By Catherine Gilon

Mention Japan and it conjures up images of bullet trains, crazy vending machines and towering buildings. But the country’s far from completely urbanized: Two-thirds of Japanese land is covered by forests. With traditional houses built from wood and prevalent use of fuel wood, forest management in Japan began as early as the Edo Era (1603–1868) when a feudal system was in place. During this period, any commoner who who dared to cut down trees faced stringent punishment — one proverb from the period goes “A hinoki tree; a head.” But after the devastation of World War II, the country saw a dramatic change in its approach to its trees.

“In the past, the mountains of Japan were divided into okuyama [wild forest] and satoyama [woodlands managed by villagers] as an ethnic unwritten rule,” explains Mariko Moriyama, a teacher turned environmentalist. The woodlands were open to people — at least during the day — while the wild forest was seen as a divine refuge that humans weren’t even allowed to enter. As a result, animal populations flourished.

But this sustainable system collapsed in the postwar period, as the focus shifted from traditional norms to planting trees for Japan’s construction industry. The existing beech trees, which one pre-1930 estimate found made up about a quarter of state forests, were considered a waste of space, as they weren’t useful for rebuilding cities. More than 15 million acres of primeval beech trees were cut, Moriyama says, and the forests replanted with lumber trees like cedar and cypress.

Managing the forests we already have and reforesting when we do clear cuts, or when we have natural disasters, is a huge problem.

Tabata Sunao, head of forestry startup Hyakumori

It is estimated that close to 17 million beech trees were destroyed due to this forest expansion policy, and artificial forests made up close to half of the total forest land by 1985. The reforested coniferous plantations caused their own problems: They had to be thinned regularly, but there weren’t enough workers to do it. As a result, large plantations were left unattended and underutilized. 

Japan wasn’t the only nation affected, according to Dr. Hikaru Komatsu of Kyoto University. After the war, regulation changes allowed Japan to import timber from Southeast Asia for the first time. “This in turn led to massive deforestation in Southeast Asia,” he says. Not only that, the imported timber was cheaper … meaning people lost interest in the coniferous plantations for which so many native trees had been sacrificed.

In the process of raising a forest for human consumption, Japan had also forgotten the other lives that thrive in a forest. The chopping down of beech forests cost local bears their habitat, says Moriyama. “Bears that needed a lot of food before hibernation began to come to the villages in the fall to seek food. Eventually, they were labeled as pests and killed.”

140 year old Hinoki cypress.

A 140-year-old Hinoki cypress.

Source Arterra/Universal Images Group via Getty

By 1992, it was estimated that only 60 Japanese black bears remained in Hyogo prefecture, where Moriyama was teaching science to first-graders. One of her students submitted a report on the plight of the bears — and the class, moved, asked Moriyama to help the animals. So she, along with fellow teachers and a bunch of concerned students, launched The Group for Protecting Wild Japanese Black Bears. After various false starts, they decided that the only way to protect the bears was to give them a place to roam free, a new okuyama.

Working with students and citizen volunteers, they started planting seedlings of native broadleaf trees. How long they’ll take to be useful to the bear population depends on the tree — a chestnut might take three years, while beeches can take decades. In one area planted with new trees in 2002, signs of bears in the form of “bear shelves” — broken branches bears pile in trees to sit on — were seen in 2015. Bear hunting has also been banned in Hyogo, and the bear population is at 840 and climbing.

The group, now known as the JBFS (The Japan Bear & Forest Society), is the largest nonprofit wildlife conservation society in the country, with more than 17,000 members. Moriyama says she understands they can’t artificially restore the forest — but they can give the ecosystem a fighting chance to restore itself.

Bears weren’t the only animals affected by the misguided afforestation project. Insects and fish were driven to extinction as well, and deer — without any forests to eat — turned to human-inhabited areas, causing an estimated $50 million in damage in 2017. Relying on just one or two types of trees, as plantations do, is also a risky game: Such tracts are particularly susceptible to climate change crises.

In Japan, only about a third of the forests are state owned — compared to 42 percent in the United States. That means getting the local community on board, as Moriyama has done, is key.

“Japan is a rare country where afforestation is not much of an issue,” says Tabata Sunao, whose company, Hyakumori, works on sustainable forest management. “However, managing the forests we already have and reforesting when we do clear cuts, or when we have natural disasters, is a huge problem.” The company works with private owners — more than 700 people — to redesign local forested areas and determine which trees can and should go where.

Those decisions can have far-reaching implications, and not just for bears. The cypress and cedar trees planted in the 1960s are reaching maturity now, and the older trees, which produce more nitrogen, are causing toxic runoff into local streams. The trees could be cut down to make way for new growth or native plants — but clear-cutting them is hardly a sustainable option either. In fact, getting rid of those trees could undermine Japan’s commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. There’s no easy solution — but perhaps the example can serve as a lesson to other countries that bad forest management has unintended consequences.