What’s the first thing you think of when somebody mentions Japan? Very likely it’s the modern, urban face of Tokyo, brimming with cutting-edge electronics, bright lights, and super-fast trains. There’s more of the same in Yokohama, Osaka, and Nagoya, and Japan has many smaller cities and towns with millions of buildings and people and miles of roads. But despite the notion that all this human development is crammed onto a string of islands, spilling off into the Pacific, the reality is surprisingly different. Japan is covered with forest. Close to 70 percent of its land area is in trees, which is far, far above the worldwide forestation rate of around 30 percent. In fact, of developed countries, Japan is the number three ranked nation for forest cover, only exceeded by Finland and Sweden.
Not all of Japan’s tree-covered acreage is virgin forest. A lot of it, around 60 percent, is natural growth, though it may have been cut down at one time and regenerated on its own. The rest, however, grows in tree plantations. Japan has a long history, and its efforts to maintain and expand forest land have gone on for hundreds of years. Long-term thinking has driven the continuous cutting and replanting of forest land, mostly with conifers. Cedar, Japanese cypress, and Japanese larch form the vast majority of these planted forests, producers of the type of lumber needed for construction after World War II. The forests of natural tree growth are mostly broadleaf species.
Forest health has been maintained because there is national pride in them, and a desire to husband the resources that provide so much to humans. Different periods of Japan’s history have brought alternating waves of exploitation and protection of forests dating back to the Edo Period, from the early 1600s to the middle 1800s. Consolidation of the country under one government in this period gave rise to much construction, and expansion of rice paddies and other agriculture. To fuel the construction, there was overcutting in the forests, and that exposure led to landslides. In view of the environmental degradation, the forests—sources of wood for heat and cooking as well as building—received heightened status, to the point that unauthorized tree cutting could be punishable by death. A holistic point of view toward the basic ecology of the forest and its intrinsic value to humans took form. Taking the long view, forests were seen to require continuous, thoughtful management. Such philosophy faltered in later decades and by the late 1800s, forests were again under siege as the country rushed to modernize and build infrastructure.
Some of that damage was addressed, but before long, the demands upon the forests to support Japan’s efforts during World War II took their toll. Allied bombing, of course, brought massive destruction that then needed repairing and reconstruction. Twenty percent of Japan’s fields and forests were damaged and even cherished virgin forest was felled to help bring the country back to proper function. As society rebuilt and modernized further after World War II, other fuel sources supplanted the traditional use of wood and charcoal for heat. Still, some forests were cut in order to make way for crop production to meet increased food demands. Cleared hillsides did not fare well in a series of typhoons that struck the islands in the 1950s, and concentrated efforts were once again made to re-establish Japan’s badly damaged forests. Much of Japan’s post-WWII plantings have now reached an age where they should be thinned for optimal forest health, but Japan has turned to imports for construction lumber. Given the steep and hard-to-access terrain of the country’s forest land and the low cost of US and European wood, Japan has backed off of using its own trees. It is a huge importer of wood chips for paper, and whole trees for building material, but the need for utilization of the wood from thinned domestic forests has inspired programs to make furniture, chopsticks, and an array of other products from local wood.
As in many places around the world, long traditions of respect for nature have been under pressure from the massive power of corporate industrial interests. The drive to convert some natural forest areas with commercially unvalued trees into cedar-growing plantations led to fights in the 1990s to preserve them. The threats against the buna forests of Shirakami-Sanchi in northern Honshu resulted in the protection of that area as a World Heritage Site and rekindled Japan’s fervor to safeguard its natural forests. Buna trees, a species of beech native to Japan, form forests with a great diversity of species, in contrast to the monocultures of cedars planted commercially. The concept and designation of “biodiversity hotspots” by prominent environmental organizations has led to the naming of the entire island chain of Japan as such an area of high species concentration. Its vast expanses of forest protect the complex assemblages of plants and animals so crucial to a healthy ecosystem. Sadly, while Japan realized the value of its own native forests and worked to preserve them, the country’s enormous need for lumber led it to fuel massive deforestation and species loss in the Philippines, Malaysia, and Indonesia. The tragedy of this loss in the tropical forests of those countries and the consequent impact to world atmospheric health is a cautionary tale. Japan can be rightly proud of the work it has done to preserve such a vast proportion of its land in forest. But it is not enough to shelter one’s own local biodiversity, because shifting a nation’s consumption onto another’s resource base affects the health of the planet overall. We’re all in this together.
Go take a walk in a Japanese forest. But first, get to know the country with this National Geographic wall map of that tree-covered land. Available from Maps.com.
caption: Japan’s mountainous landscape is richly forested.
source: Pixabay: 12019 (Public domain)
caption: Forest solitude makes a good setting for temples.
source: Pxhere: Unknown (Public domain)
caption: Huge Edo period Shinto shrines required enormous amounts of timber.
source: Flickr: Roger W (CC by SA 2.0 Generic)
caption: Japan’s largest yakusugi, or Japanese cedar. The Japanese revere their iconic forest giants.
source: Wikimedia Commons: Yosemite (CC by SA 3.0 Unported)