November 30, 2003



Keywords: Newsletter 

JFS Newsletter No.15 (November 2003)

Japan is a land of forests and mountains. About 25 million hectares are forested, covering some 67 percent of the country. This figure is over twice as large as the world's average 29 percent forest cover of land. However, Japan's forest area per capita is a meager 0.2 hectares due to the country's large population. The total forest area has remained unchanged for the past 30 years.

Data for the year 2000 from the Japan Forestry Investigation Committee shows that about 60 percent of Japan's forests are natural (including old growth forest and forest that has been logged but and left unplanted, so that they regenerate "naturally") and the remaining 40 percent are plantations. Plantation forests increased by 30 percent to 10 million hectares between 1966 and 1995 while natural forests shrunk by 15 percent to 13 million hectares during the same period.

The volume of wood resources (calculated on the basis of annual tree growth) rose by about 85 percent over the past 30 years. In particular, plantation forests increased threefold to 19 million cubic meters, while natural forests increased by about 20 percent to 16 million cubic meters.

Japan's plantation forests are mostly covered with coniferous trees. In particular, cedar trees planted after the Second World War account for over half the plantation forests' volume. Cedar, Japanese cypress, and Japanese larch trees occupy nearly 90 percent of the plantation forests. On the other hand, various broadleaf trees cover 72 percent of natural forests.

Japanese cypress in the Kiso region of Gifu Prefecture, cedar in Akita, and Hiba in Aomori are considered to be Japan's three most beautiful forests, and local residents have protected these forests for generations. In the Edo Period, Japanese cypress trees in the Kiso region were under the protec tion of a forestry office set up by the Owari feudal load. An old saying goes "one cypress tree, one human head," meaning you will lose your head if you are caught cutting a cypress tree, suggests that these trees were strictly protected in the past.

Traditionally, people valued the mountains and forests that provided the resources they needed for their livelihood, including firewood. This secondary forest created and managed in conjunction with human activities is called "satoyama."

After the Second World War, Japan's forests changed dramatically. Many forests were turned into farmland to solve food shortages. During the late-1950s, people shifted from using firewood and charcoal as their fuel sources to coal and petroleum. These changes weakened the relationships between humans and the forests.

A new forestry policy was adopted to replace broadleaf trees, which used to be the source of charcoal and firewood, with coniferous trees to meet the growing demand for lumber during the post-war period of rapid economic growth. As a result, many cedar and cypress trees were planted to meet future demand and plantation forests grew to 40 percent of the country's total.

Many of the plantation forests created after the Second World War are now approaching the age when thinning is required to ensure the optimal growth of the remaining trees. But due to the declining profitability and activity of the lumber industry, forest-thinning and logging tend to be neglected, leading to an expanded area of forests that have weakened soil-conserving and water-retaining and purification functions.

Despite the fact that 67 percent of Japan is forested, 80 percent of domestically-consumed lumber in this country consists of lower-cost timber imported from abroad. Much of Japan's domestically-produced timber comes from steep mountain slopes, making it difficult to use large equipment for maintaining, cutting and transporting trees. On the other hand, the countries that export timber to Japan (the United States, Canada, Indonesia, etc.) can supply relatively cheap timber thanks to more accessible forest land (meaning low transportation costs) and relatively cheaper labor costs. As a result, Japan's self-sufficiency for lumber decreased from 98 percent in 1950 to 45 percent in 1970, and further to the current 20 percent.

Due to the declining forestry industry in Japan, the number of forestry workers dropped from about 440,000 in the early 1960s to the current 67,000. More than 30 percent of these workers are over 65 years old, a symptom of the rapid aging of the working population.

Japan consumes about 100 million cubic meters of wood annually, 45 percent of which is used for construction and 40 percent for paper. Although per capita wood consumption in Japan is much lower than in the United States or northern Europe, for example, Japan's total volume of imported wood chips (for paper) and logs is the world's largest.

The annual growth of Japan's forests is estimated at 70 million cubic meters, and net timber volume increases annually by 50 million cubic meters. The absence of an effective system to utilize domestic forests, in the face of the huge wood imports, remains a major problem in Japan.

Forest conservation has become an urgent issue for Japan, which is aiming to achieve 3.9 percent of the country's greenhouse gas emission reduction target of 6 percent, promised in the Kyoto Protocol, through CO2 absorption by forests. To achieve this goal, the Japanese government has been promoting the "Green Employment Program," which is expected to create new jobs in forest management.

The prefectural governments and municipalities are also promoting the use of locally produced wood by subsidizing or certifying such wood. Similarly, NGOs and citizens' groups across the nation are launching regional associations for building houses with local wood. Various wood processing techniques have been developed to produce sturdy plywood, furniture and stationery made from Japanese wood.

Various measures have been taken particularly to carry out the urgent task of promoting the use of wood gathered from the thinning of plantation forests. For example, the national government has issued instructions to prefectural governments that they should proactively use timber from the thinning of domestic forests in public works projects. In addition, this wood is now used to produce interior finishing products, tables, chairs, pencils, and disposable chopsticks that are sold with a special logo indicating their source as being from the thinning of forests. In another example, by using thinnings instead of concrete as a construction material, a wooden dam was built in Kyoto Prefecture. In addition, paper manufacturers, in collaboration with environmental groups, have developed envelopes and paper made of wood from the thinning of forests.
Envelopes Made of Wood from Forest Maintenance Hit the Market

Many domestic forests have acquired certification from the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) for sustainable forest operations.
Latest Trends in Forest Certification in Japan

Japan's own certification body, called the "Sustainable Green Ecosystem Council," was established in June 2003.

Ricoh Co., a major Japanese manufacturer of office equipment and supplies, made a new move as a paper user to protect forests in other countries. The company has established environmental standards that exclude the use of materials from precious forests, including old-growth, native, and natural forests inhabited by endangered species. While conventional green purchasing standards for paper products in Japan are designed mainly to promote the use of recycled paper, the innovative Ricoh standards venture into the actual preservation of forests.
Ricoh Establishes Environmental Standard on Paper Products

Forests are also drawing attention as energy sources. Under the National Strategy of Biomass Utilization formulated by the Japanese government, biomass energy is being researched and developed for practical use.
Outline on Japan's National Strategy of Biomass Utilization Announced

In Aomori and other prefectures, there are widespread efforts for biomass utilization, such as classic wood stoves, stoves that use pellets made of wood waste that cannot be used as timber, and steam boilers that burn pellets for local heating and power generation. (Search using the key word "biomass" to find more about activities in this area.)

In addition to wood utilization, efforts for forest conservation are widespread across the country, in recognition of the valuable functions of forests. Increasing numbers of local municipalities are carrying out projects to protect forests as a water source through levying a tax for forest conservation or adding a certain amount of forest conservation fees to a water bill, such as a forest environment tax adopted in Kochi Prefecture.
Kochi to Introduce Forest Environment Tax

There is another activity in which fishermen plant trees every year under the catchphrase of "The Forest is the Sweetheart of the Sea," aiming at growing healthy forests as a water source to nurture abundant marine life. In Kesennuma City, Miyagi Prefecture, fishermen have been cooperating with residents in mountainous districts in planting trees at an annual festival of the same name for more than 10 years.

The long experience of an oyster farmer named Shigeatsu Hatakeyama told him that something was wrong in the sea. Viewing the environment from the marine standpoint, he organized a group called "Friends of the Oyster-Nurturing Forest," and initiated the tree-planting activity.

Hatakeyama sometimes invites children living in the upstream regions of a river that runs through a forest to the sea and lets them taste seawater containing plankton. "Whatever humans put in the water," he says, "makes its way to the sea and is concentrated in plankton. Only when they taste the plankton collected with a plankton net do children start to make the personal connection with the environment."

After more than 10 years of the activity, residents along the river became more conscious of their impacts on the water, eels and seahorses were found again in the sea, and many other marine organisms have come back to flourish in the area. Now tree-planting activities inspired by the concept of "The Forest is the Sweetheart of the Sea" are spreading across the country.