Fact of the Week
Credit to Research Team: Einar Ang
History of Japan’s forest management policy
Despite supporting one of the highest human population densities in the world, Japan is the first developed country with the highest percentage (74%) of forest covered land. This is because Japan’s forest management policy began over four centuries ago.
Exploitative use of forests worked as long as small. The rulers’ demands for timber sometimes led to severe local deforestation, but they were always able to shift the logging to new areas with “old growth” forests that contained an abundance of large trees for high quality lumber. Logging for timber demands of the elite often suited villagers because it opened up land for agriculture while also creating secondary forest, which was the best vegetation for providing organic fertilizer, fuel, fodder, and other forest products for subsistence.
The situation started to change around 1570. By then, Japan’s population had increased to ten million people, and villagers’ needs for subsistence forest products had increased correspondingly. Large-scale military conflict during the 1500s required large quantities of timber for the armies. With the advent of the Tokugawa shogunate and peace, followed by rapid growth of cities and monumental construction projects for castles, temples, and shrines, logging increased during 1600s to a scale never before experienced in Japan. Conflict between villagers and rulers over the use of forest lands – subsistence products for the villagers vs. timber for the rulers – became more intense. By 1670 the population had increased to nearly thirty million, and with the exception of Hokkaido, the old growth forests had been completely logged. The supply of timber and other forest products was running out. Soil erosion, floods, landslides, and barren lands (genya) were becoming ever more common. Japan was headed for ecological disaster.
Japan responded to this environmental challenge with mutually reinforcing positive feedback loops. Managed forestry continued to develop and expand in conjunction with a “virtuous cycle” of mutually reinforcing silvicultural improvements, social institutions for forest land use, and timber marketing institutions. What initially begun began with extending village cooperation to managing forests lands had stimulated a series of mutually reinforcing changes that slowed down deforestation and eventually led to the reforestation of Japan. The deforestation was severe and reforestation took a long time, reaching completion in the 1920s.
Japan’s forest story has continued with new twists and turns since then. There was substantial deforestation during World War II, followed by intensive reforestation during the 1950s to 1970s. The reforestation emphasized sugi and hinoki plantations, even cutting natural forest to make plantations. Japan’s switch to imported wood, fossil-fuel energy, and chemical fertilizers for agriculture, in full swing by the 1980s, eliminated the demand for forest products from satoyama secondary forest and greatly reduced the demand for sugi and hinoki. There was no reason to continue managing the secondary forest, which is now undergoing natural ecological succession and the loss of many plant species adapted to the open and well-lighted environment of managed forests. Many sugi and hinoki plantations have fallen into neglect because the thinning, pruning, and other care necessary to produce high quality timber do not seem worth the effort.
This story of forestry in Japan is not intended to be authoritative or complete. The evolution of Japanese forests during the past three centuries has been complex. The main point of the story is that Japan adapted to a deforestation crisis in the late 1600s by changing from unsustainable forest exploitation to managed and sustainable forestry. Adaptation featured a tipping point that turned the nation from ecological disaster toward ecological health, restoring a natural resource base that put Japan in a strong position for its economic development during the Twentieth Century.
Diamond, Jarod. 2004. Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. Viking, New York.
Totman, Conrad. 1989. The Green Archipelago: Forestry in Pre-Industrial Japan. University of California Press, Berkeley.
Totman, Conrad. 1993. Early Modern Japan. University of California Press, Berkeley.
Totman, Conrad. 1995. The Lumber Industry in Early Modern Japan. University of Hawaii Press, Honolulu.