Japan’s creeping natural disaster

Age-old farming methods helped to cultivate this country's wealth of plant and animal species. But now, as rural areas empty of people, that rich biodiversity is put at risk

by Winifred Bird

In October 2010, government officials from almost every country in the world will meet in Nagoya for the 10th Conference of Parties of the Convention on Biological Diversity (COP10). The aim of the Convention, which came into effect in 1993, is simple but momentous: To maintain the richness of life on earth.

In Japan, contrary to what may seem logical, much of the richness of its biodiversity flourishes where humans have followed traditional rural lifestyles for thousands of years.

Worldwide, however, biodiversity is anything but flourishing. Though exact extinction rates (and even the total number of species on Earth) are unknown, many scientists suspect that we are now entering a mass-extinction episode. Five such plunges in diversity have occurred in the history of the Earth — but this time it looks like the culprit is us.

How can we avoid causing a catastrophic loss that could take millions of years to recoup? That is the question the 191 parties (counting the European Community members collectively as one) of the Convention on Biodiversity have grappled with at the nine COP meetings since 1993.

Next year’s meeting is particularly significant, because 2010 has been set as the target year for “significantly reducing the rate of biodiversity loss.” It is also the United Nations’ “International Year of Biodiversity.”

The situation in Japan, as globally, is urgent. According to the Environment Ministry, nearly a quarter of Japan’s mammals and plants, and more than a third of its freshwater, estuarine and mangrove-dwelling fish are threatened.

The “Third National Biodiversity Strategy,” set out by the ministry in November 2007, identifies the usual slew of threats to Japan’s wild creatures — including overdevelopment, overexploitation, invasive species and chemicals in the environment. But the document also focuses attention on something more unusual. Biodiversity is threatened, it says, not just by the loss of virgin nature but by changes in its satoyama — the intensely managed forests and fields that make up Japan’s traditional rural landscape.

Humans have been shaping the natural environment in Japan for a very long time. Starting with the advent of rice cultivation more than 2,000 years ago, virtually every accessible patch of land on these small and crowded islands has had its vegetation cut, cleared, burned, tilled or otherwise transformed. But surprisingly, say those who study the ecology of Japan’s traditional rural areas, that may not have been such a bad thing for the archipelago’s biological diversity.

Back before humans settled down in villages and learned about agriculture, Japan’s wet and mountainous terrain was mostly wooded.

“Japan was a land of trees,” says Kazuhiko Maita, director of the Institute for Asian Black Bear Research and Preservation. “But then, when farming communities began to grow rice in paddies they created, they cut the flatland forests.”

As population numbers rose, the area of land under cultivation expanded. So began a major ecological transformation. Forest was lost, but in exchange, aquatic and semiaquatic habitats greatly increased, thanks to rice paddies and the networks of reservoirs, springs and waterways that fed them. These provided a rich habitat for a wide variety of amphibians, insects, water plants, crustaceans and fish.

Rice and vegetable cultivation necessitated draft animals such as cows and horses for plowing, and organic matter to enrich the fields — as well as firewood for cooking. These factors set off further transformations of the land surrounding villages.

While natural forest in remote mountain areas was in some cases logged, the most drastic changes took place close to villages, where fuel wood and “green manure” such as weeds, trimmings and fallen leaves were gathered. Sun-tolerant trees such as Red pine, White birch, or Konara oak grew back in the open patches where shade-tolerant climax forest had been cut.

Villagers regularly collected wood and undergrowth from these secondary forests, often coppicing the trees to enable repeated harvesting for firewood or building materials, and by doing so prevented the forests from returning to their original state.

Due to these routine rural practices, over the years concentric rings of sato (village), satoyama (managed woodland) and okuyama (wild forest) came into being.

The brighter, more open type of forest around villages provided habitat for many wildflowers, butterflies, birds and other species not found in the natural climax forests.

Farmers also greatly expanded the area of pasture and seminatural meadow in Japan to provide grass for their livestock and material for thatched roofs. Taken together, this mosaiclike landscape of rice paddies, secondary forest, meadows, ponds and streams is nowadays called satochi-satoyama, or simply satoyama, in Japanese.

Although each individual element of satoyama provides important wildlife habitat, Kazuhiko Takeuchi, a professor of landscape ecology and planning at the University of Tokyo, and coauthor of “Satoyama: The Traditional Rural Landscape of Japan” (University of Tokyo Press, 2001), explains that it is the close proximity of so many different habitats that sets traditional farming areas apart from modern megafarms where single crops are planted as far as the eye can see.

“The biodiversity in satoyama is significant because management has created a mosaic of forests, grasslands, fields, irrigation ponds and other elements, resulting in the diversity of ecosystems. These features cannot be found in intensive agricultural landscapes,” says Takeuchi.

The idea that such an intensely managed landscape provides key wildlife habitat is hard to swallow for some wilderness-lovers, says the Environment Ministry’s Daiji Kawaguchi. He is in charge of the government-sponsored Satoyama Initiative, which has linked Japan and other countries with similar land-use patterns to promote satoyama as a model of sustainable rural living.

“When I talk about the Satoyama Initiative, many people ask, ‘Are you trying to say we should change the Amazon into a satoyamalike landscape?’

“That’s not the idea. We realize that overexploitation can be a problem. But there are areas that have been touched by people, and since those areas exist, we have to maintain them to preserve their rich biodiversity and continue to receive benefits from them,” Kawaguchi explains.

In Japan, the biological importance of such areas is widely accepted. The Environment Ministry estimates that more than half of the plants and animals in Japan’s “Red Book” of threatened species live in satoyama areas, among them once-familiar countryside creatures such as medaka (Japanese killfish; Oryzias latipes) and the golden bekko dragonfly (Libellula angelina).

Ironically, just as their environmental importance has been realized, traditional farming villages themselves are becoming an endangered species.

The tiny hamlet of Akagura, in the Kumano mountains of southern Mie Prefecture on the Kii Peninsula 100 km southwest of Nagoya, is one such village on the verge of extinction.

Located about 20 minutes by car inland from the coastal city of Kumano, the village is open and sunny compared to the dark forest that surrounds it. Little houses and fields cover the hills, with mossy stone footpaths winding up the slopes between them. Water is everywhere: seeping from the mountainside, rushing along the valley floor, and flowing into cascading stone basins in front of every house.

But most of the houses are empty now, and most of the fields overgrown. Where rice once grew along the river, tall Japanese cedar trees now stand. All but three residents have moved away or died. What remains is a tiny ghost town slowly dissolving back into wilderness.

Fifty years ago, however, Akagura was a different world.

Akiko Karitani, 63, grew up in Akagura, but these days lives in the coastal town of Mihama about 40 minutes away. She says that when she was a child, life still carried on much as it had since the village was founded about 500 years ago, according to local legends.

“We didn’t have a bathroom sink, so every morning we’d run down to the river to wash our face. We didn’t have electricity till I was in the first grade, and there was no road till I was in junior high school,” she says.

Her family would make the three-hour trek on foot to the coast only about once every three years — to see the Kumano fireworks. Cooking was done in a traditional kamado (earth stove), and the family collected firewood together in the woods. They kept a cow for plowing and used the manure to fertilize their rice fields. Her mother and father farmed and did forestry work in the surrounding mountains. Still with 27 households in 1967, the village was a lively place.

“There were a lot of kids then — seven in our family, and at least five in most others. We’d play together a lot,” she says.

Despite these fond memories, it was a hard life. Rice yields in the cool mountain valleys were poor, and with virtually no monetary income, villagers subsisted mostly on vegetables and chagayu, a gruel made with tea and rice.

“We got hungry but there was nothing to do about it,” says Karitani, who left the village when she was 31 after her husband died in an accident. At that time, too, there was no work, and her daughter was the only pupil left in the school.

Yasuko Fukuyama, 83, also remembers the hard times well.

“Back then everything took a lot of time. My husband and I both did farmwork. There were no machines, so we were always cutting grass and weeds by hand,” she says. Fukuyama moved to the hamlet of Nigura, next to Akagura, more than 60 years ago as a new bride and still lives there.

Cutting weeds is a constant refrain in the recollections of old folks in the area, and for good reason: That simple act is what stands between the village and the forest that presses relentlessly in on all sides. It is the cutting, harvesting, coppicing and weeding that have arrested for centuries the satoyama landscape in an intermediate stage of biological succession between open space and mature forest — allowing biodiversity to flourish. As soon as the cutting stops, the fields and woodlands resume their inevitable march back to climax forest.

That process is already under way in Akagura. Standing in the front yard of her unlce’s house, Karitani gestured to the places where the forest has started its advance.

“Those trees weren’t there,” she says. “It was more open, with more rice paddies and fields. The forest is closing in.”

One mountain over, in the hamlet of Ikari (now incorporated into the city of Kumano), 93-year-old Chiune Matsuda and his 82-year-old wife, Atsusa, are still holding back the creeping return of the forest.

One blazing afternoon in July, Chiune could be found steadily weed-whacking the terraced fields of the village where he has spent nearly a century.

“I’ll stay out until 5, when the sumo comes on television,” he says. The Matsudas grow vegetables, gather wood from the hills around their home, and keep the picturesque valley well-trimmed. They stopped growing rice 10 years ago, though Chiune’s younger brother and his wife, the only other remaining residents of the valley, still do.

“It looks pretty much like it did when I was a kid, except there’s a road now,” says Chiune.

Yoshiko Miyamoto of the Kinan Tour Design Center, an organization that offers tours highlighting the culture and nature of the Kumano region, met the Matsudas three years ago. She put together a tour during which visitors can have a look at Chiune’s immaculately preserved farming tools, and she often visits on her own.

“I don’t think the Matsudas keep farming to preserve the ecosystem or anything like that,” says Miyamoto, 45. “This is just what Chiune has done all his life. But his character is what creates the satoyama landscape.”

It is a character, and a lifestyle, that has been largely swept away by the tide of modernization that transformed Japan after World War II.

Starting in the 1960s, new urban job opportunities drew increasing numbers of people away from rural areas, leaving a shrunken and aged labor force. In 1920, nearly half the population of Japan lived in towns of less than 5,000 people; by 2000 just 1.7 percent did. At the same time, many farming villages on the outskirts of cities were paved over to build suburbs and roads.

Meanwhile, in those rural communities that remained, the way people used the land changed drastically.

After the war, oil and gas replaced wood and charcoal as the primary fuels, so the secondary woodland around villages lost its economic value. What was needed instead was lumber to feed the building boom. Vast stretches of natural forest and satoyama woodland were felled and replanted with the fast-growing Japanese cedar and hinoki cypress trees whose clouds of pollen now spark hay-feverlike symptoms for millions. Meanwhile, other uncared-for secondary forests grew denser and darker.

Changes in agriculture were equally sweeping. With the widespread adoption of chemical fertilizers, it was no longer necessary to collect leaves or cut weeds and grass as “green manure” to enrich the fields. The introduction of tractors meant that meadowland and pasture for draft animals to graze on also became unnecessary. These two changes alone resulted in the near-complete disappearance of seminatural meadows from Japan.

At the same time, agrochemicals made farmland less hospitable for the plants and animals that had once inhabited it. Many small and inefficient fields were abandoned or combined into larger ones, and waterways were lined with concrete. Small reservoirs were replaced by huge dam projects. In short, the entire satoyama ecosystem was radically transformed — often with government support.

“Everything was mechanized and made convenient, but in exchange we lost a lot. Things that had continued for centuries were suddenly gone in the space of 30 or 40 years,” says the Kinan Tour Design Center’s Miyamoto, a Kumano native herself.

Now, as the generation that grew up before that transformation took place fades away, government and nonprofit organizations are scrambling to salvage a piece of the ecosystem that is disappearing along with them.

In 2003, the Biodiversity Center of Japan, part of the Environment Ministry, launched a project to monitor changes in the satoyama ecosystem as part of its larger “Monitoring Sites 1,000″ program. The actual monitoring is managed by the Nature Conservation Society of Japan, and is carried out by volunteers who track survey items at 197 sites around the country — including flora, water quality and four “indicator” animals.

“Endangered species are important, but we also need an ecosystem approach to conserve the landscape. That’s why we monitor species that indicate the status of the natural environment,” explains Biodiversity Center Deputy Director Noriaki Sakaguchi.

For example, three species of akagaeru (Brown frog; Ranidae) have been chosen for monitoring because they indicate continuity between different parts of the environment. The frogs lay eggs in paddies but hunt for insects in the woods, so they can’t survive if these areas are not connected.

To monitor the number and diversity of plants in meadows and woods, volunteers count butterflies. That’s because during their juvenile phase, caterpillars of different species are specialized to eat different kinds of plants, so the diversity of butterfly species indicates the diversity of plants. In addition, the overall number of butterflies indicates the abundance of those plants.

The surveys only began five years ago, so Sakaguchi says it’s still too early to draw conclusions from the results. It’s clear, however, that the changes are complex: Some species can adapt; others can’t. While some populations are shrinking, others — including deer and wild boar — are expanding their range as people retreat from rural areas.

Some conservation groups maintain that there may be an upside to the changes as well, since the overgrown forest around villages replaces wildlife habitat that was devastated when natural forests were cut down during and after the war.

In addition to the monitoring project, the Environment Ministry, in cooperation with the Tokyo-based United Nations University’s Institute of Advanced Studies, is creating a database of management practices in Japan’s satoyama and similar rural areas in other countries.

The ministry has designated four model project areas in Japan where nonprofit groups, local governments, academics, landowners and volunteers are cooperating on preservation activities. But, admits the ministry’s Kawaguchi, the government initiatives are more about spreading an idea than actually preserving a certain amount of habitat.

“We’re not currently focusing on numerical data, like how many species we should have or how diverse the ecosystem is. We’re trying to promote a balance between nature and human use. It’s more about the principle,” he says.

Volunteer groups and nature centers all over the country have been working to maintain that balance since long before the government got involved. Some groups have created land trusts to prevent development or better manage the landscape, and others engage in projects such as removing invasive bamboo, monitoring river fish or fostering a market for sustainably grown farm products. Perhaps projects like these have been so popular because they aim at preserving not just nature, but rural culture as well.

Unfortunately, according to estimates in “Satoyama: The Traditional Rural Landscape of Japan,” current volunteer activities cover at best 0.03 percent of satoyama areas. So, while some examples of the traditional satoyama ecosystem may be preserved, it seems likely that on a larger scale rural Japan cannot escape radical change.

That’s a fact Karitani, born and bred in Akagura village, is keenly aware of.

“Probably with my generation the village will go back to forest. Our kids didn’t grow up here, so they don’t come back much,” she says as she stands in front of the two-room house where she grew up and gazes out over the terraced fields below.

In a strange twist, the paddies that once grew rice have been planted with Japanese anise, a leafy plant sold to be left as an offering at graves.

“It makes me feel lonely,” she says. “But I don’t want Akagura to turn into a tourist spot with hot springs and hotels. I just want it to stay like it is.”