Japanese tree doctors make house call to save famous Taiwan maple

by Ko Shu-Ling

Kyodo

On July 25, Tokuo Yamashita and Yoshihisa Kawaguchi flew to Taitung County in southeastern Taiwan to rescue a tree.

The bischofia javanica, commonly known as an autumn maple, had been uprooted by Typhoon Matmo three days earlier.

It was also not just any bischofia javanica, but one featured in a recent TV commercial in which a man cycles through the region’s idyllic rice fields before stopping to drink tea beneath it.

Now a tourist landmark, visitors call it the Takeshi Kaneshiro Tree after the Japanese-Taiwanese actor who played the cyclist.

But now the tree might better be called Lucky.

Yamashita and Kawaguchi are tree doctors — among the most eminent in Japan. The day before the typhoon struck they happened to be in Taipei, taking part in a team effort to care for some 1,000 trees in Daan Forest Park, a 26-hectare green space in the capital likened to New York’s Central Park.

Dubbed “the lungs of the city,” Daan’s most precious resource is its trees.

However, there is a shortage of specialists to care for these trees, which in an urban setting have different needs than those in rural areas of Taiwan, which are less affected by pollution, heat and climate change.

The Friends of Daan Forest Park Foundation, a group established to raise public awareness of the park, brought in the Japanese experts last year to educate local custodians about proper tree care.

This year they brought in another group and the foundation hopes to do the same next year.

“We hope to repeat the yearly visits indefinitely,” said Chen Hong-kai, the foundation’s deputy executive officer.

The long-term goal is not only to care for the trees in Daan Park but to develop local expertise to meet the needs of similar parks throughout Taiwan.

Japan has about 4,000 certified tree doctors while Taiwan has only seven, three of whom obtained their training in Japan. The oldest is retired and the youngest is currently in Japan conducting research.

Liu Tung-chi, who acquired his arborist certificate from the Japan Tree Doctors Association, is a full-time horticulture professor at National Chung Hsing University in Taichung City.

Apart from teaching, Liu works closely with the Rotary Club, providing advice on caring for the island’s old-growth trees.

Four other Taiwanese tree doctors obtained certificates from the U.S.-based International Society of Arboriculture, and three of these only took their exams last year, according to Nelson Li, director general of the Taiwan Arborist Society.

While all had to travel to Hong Kong to take it, the ISA will offer the exam in Taiwan this year, although the number of certificates the society issues will be limited to 30.

The Japan Tree Doctors Association has yet to offer its exam in Taiwan.

Despite the modest number of tree doctors, the future looks promising. The Friends of Daan Forest Park Foundation has about 25 volunteers, most of whom are university students majoring in horticulture, landscaping or plant medicine.

About half have expressed interest in taking the ISA exam, Chen said.

It is hoped that Taiwan will eventually have enough certified specialists locally to make it unnecessary to import professional help, he said.

Apart from preparing for exams, prospective Taiwanese arborists are inspired by the opportunity to learn from Japanese professionals like Yamashita and Kawaguchi.

Both certified arborist and chief diagnosticians with more than half a century of field experience between them, Yamashita and Kawaguchi count among their duties caring for trees in the gardens of Emperor Akihito at the Imperial Palace.

He and his team receive little compensation for their work in Taiwan, but Yamashita said he finds it rewarding to do something for trees and to foster awareness in his profession.

As for the Takeshi Kaneshiro Tree, Yamashita and Kawaguchi’s expert care has insured tourists will be able to sip tea in its shade for decades to come.