Women armed with chain saws head to the hills under Abe’s growth plan

by Aya Takada and Katsuyo Kuwako

Bloomberg

Junko Otsuka quit her job in Tokyo and headed for the woods, swapping a computer for a bush cutter and her air-conditioned office for the side of a mountain.

She was part of a new wave of women taking forestry jobs, the result of economic, social and environmental policies sprouting in Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Japan.

Otsuka, a 30-year-old graduate of the University of Tokyo, said she’s fine with the 20 percent pay cut she took to become the first female logger at Tokyo Chainsaws, a lumber company.

The “sugi” and “hinoki” trees she harvests — cedars and cypresses — are used to build homes under the government’s program to encourage the use of domestic wood.

Otsuka is one of about 3,000 women joining Abe’s campaign to revive forestry and logging as part of his growth strategy for the country. Along with farming, it’s seen by his government as key to creating jobs and sustaining population in rural areas as manufacturers such as Sony Corp. and Nissan Motor Co. shift their factories to emerging markets.

“When I studied forestry at university, I learned that trees on Japanese mountains, ripe for harvest decades after planting, were left untouched as nobody wanted to do the job,” Otsuka said during a break from her work on a 35-degree day on the side of Mount Mitake in western Tokyo. “I am in the place where I should be.”

More than two-thirds of Japan’s land is wooded, much of it reforested after widespread harvesting for rebuilding following World War II. About 40 percent of the country’s forests are man-made and ready for logging and replanting, according to Shinkichi Mizutani, executive director of More Trees, a Tokyo-based conservation group.

The need for sustainable management dovetails with the government’s push to revitalize communities outside it’s urban centers.

Abe came into office with his three-arrow strategy to end 15 years of deflation that stunted the economy.

Nineteen months along, the first two points — monetary and fiscal stimulus — have succeeded in stoking inflation. The government now plans corporate tax cuts, trade liberalization, reduced barriers for agricultural land consolidation and special zones with lighter regulations to spur investment and raise salaries.

Less than 70 percent of Japanese women between 25 years and 54 years old have jobs, the lowest rate among the world’s richest countries, according to estimates by the Cabinet Office.

The workforce could swell by more than 7 million people and gross domestic product could jump by as much as 13 percent if participation by women equaled that of men, Goldman Sachs Group Inc. said in a report May 6.

“In advanced economies rich with timber resources, such as Germany, forestry is an important industry to sustain growth and employment for rural communities,” said Hisashi Kajiyama, a senior research fellow at Fujitsu Research Institute in Tokyo. “Japan was an exception because its resources were exhausted in the era of postwar rebuilding. The situation is beginning to change as trees replanted after excessive logging are becoming available for commercial use.”

The prime minister set a goal of maintaining Japan’s population above 100 million for the next 50 years by revitalizing regional economies and enhancing women’s roles. He got a warning in May from the Japan Policy Council that almost half of Japanese communities face the risk of extinction as younger workers migrate to urban areas in search for jobs.

The value of Japan’s wood products has fallen 80 percent from its 1980 peak of ¥967 billion after tariff cuts and the yen’s appreciation boosted imports and depressed domestic prices, according to the Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Ministry.

The nation agreed to eliminate import quotas in 1964 and cut tariffs to as low as 3.9 percent from 20 percent, spurring an influx of cheap products. Purchases from overseas jumped 27 percent to ¥1.22 trillion last year. Lumber futures traded in Chicago have fallen 6.2 percent this year.

Abe plans to double Japan’s wood output to 39 million cu. meters by 2020 and raise the share of its reliance on domestic sources to 50 percent, from 28 percent now.

The government is considering boosting subsidy payments to forest workers and companies to achieve the goal.

The policy could increase sales for companies such as Sumitomo Forestry Co. and Mitsui & Co., the biggest private owners of forest resources after Oji Holdings Corp. and Nippon Paper Group Inc.

Higher production would curb imports from countries including the U.S., Canada and Russia.

To increase consumption of Japanese wood products, the government plans to revise regulations by 2016 so that cross-laminated timber, or CLT, can be used for buildings and condominiums, displacing steel and concrete.

The revision would follow a 2010 law that encourages local governments to use domestic wood when they build public facilities and incentives offered last year to buyers of Japanese timber.

The housing sector is of “major importance” to demand because 25 percent to 30 percent of new wooden houses are built to replace residences constructed before 1981, when the government tightened earthquake standards, according to Hakan Ekstrom, president of Wood Resources International LLC, a forest industry consultant based in Washington state.

About 150,000 units a year will be replaced in the future, up from as many as 120,000 annually the past five years, he said.

The government also promotes the use of unsold logs and wood scrap as alternative fuel at power plants, improving earnings for the timber industry.

The forestry agency estimates the volume of lumber waste available for power generation at 22 million cu. meters a year, enough to produce electricity for 2.4 million households.

Increased use of domestic lumber could curb excessive logging overseas, as 5 million hectares of forests disappear globally annually, according to the agriculture ministry. In Japan, forests are expanding by 100 million cu. meters a year, more than the nation’s consumption of 70 million.

Japan, the world’s fourth-largest buyer of timber products, needs new laws and stricter oversight to stamp out imports of illegally logged wood, the Environmental Investigation Agency, a lobbyist group, said June 11. Siberian pine competes directly with home-grown wood, according to the EIA. Without illegal timber imports, demand for domestic wood would rise by about 13 percent, according to a study by Hosei University.

“If Japan increases production and consumption of domestic wood products, it would be helpful to curb excessive logging overseas,” according to Mizutani from More Trees. “Logging should be done in a sustainable manner. Otherwise, it is harmful to our environment.”

A revival of forestry may also help Japan cut greenhouse gas emissions. More than 50 percent of Japanese forests are made of trees older than 45 years, weakening their capacity to consume carbon dioxide, the gas blamed for global warming, said Hiroshi Ishii, assistant director at the forestry agency’s policy planning division.

Carbon absorbed by Japanese forests fell to 21 million tons annually in 2012 from the peak of 25 million tons in 2005 as trees aged, according to Ishii. Replanting with younger trees will increase consumption, he said.

Ryosuke Aoki, the 37-year-old president and founder of Tokyo Chainsaws, said 80 percent of the company’s revenue comes from conservation work subsidized by national and local funds. His dream is an independent and profitable business.

“We are going to buy 9 hectares of land on a mountain near our office, and seek funds from individuals to replant trees there,” he said. “Three decades later, we will return to our investors products made from their trees.”

Before Otsuka joined Tokyo Chainsaws last year, her working life was commuting on a crowded train and sitting in front of a computer late into the night organizing trade shows.

“We can produce from forests not only wood products, but also a comfortable environment that can heal exhausted people from big cities,” she said. “If my experience attracts people to forests and forestry, it will be great.”