Kihoku, Mie Pref. – Toru Hayami does not conceal his excitement when he talks about his “forest of 400 years” in the town of Kihoku, Mie Prefecture.
“They are 100 years old and will stay there for 300 more years,” said Hayami, 62, who is the ninth-generation head of family-run forest management company Hayami Forest.
As he spoke, he pointed at hinoki cypress trees as tall as 40 meters that are sparsely planted on a steep slope near the top of a mountain in the town, which faces the Pacific Ocean.
“I feel excited when I just imagine that the trees will be used to repair Horyuji in 300 years’ time,” Hayami said, referring to a seventh-century Buddhist temple in Nara Prefecture that’s widely acknowledged to have one of the oldest existing wooden structures in the world.
But that isn’t everything being pursued by Hayami.
“I want houses and offices to use more wood to protect forests in Japan,” he said, as the industry flounders and leaves forestland to degrade across the country amid poor demand and low timber prices.
Bare mountains that were left in Japan after World War II as a result of massive wartime felling now have lots of cedar and hinoki trees 60 to 70 years old and ready for cutting. But many of those trees planted in the postwar era have been left unattended due to weak demand for timber.
Unless trees are felled, grass fails to grow on mountains because sunlight cannot reach the soil and the mountains thus lose their water-retaining capacity, increasing the risk of rainfall causing landslides, Hayami says.
The time-honored Hayami family, which entered the forestry business in the 18th century, expanded to other sectors such as sales of pharmaceutical drugs and fishing before the war. But Hayami’s late father, Tsutomu, focused on timber after the war.
Even though Tsutomu learned forestry on his own, as his own father had died when he took over after returning from military service, the business thrived during his time, according to Hayami.
High-quality hinoki trees Tsutomu produced met strong demand and were once priced 10 times higher than cedar trees, as he began so-called dense planting — the practice of growing trees with fewer knots because branches are rarely exposed to sunlight and thus drop naturally — and maintained leaves at the top of trees while cutting off lower branches, Hayami said.
“A French book inspired my father to plant hinoki trees, expecting that a lot of people would build homes with high-quality trees when Japan became affluent,” Hayami said of one of many timber-related books of Tsutomu’s that are stored in a warehouse owned by the family.
Inviting experts from Europe, Tsutomu also built forest roads to transport logs by truck, and took on other efforts to modernize the business.
When Hayami, born in 1953, succeeded his father after graduating from Keio University and studying as a research student at the University of Tokyo’s Faculty of Agriculture, however, circumstances were very different.
“Timber was a profitable business during my father’s era,” Hayami said. “Ironically, timber prices began to fall when I took over the business.”
To overcome the toughened market environment, Hayami needed a new way of doing business that was different from his father’s.
Tsutomu promoted dense planting, grass cutting and tree thinning to produce high-quality hinoki trees. The work required more than 400 people per hectare of land to grow 30-year-old trees.
Concluding it was impossible to involve so many workers in the face of falling timber prices, Hayami omitted grass cutting and other operations to reduce the workforce to less than 100 people per hectare. He also planted trees sparsely to reduce the frequency of thinning.
His mechanization of Hayami Forest’s operations proved successful when a big typhoon hit Kihoku in 1990, as the firm could minimize damage by cutting all the fallen trees in six months.
Hayami used to purchase nursery trees but began cutting propagation, which helped make Hayami Forest capable today of producing 150,000 trees a year, he said.
Hayami Forest, with a workforce of 14, owns and manages 1,070 hectares of woodland to produce hinoki trees of a variety called Owase, which derives from Kihoku’s neighboring city of Owase. The trees have fewer knots and feature beautiful growth rings.
“We would like to create a forest that can impress people with its beauty,” Hayami said.
“When trees are felled, grass grows on mountains, insects increase and birds eat them, and so help to create a diverse and deep forest,” he said.