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With every new construction in Japan, fewer trees

by

Special To The Japan Times

To Environment Minister Masaharu Nakagawa,

One surprising thing about Japan, given that its people are said to have a deep love and respect for nature, is that there appears to be little thought given to some basic environmental issues in this country. The example I would like to focus on here: When new houses are constructed, all the trees that were growing on the site are usually knocked down!

When houses are demolished, there is a very bad habit here of cutting down all the trees in the former garden, leaving the ground 90-100 percent cleared and empty, ready for new construction. This seems to happen as a matter of course, in almost all cases, even when the trees in the garden are very old.

The usual practice is to build a new house or apartment blocks with only one or two trees within the plot — or in many cases, none at all. This habit seems to fly in the face of environmental sense, and to display a total lack of concern for maintaining the physical culture and beauty of Japan.

I’ve researched this trend and conferred with figures well-known for their environmental concerns, such as the writer Alex Kerr, professor Stephen Hesse and Junko Edahiro, chief executive of Japan for Sustainability. The consensus appears to be that although there is plenty of data on the cutting down of trees on industrial and governmental land, there is no data for trees felled in private gardens. It appears not to be collected at all. The dearth of data is worth noting in itself. A lack of records can speak volumes about what is hidden or unconsidered.

As for laws in this area, various regulations exist, such as the 1962 Law on Tree Preservation for Maintaining Scenic Beauty of Cities, which allows local governments to designate valuable trees for conservation. There’s also the Urban Green Space Law of 1973, which encourages “green-space conservation districts.” However, these regulations seem only to be loosely applied, if at all, when it comes to how construction companies deal with trees in private gardens.

Given the lack of data on this subject, I decided to do a bit of primary research myself here in Kumamoto. By making notes and taking photographs of the number of trees and bushes around old houses due for demolition over the past three years, I have been compiling a rough “before and after” comparative study. Here are some of the findings for the area around Kumamoto University:

House 1, behind the sports ground, replaced by two small apartment blocks: trees before = about 20; trees now = 0

House 2, directly opposite the Faculty of Letters, replaced by large apartment blocks: trees before = about 5; trees now = 0

House 3, behind the high school, replaced by small apartment blocks: trees before = 5; trees now = 0

House 4, behind the sports ground, replaced by medium-size apartment blocks: trees before = about 10; trees now = 0

House 5, opposite the Faculty of Education, replaced by large apartment blocks: trees before = about 10; trees now= 1

Total trees in the five plots three years ago = about 50; total trees now = 1

From 50 trees to just one in only three years, all within five minutes’ walk! Only one left out of all those beautiful old trees that made the area look so nice, provided homes for wildlife, shade in the sun and added to the health of the environment. This wouldn’t be a disaster if it were just that one area, perhaps, but anecdotal evidence indicates that the same kind of thing is going on elsewhere. If this is occurring across Japan, it means hundreds of thousands of trees lost every year.

Why, we may wonder, do Japanese people allow this destruction? I have spoken to a number of people in my area, and it seems that it is quite common to see trees as troublesome — they drop slippery leaves, extend into other gardens in a way that causes trouble and, perhaps most of all, attract insects.

All of these complaints are clearly grounded in fact. But a further question, then, is when and why did these annoyances become more important than the beauty of trees, than the admiration of nature, than a concern for the environment?

It appears to be a recent trend. While the Japanese have been struggling to tame nature for hundreds of years, there has also been a general tendency to have a lot of trees in gardens. If you look around you at the few surviving houses built before the 1950s, you’ll find that there are normally a wealth of trees and bushes, and often a pond in the garden too. Even those built in the ’60s and ’70s have several trees, though ponds are less common. Houses built over the past 20 years rarely have more than a couple of trees and almost never have ponds. There has been a marked changed in garden style over the years.

However, for the sake of Japan’s history, beauty and natural environment, surely a policy should be implemented that requires construction companies to keep or replant a certain percentage of the trees in any house demolition, with a minimum of 25 percent as the basic rule.

Of course, some people of a neo-liberal persuasion may not see this as a good thing: “Why should the government have a say in what I do with my own garden?” (or, more often, “my granny’s old garden”).

That is an ideological point to be debated. But government rules are not the only thing to consider here. We also need to take into account the physical history of Japan, natural beauty, the environment and our health. Surely even the most rampant capitalist thinks those things are of some importance?

SEAN MICHAEL WILSON

Kumamoto

Sean Michael Wilson is a professional comic-book writer based in Japan (www.seanmichaelwilson.weebly.com). Send your comments or submissions (addressed to local or national politicians, officials or other authorities) to community@japantimes.co.jp.