Who says all factories have to be eyesores?


Earl in 1995, a friend of mine, a journalist I first met back in the 1970s, asked me to have dinner and drinks with him in a cozy, noisy izakaya in Shinjuku. There, he introduced me to a very friendly, well-traveled man called Masayoshi Ushikubo, the executive manager of a company that made electrical equipment, including air conditioners. My friend had already told me Ushikubo wanted me to look at some land.

Apparently, in the early years of the bubble economy, his company bought the land with the intention of building a golf course. However, local residents and various conservation groups had strongly opposed the plan, and even tied protest notices around hundreds of trees that would have been felled. The president of the company, Ushikubo’s father, then put his foot down and said that not a single tree should be cut, and that the golf project was to be scrapped.

In 1995, the company was instead in need of a new factory. I agreed to see the site and offer my frank opinions. I also said that as I was not a consultant; I would not take payment for this.

Well, I walked the land and saw garbage dumped everywhere off small roads amid the trees. There were old motorbikes, clothing, skis, pornographic videos, refrigerators — even old cars. A lot of the woods on the property were crowded with untended, spindly cedars. Other areas were choked with dead and dying trees, tangled vines and thick bamboo growth that would become far healthier if cut back and used. Streams were choked with garbage. There was lots of open space too, including neglected pastures and old mulberry plantations. In a few places, too, there were some fine trees and interesting little ecological niches, but even these could be enriched with some “hands-on” conservation.

As promised, I wrote up a report for them. I said that a lot of benefit would be derived by careful and determined husbandry of the land, and that I believed the company was perfectly capable of setting up a clean factory — one that would produce no pollution, whether by air, water, soil or noise. It was a rather good report and took a lot of time, but as I said, I did it for free.

Top management officials from the company came to Kurohime to see our woods and some of the techniques we have been using up here in Nagano Prefecture. (These woods are now the C. W. Nicol Afan Woodland Trust.)

I strongly recommended them to hire the services of the Nishi Nihon Gijitsu Kenkyu Jo (West Japan Technical Research Center), which was set up 29 years ago in Kochi by another trusted friend, Shuubun Fukutome, who is probably Japan’s leading expert on environmentally friendly construction.

Ushikubo took my advice and asked me if I would talk to the local people and the environmentalists. This I did, in open meetings, and again I took no money. The local folk and the environmental groups agreed that if my proposals were met in the construction and maintenance of the new factory, they would welcome the project.

Opposition overcome

Fukutome and his people worked very hard and came up with blueprints and appraisals. The major construction company that was to build the factory furiously opposed many of our environmental proposals, and even some people in Ushikubo’s own company were asking “What are we doing — making a factory or a forest park?”

The blueprints and plans were passed on for review by other, smaller construction companies. They came back with the very pleasing assessment that these environmentally friendly building methods would actually cost about 1 billion yen less than the “practical” plans proposed by the big guys.

The fighting went on, but ultimately the big guys had to comply with us. However, one of the worst drawbacks was the instructions sent from the construction authorities in the government (who stamp the building permits) to incorporate two enormous concrete dams and long, U-shaped concrete sluiceways, 2 meters deep and 2 meters wide, in which nothing could possibly live. These were supposedly for runoff from the site. I’ll get back to those later.

The factory was built and the surrounding land, streams and woods were carefully landscaped and attended to. Garbage was removed, trees were trimmed, weeds were cut back and attractive waterways and walkways were made. More than 30,000 trees of over 50 species were planted. The factory was designed to be a “zero emission” site. Water used in the factory was run through the most modern purifying systems before finally joining a man-made stream in which filters of charcoal had been placed. This water was collected in a pond, with grass, plants and trees all around. Organic waste was processed to become an excellent compost. Inorganic waste was all recycled.

The factory opened in March last year and began operating in May with 800 workers. I attended the opening with officials from the British Embassy to plant a commemorative oak tree and to bust open a barrel of sake.

Early last month, I went there again to see how things were shaping up. The factory sits in the middle of 63 hectares of what will be lovely mixed woods. I saw only three trees that had failed. The streams are alive with dragonfly larvae and busy with birds. The ponds, too, are lively with fish and birds and hawks are already checking the place out.

The company hasn’t heard a single complaint from the residents or environmentalists. On the contrary, local primary schools are using the grounds for outdoor education, and environmental groups have come to ask if they can co-operate with the company and to thank them for their preservation efforts.

And on the business side? Not only has it increased its workforce to 1,700 and started a night shift, but its stock has risen 50 percent in the last year.

Nature’s way

Those monstrous dams built at the demand of the government against our protests are about 15 meters high. Yet, despite the typhoons and their constant, heavy downpours, no more than 2 meters of water has ever accumulated behind them. In one of the concrete sluices, just a couple of centimeters of water has been known to run for a day or so, and in the other no water has run at all.

The whole thing could have been done with natural rocks at a fraction of the cost, offering equal protection against the most extreme rains — and fitting in aesthetically and environmentally. I really do think that among the legislators and bureaucrats dealing with concrete monstrosities in Japan, are some of the most stupid, arrogant and criminally wasteful people anywhere in the world. Their demands created the only ugliness and waste in the whole process.

The company is extremely pleased. Not only have they grown, but their employees are happier and more productive. Many of them ask to bring their families to the factory grounds on days off! Others stroll around outside during their breaks, or sit and chat while they eat lunch on a park bench or a rock, or beside the ponds. Some indulge in a little bit of fishing, gather edible wild plants or do a bit of bird-watching.

When I was asked to give a little speech there last month in front of the assembled workers, the president first told them I was responsible for the success and the popularity the factory and company now enjoy.

Though the company is still too new and busy to take unannounced visitors, I suspect that in the future, more and more pressure will be put on them to let outsiders see and enjoy what has been done. The whole project is called Sanden Forest, and it is situated at Nukagawa Village, at the foot of Mount Akagi in Gunma Prefecture.

People need to make a living, and most need jobs. I have always believed that ecology and economy can and should go together. Factories don’t have to be stinking, ugly and noisy. I wish the Sanden people continued fortune, and I am confident that the grounds will become more and more beautiful and diverse with life as all those trees grow.