It’s time to stop looting Japan’s tree treasures


A couple of decades ago, I had a very public confrontation with the government’s Forestry Agency. It was about the cutting of old-growth deciduous forest around where I live in Kurohime, Nagano Prefecture — trees that were hundreds of years old.

Japan is very generously endowed with tree cover, and in Nagano, for example, it is over 70 percent. However, less than 2 percent of this is natural, old-growth forest. As Japan’s climate and ecology vary greatly from north to south and from sea level to mountain peaks, each pocket of original forest is a treasure, a bank of biological diversity and wonder. At the time I began the squabble, it seemed that all over bubble-era Japan, forests were being cut down and bulldozed for golf resorts, ski resorts, all kinds of theme parks and other facilities — not to mention the ongoing fervor to build dams and smother the nation with concrete.

One of the results of the furor I caused was a deluge of letters from all over the country. This cutting of old growth was going on everywhere, it seemed — and was being done to finance the Forestry Agency itself!

I received many invitations from all over the country, ranging from the Shiretoko Peninsula in Hokkaido to Yaku Island in Kyushu, to witness this rampant forest destruction. It was clear that so many Japanese, of all ages and from all walks of life, were saddened and angry, and wanted me to speak out for them.

To add insult to injury, the more the Forestry Agency destroyed the precious old trees, the deeper it went into debt. Eventually, though, the public outcry became so strong that the agency proclaimed it was shifting its policies to water and wildlife protection. Then I, like many others who had previously opposed it, were wooed to sit on various agency symposiums, panels and meetings. Maybe a leopard can change its spots, I thought.

Despite all the discussions, and the strong recommendations that so many of us made to gradually replace the spindly plantations of conifers by careful and selective trimming, tending and planting to not only yield quality timber but to raise mixed-growth forest, we were almost entirely ignored. When we also urged that money needed to be found to care for the choked tangles of untended secondary-growth woods, the Forestry Agency again listened to us and created reports — before those who had the power to change things did nothing.

Bitching about things is never really satisfying to me, so I began to buy up untended secondary woods and patches of sickly larch and cedars, and to attempt to do the kind of forest restoration I was recommending to the government.

Historically, the land I had purchased in Nagano was on the borderline for natural beech and Japanese oak woods. Young oaks had grown from the stumps, but the beeches had gone. Thus we began to plant beeches. Beeches are not only long-living, graceful and beautiful trees, but they are also marvelous for water conservation and wildlife — even humans can eat beech mast (little triangular seeds) and young spring leaves.

The photograph here to the right was taken in November, and shows me standing by a beech tree. I planted that particular tree 20 years ago when it was a little sapling I’d salvaged before a road was widened, a delicate little thing, just knee-high and pencil thin. Of all the beeches that we have planted in our woods, this is the biggest. I will never live to see the magnificent tree that I dream it will grow into. But that’s OK; I have the dream.

Illegal cutting

What of the Forestry Agency?

Well, in Fukushima Prefecture, at Tajima town in the southern region of Aizu, that particular leopard is as spotty as ever. In fact in November, the local forestry officials were charged with the illegal cutting of untold hundreds of beech trees between 70 and 90 cm in diameter — the size at which they are in their prime. This was all “protected forest” for which, by law, special permits must be signed by the prefectural governor before a single tree is cut.

Well, I had a very interesting personal dinner with Fukushima Gov. Eisaku Sato the other evening, and he certainly didn’t sign any permits — neither was he informed until after the logging had been carried out. He was genuinely angry. Remember, in Japan, prefectural governors are elected; Forest Agency officials are not.

These misdeeds might have gone unnoticed had not Yasuhito Watanabe and three others from the Japan Wild Bird Society guided Professor Shoichi Kawano of Kyoto University around the forest on an assessment survey with a view to seeking UNESCO World Heritage Site status for the area. They were horrified. I borrowed photographs to show you. Many of the trees were 250 to 300 years old — the age at which a healthy beech tree is at the peak of its productivity.

Consequently, the UNESCO assessment went no further. Then, when the police moved in, Forestry Agency officials apparently said they had forgotten to get permits, and claimed they had “just made a little mistake in documentation.” They also claimed to have “lost” their records of this widespread logging.

It then turned out that the local forestry officials had an agreement to sell the trees to local producers to grow nameko winter mushrooms, and for local folk-art products. This kind of wood can easily be trimmed out of neglected secondary growth, but it wouldn’t be such easy monetary pickings.

The officials also claim it was “necessary to cut the trees to rejuvenate the forest.” Utter nonsense. I’ve seen a lot of photographs of the stumps, and all are of healthy trees with no inside rot.

Short-sighted idiots

Anyway, whatever anyone says, a healthy, sustainable forest needs ancient trees too, because their cavities are essential habitats for nesting owls, bats and other birds. Besides, an old tree that has managed to survive hundreds of years has pretty impressive DNA and should be allowed to go on reproducing until it falls and becomes part of the living ecology of the forest floor.

I was involved in getting part of the ancient forests of Yaku Island declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1993 — at the same time as the beech forests of Shirakami in the far north of Honshu were also awarded that status. Since then, visitor numbers to Yaku have increased fivefold, and now there are around 300 guides employed. So, a forest saved for its beauty, water and wildlife protection can also bring local employment and tourist money. A very sad result of the wrongdoings at Tajima is that the area now has no chance of being accorded the status of a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

When my old friend Ken Okamura, formerly a columnist and staff reporter for the Asahi Shimbun, and now very busily “retired” in Tajima, phoned to tell me of this I was incredulous. It brought back old anger. “Nic, what do you think?” he asked.

“The irresponsible, short-sighted idiots responsible should get the chop,” I retorted — then added, “with a nata.”