Forestry industry has growing appeal for Japan’s young women

by Megumi Iizuka

Kyodo

The lure of nature and a slower pace of life are attracting a growing number of young women to Japan’s traditionally male-dominated forestry business, and their participation may help it cope with an aging workforce and a shortage of manpower.

Junko Iizuka, a 33-year-old graduate of the prestigious University of Tokyo, quit her job as an organizer of international trade fairs about four years ago to join lumber company Tokyo Chainsaws in the village of Hinohara in western Tokyo. “I was attracted to work outdoors, in which I can directly make changes and try new things,” she said, adding that what impressed her about the company was that it not only logs and sells trees but also leads initiatives to protect forests and raise public interest in them.

It took her two years to persuade the head of the company to take her on, overcoming the concern that — given her slight physique — she would not be up to the physical demands of the job. She has since learned how to operate chain saws and other equipment. Although she saw her income decline, she was quite happy to swap commuting in packed trains for the “pleasure” of sweating while logging, pruning and weeding. Besides, she said, the physical work is not as hard as it seems, given the machines used in the industry.

Masato Kida, public relations officer at the company, said that having the first female worker in the firm turned out to be a positive addition. “She is forward-looking, never complains, and has good sense,” Kida said, adding that Iizuka is not considered physically inferior to the other workers.

Since having a child, Iizuka now rarely engages in physical work, and is currently focusing on promotional tasks, including the management of a 30-year investment project to grow forests. Forestry writer Kusuo Akahori said that more and more young women like Iizuka are showing a keen interest in the lumber industry. “Some employers even recruit women in particular, in the hope that they can communicate with customers well, with some companies beginning to get involved in new forestry businesses that require interaction with consumers,” he said.

According to the government’s national census, the number of women aged between 15 and 34 who are working in the logging industry rose to 230 in 2015 from 130 in 2010, although the figure covering women in all age groups in the industry dropped to 2,750 from 3,020 in the same period. The proportion of people irrespective of gender aged between 15 and 34 in the industry climbed to 18 percent in 2010 from 6 percent in 1990, Forestry Agency data showed, partly attributing the rise to government subsidies encouraging young people to join the sector.

But interest in forestry among women is also spreading outside the framework of careers. Female students, architects, educators, designers and others have formed more than 20 “forestry girls” groups across Japan since the first was launched in Kyoto about eight years ago.

Although their activities vary between prefectures, in Kyoto around 20 or 30 women mainly in their 20s and 30s publish free forestry newspapers, help out with logging, and even hold yoga or story-reading sessions in the woods for children. Naoko Matsuda, who heads the forestry girls group in Kyoto, said: “Many people join our activities hoping to get immersed in nature. Thanks to information shared through Facebook and other media, the forestry business has also come to be viewed as something cool.”

Japan is rich in timber resources, with two-thirds of its land covered by forests and trees planted in the wake of World War II reaching maturity for harvest. But the country’s lumber self-sufficiency rate stood at just 34 percent in 2016, though it has recovered from below 20 percent in the early 2000s.

Postwar reconstruction and housing demand once pushed up lumber prices, and the government encouraged the planting of conifer trees as construction materials. But pressured by cheap lumber imports prices later fell and many loggers left the industry, deeming it unprofitable. Aging rural communities and young people moving to cities in search of jobs added to the declining trend in manpower in the sector, where income was about ¥1.1 million ($9,700) below the average, according to a national tax agency survey in 2013.

But with the new interest in the industry, lumber companies themselves are beginning to cater to new needs and some have transformed their business styles, experts said.

“Low pay has been one of the serious bottlenecks for attracting personnel in the industry. But an emerging number of companies have started to generate profit by engaging in diverse activities along with conventional logging,” said Akahori.

These new forms of business have helped them offer stable pay and opened up ways for more women to work in the industry, even if they are not directly involved in physically demanding labor, he said.

For instance, Tokyo Chainsaws holds workshops and educational events while soliciting members to invest in planting and growing cedars or cypresses to support preserving healthy forests. Under its 30-year investment project, investors can participate in planting events and receive two trees thinned out as part of maintenance of the forest in return for every three trees they invest in.

The company has also been collaborating with the local government and communities to promote the use of more lumber products, which will eventually help create sustainable forests that with proper thinning and spacing should prevent landslides and effectively absorb carbon dioxide.

“I believe there are a lot of possibilities to explore the usage of lumber and wood products. I think women can also take advantage of their strengths in this area,” said Iizuka.