Japan's history of forestry is a story of transformation, from an era of scarcity and deforestation to a modern focus on sustainable forestry practices. For centuries, Japan's forests have been a vital resource for the nation's economy and culture. It provides timber for construction, fuel, and paper, as well as serves as important habitats for wildlife. However, overexploitation and unsustainable management practices led to a decline in forest health and productivity. In response, Japan has implemented a range of policies and practices aimed at promoting sustainable forestry. This includes afforestation programs, improved forest management techniques, and certification systems for sustainable wood products.
Due to Japan’s extreme steep slopes in certain regions, there are areas where timber cannot be harvested even in times of severe overharvesting. This means that Japan still has a great deal of primary, old growth forest. Additionally, Japan’s native conifers such as sugi cypress are very fast growing. They're also more fire-resistant and durable than many other common timber species. This has helped to revitalize Japan’s timber industry.
We will address the historical events which led to timber scarcity in Japan, and examine how this led Japan into the innovative and sustainable forestry practices of the modern day.
Japan's 17th Century Timber Crisis and the Establishment of Natural Resource Management
If you think about it, it makes sense that a small island with a large population would face challenges in managing their natural resources. Prior to the 1600’s, much of Japan’s lowland forest area was converted to agricultural land. As the population grew, so did the demand for timber for use as fuel and building materials. This resulted in overharvesting that left Japan nearly depleted of forest. In addition to overharvesting, forests were further ravaged by landslides, wildfires, and flooding. The rulers and the citizens of Japan were equally concerned about the timber crisis. This prompted both local land use arrangements between citizens, as well as larger scale restrictions.
While many regions through the world were still in intensive deforestation stages, Japan was getting a head start on sustainable forest management practices. It was necessary to do so in order to support their growing population. By the 1700’s, Japan had implemented extensive reforestation programs. These programs utilized seedbeds, seedlings, and managed harvests. This helps to replenish timberland and control erosion and promote stream health.
Nearly Depleting Japan’s Timberland a Second Time
Despite the hard work of the people of Japan in creating a sustainable timber supply, the forests were once again nearly depleted. This was a direct result of the pressure from imperialist powers in the late 1800’s to accommodate mercantile demands. The pressures caused a serious domestic conflict in Japan that led to the overthrow of the Tokugawa regime. The Tokugawa regime was responsible for the establishment of reforestation laws. The Meiji regime overtook Tokugawa. They prioritized a strong military as a means of defending against the imperialist powers. The new government policies led to a great increase in demand for timber to build ships, buildings, and other infrastructure. All the while, the population in Japan was continuing to grow, creating even more demand for timber.
With timber being rapidly harvested throughout Japan, erosion, flooding, and stream damage were again on the rise. The government felt as though they were at a loss and feared that the impacts from flooding and erosion were out of control and would soon become devastating.
By the early 20th century, vigorous forest management policies were enacted and Japan’s timberland began to increase. Japan seemed to be once again on the way to a sustainable future with forest management.
The Most Severe Depletion of Forestland in Japan
Amidst war, Japan again saw incredible rise in the demand for timber. Forests were rapidly depleted for timber and fuel wood. Simultaneously, the labor shortage caused by the war had halted efforts to recover from the most recent timber crisis. At this time, forest regulations were entirely suspended and maximum harvest was pursued.
In the aftermath of the war, Japan’s timber demand remained at a high during reconstruction. However, all levels of the Japanese government put support into reforestation efforts and many young civilians volunteered to help replant. In 1954, 394,522 hectares of forestland was replanted.
The Creation of New Sustainable Forestry Practices
By carefully pruning the branches of Kitayama cedar trees to grow straight up from the tree, foresters were able to harvest these branches while leaving the tree intact. This was done in response to the shortage of seedlings and growing space. Many areas within Japan are home to very steep slopes where harvesting timber is dangerous. The use of daisugi also helped with this challenge. This technique has not been seen anywhere else and is a prime example of the innovative ideas that have helped to shape Japan’s sustainable forestry practices.
The wood harvested from trees using the daisugi technique was often used in tea houses in Kyoto. There are still tea houses from this time which can be visited. Though this technique is no longer used today, there are old daisugi trees still standing within the forests of Kyoto.
Current Clear-Cutting Restrictions
Due to the historical shortages of timber, Japan now has heavy restrictions on clear-cutting and instead most harvests are conducted as selective thinnings. This means that the forest remains intact and only certain trees are removed during a harvest. The remaining trees are left to grow with more space and less competition than prior to thinning. This allows the remaining trees to grow into healthier and larger trees than they would have otherwise. Japan imports many of its timber which removes pressure to log the forests in Japan, giving the forests ample time to grow. Today, Japan’s forests are a treasure and are deeply cared for by both the government and the people.
Through the use of sustainable forest practices, Japan is now on track to achieve net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. Japan is home to many old growth forests as well as plantation forests of fast-growing Sugi that are used both domestically in Japan and can also be found by limited suppliers within the US. Despite centuries of past struggles with timber management due to pressures of outside forces, Japan is able to sustain a healthy level of forestland while using their timber domestically and sharing their beautiful, and uniquely durable wood with other parts of the world. Here at Nakamoto Forestry, we use logs selected from our sustainably managed forests in Hiroshima and Tokushima for all of our yakisugi products.