In the previous essay, I wrote about the long ecological shadow that Japan has cast upon the rainforests of Southeast Asia since the end of World War Two. The rainforests have been devastated, bringing wealth to major Japanese corporations, and to corrupt governments in Southeast Asia, but economic and natural devastation upon the poor people in the Philippines, Indonesia, and Malaysia. Not even to mention the forests themselves.
But this has not always been the case. Before American Admiral Matthew Perry forcefully opened Japan to colonization and world trade in 1854—in what we would call pre-industrial Japan—Japan was a totally isolated land. Nobody came in, and nobody left, especially since about 1600. Japan needed and desired wood products, but they had to get them entirely from their own land.
Japan consists of four major and many minor volcanic islands. And they were young islands, formed by volcanic eruptions in geologically recent times. Despite profound temperature differences between the cold forests of the northwest and the warm wet forests of the southeast, trees covered the entire archipelago; there were no natural grasslands or deserts.
The mountains are steep and consist of young rock with thin soils. Between the mountains are a few areas of rich soil eroded down from the mountains. Life was difficult in the mountains. The only way to raise food was to create terraces, which had stairsteps of flat, wet rice paddies. Most of the people lived, as they do today, crowded into the small flatlands.
As Conrad Totman has written in The Green Archipelago: Forestry in Preindustrial Japan, one might have expected Japan to be, by 1854, a devastated landscape. The major natural resource that they had for building was wood. There was no major source of limestone or clay for building. Once the people started cutting down the forests, it took a long time for the forests to grow back. The only reason that Japan was still a green archipelago in 1854 was because the government of Japan, fractured as it was, developed sophisticated techniques of forest management. After World War Two, Japan financed the widespread destruction of Asian rainforests; but before 1854, they carefully managed and renewed their domestic forests. And they did so better than just about any other country in the history of the world up to that point.
Many of the Japanese forests today are not natural forests but are plantations. I noticed this when, as an exchange student, I visited Japan in 1974. My host family drove us along the highways, which led through intensely managed landscapes; there were even rice paddies along the sides of the road. When I looked up at the dark forests, I noticed that they seemed to be flashing as we passed rows of trees. The trees did not form a uniform cover but were all lined up in military precision.
I took this photo in 1974. The forests on the mountains are plantations, and the green grass on the roadside is rice.
From about 1600 to 1854, during a time when forests were being destroyed worldwide, Japan was re-growing its forests.
There were two major periods of deforestation in Japanese history. The first was the Heian (old name for Kyōto) period, about the year 700. At this time, powerful lords built huge mansions and castles, all of them from wood. That is, from very good wood, made from the large straight knot-free trunks of hinoki (Chamaecyparis obtusa) and sugi (Cryptomeria japonica), both relatives of cypresses and sequoia trees. This was a period of high cultural attainment and the development of a reverence for nature. But at the same time, the people (working for the lords) were cutting down the very forests they revered. After many decades of this, much of the landscape was degraded. The trees that continued to grow were mostly deciduous trees such as oak and chestnut, which were smaller and more suitable for charcoal production than to build great structures. Peasants also used branches and litter as fertilizer for their fields (since there was very little livestock and very little animal manure). The lords continued to build castles but used the good wood for the frames and edges, where it could be seen; they used lower quality wood for the walls, which they covered with plaster. Since warfare was nearly constant, the plaster castles were more resistant to incendiary attacks. Wood shingles were replaced with ceramic tiles, which were also safer from fire. Fine wood floors gave way to cheap floors covered with tatami (woven sedge) mats. Peasants were forbidden to use sugi or hinoki wood for their houses. Fortunately, rural villages could make almost everything they needed from bamboo, which grew rapidly from persistent root stocks. But even these changes did not save the forests.
By the year 718, a crisis was developing. That year, the Yōrō Code advocated tree planting to prevent soil erosion and flooding. In 821, an order explicitly called for forest protection to keep water supplies safe. Deforestation temporarily slowed, but by 1050 rapacious deforestation began in the same area. Pine barrens (hageyama) developed on degraded soil. The Heian period declined, largely due to the loss of forests. This is not what I learned in Japanese history classes, which focused on warriors.
Starting about 1200, the center of power shifted to Edo (modern Tōkyō), which had largely intact forests. Massive deforestation began again. Nobody actually owned land, but had land use rights, which were transferable and legal. Villages had forests they could manage, and villages could determine punishment for people in the village or from outside cutting wood—even breaking off branches—without authorization. This was serious business. Some disputes were handled by trial by ordeal, in which disputants handled red hot sickles or axes, or at least faced the threat of it. Many of the finest forests (the ohayashi) were reserved for the lords—one quarter for the shōgun, three quarters for the daimyō barons. You didn’t mess with these forests either.
According to Totman, the last original forest in Japan was cut in 1692. These figures do not include Ezo (now Hokkaidō), which is still covered with spruce and fir forests, and which has never been until recently an integral part of Japan.
In response to wood shortages, restrictions were severe. The central shogunate government, in 1699, strictly enforced maximum house sizes for villagers: a village headman could have a house no larger than about 4 by 30 meters, a taxable peasant no more than about 4 by 6, and all others only 4 by 4 meters. The poorer people also had to use smaller planks. Forests continued to shrink, especially after earthquakes destroyed major urban areas by causing fires. Edo was rebuilt several times, always from wood. The biggest was the Meireki fire of 1657. At such times, villages could earn a lot of money selling their wood to the cities. The Japanese were serious about saving their forests. Wood poachers could quietly steal wood when they cut it with saws, but axes made a lot of noise. To reduce poaching, the government outlawed the use of saws.
By the 1500s, it became obvious to the leaders that replanting trees was necessary, mainly for wood from which to rebuild castles destroyed in wars. (Sometimes the forests themselves were destroyed in wars.) I am not aware that extensive tree planting happened in any other part of the world. In 1649, the Edo government urged villages to plant trees and bamboo. In 1650, the daimyō of Kuwana said that there should be a thousand trees planted for every tree cut down. Why so many? I explain it below. In 1713, the government issued a major directive for replanting trees.
Replanting was not merely a matter of throwing seeds on the ground. A soil bed was prepared, usually out in nature. Either lots of seeds or a smaller number of slips (branch cuttings) were stuck in these beds. Once the seedlings or slips were about a foot high, they could be transplanted into the forests or into plantations. Every step was carefully done to make sure that transplants would have plenty of roots in contact with moist soil. There were many silviculture manuals in circulation at that time. There were instructions for how to dig the holes, including keeping dead leaves out of the hole, which might impede the contact between transplant roots and soil. The instructions even specified that the planter had to give each transplant a little tug to make sure it was firmly set.
In some places, these superman-Johnny-Appleseeds planted over 300 thousand trees (Totman has the numbers in his book). In just one small part of Kyūshū, in 1824, twelve thousand man days were spent on planting over a million sugi seedlings. In 1820-1865, in the Kikuchi district, 9,327,000 sugi and hinoki seedlings were planted.
Why so many? Because most of them died. In subsequent years, planters would thin out the saplings. When the saplings were large enough, the ones thinned out could be used as poles or tool handles. Who did the planting? At first, it was forced labor or punishment for poaching, but later the planters got paid, or were given permission to cut some of the trees for charcoal. The government preferred labor from villagers who had a stake in the outcome. When forced labor planted the trees, they all died because of sloppy work; when villagers planted them, half survived.
Aftercare, for many years, was important. This included shaking the snow off of transplants that were bent over, and by cutting away vines. Village patrols maintained firebreaks.
Wood sources developed local reputations. For example, the best timber for making ships came from the south, even though this was not the main area in which hinoki and sugi would grow naturally. This is because, in warm moist conditions, the wood grew faster, had bigger xylem vessels, which filled with air when the wood dried—great for making ships. By the nineteenth century, plantation wood was much preferred to wild wood. Plantations grew on the best soil and were in the most accessible locations, near a river for easy transport. Wild trees on high mountain slopes were just not as profitable.
Extensive tree planting centuries ago is one reason that you cannot study forest ecology in Japan by just looking at which species of trees grow where they do today. The range of hinoki and sugi trees today may be the result of planting, not of nature.
Cut off from the world by choice, the Japanese government recognized the need for forestry. It was not an esthetic, but a practical, decision to save their forests. For whatever reason, they led the world in forest conservation. A proclamation in Akita, issued in 1615, said that they needed forests for their future. This changed in the twentieth century, when Japan began its wars of aggression and then, later, financed the destruction of Asian rainforests (see previous essay). But I was astonished to discover that Japan was centuries ahead of the rest of the world in forest conservation.