This year Japan has experienced the eruption of Mt. Asama as well as an onslaught of typhoons and a severe earthquake. We are constantly worried about the war in Iraq and other global issues but, closer to home, I sense that something is badly amiss in our relationship with nature.
During an Upper House Budget Committee session held on October 21, Takeshi Maeda, a Democratic Party of Japan Upper House member, referred to the recent extraordinary natural phenomena, saying “We had an unusually cold summer last year. This year, we have experienced a heat wave, ten typhoons striking Japan, and many bears appearing in villages. Our citizens are conscious of the abnormal weather.”
“The mountains are becoming ruined. Instead of being thinned, man-made forests are being left uncared for and, as a result, pitch-black forests where food for wild animals does not grow are spreading. The mountains are rotting.” As those words were spoken by an acknowledged expert on national land issues, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and others listened intently to Maeda.
I was by chance invited to join a “Round-table conference to nurture and care for Japanese forests,” led by Shuichi Kawai, professor at Kyoto University’s Research Institute for Sustainable Humanosphere and also head of the Japan Wood Research Society, and learned a great deal during the six-month period of discussion. I, too, became convinced that “the mountains are rotting!”
Japan was originally a land of trees. We burned charcoal in the woods and built houses using timber from the forests. From the postwar reconstruction period through until the economic boom, artificial forests were created. In 1970, aggregate demand for timber reached 100 million cubic meters and Japan’s self-sufficiency ratio was 45 percent. As western-style houses became popular, demand for timber reduced by about 20 percent and, as imports of cheap timber increased, the self-sufficiency rate fell below 20 percent.
During the round-table discussion, forestry experts voiced their concern. “Nurturing forests involves cutting the grass around saplings, cutting vines, thinning trees and pruning. After about 25 years, the trees will grow and the forest will become crowded. We at that point thin the trees. As a result, sunlight will reach the ground, undergrowth will spring up, and insects and birds will make the forests their habitat. The roots of the trees will become firmly established and forests will become strong and prevent mudslides,” said an expert.
Another expert pointed out that mountains in Japan have steep slopes that make large-scale production of timber difficult. Consequently, Japanese forests are losing ground to imported timber and, without the necessary thinning being undertaken, they are becoming wild. “Timber from thinning can be used to make furniture, can-style beverage containers, disposable chopsticks, interior finishing materials and plywood. I would rather use Japanese timber even if it is a little costly. Couldn’t we begin by using thinned timber?” asked a participant.
However, industry representatives outlined the difficult choice they face. A director of a convenience store chain pointed out that most of the 1.6 billion pairs of disposable chopsticks, which have a total value of about 3 billion yen, which the three major convenience store chains provide to customers each year are imported from China. “It is not easy to promote products sold at convenience stores by simply saying that they are eco-friendly. However, we want to offer goods that are agreeable and heartwarming,” said the director.
“Hybrid vehicles represent the creation of new values,” said an executive director of a car manufacturer. “They are selling well in the United States, where people have a strong environmental awareness. We believe that it is important to strike a balance among economy, performance and the environment, as well as to change consumer awareness.”
Business people are also now beginning to cherish the environment. At issue is whether or not a consumer awareness can be developed that will prompt people to choose eco-friendly products even if they are a little expensive. Beyond that, a question is whether or not that will lead to the use of domestic timber. Furthermore, questions are raised whether importance can be attached to natural forests, whether man-made forests can be cultivated, and whether Japanese forests can become places where man and animal can coexist comfortably.
In response to Maeda’s question in the Diet, Prime Minister Koizumi pointed out that barriers separating roads and sidewalks are purposely built in the shape and color of wood. “However, if one looks closely, they are made of concrete. I think it would be better to revise that approach.” Koizumi also stressed the significance of nurturing forests in order to achieve the targets of the Kyoto Protocol. “I wasn’t aware that the gender of turtle and crocodile eggs changes as a result of global warming,” he said.
On November 15, the members of the round-table conference issued a proposal entitled “Kizukai no Susume” (recommendation concerning the utilization of trees).” Using a play on words, the Chinese character for “tree” (ki) is used instead of that for “spirit” (ki) in the word kizukai” (caring). In the proposal, conference member and essayist Sawako Agawa recommended the use of wooden crash barriers. Although I felt bashful, I wrote and presented wording entitled “Ippon no waribashi” (A pair of chopsticks) modeled on the example of “Ippon no enpitsu” (One pencil), a song by renowned singer Hibari Misora.
A pair of chopsticks arrives from China
They are ruining the forests in China
Yellow dust come flying from the bare mountains in China
Make a pair of chopsticks from a Japanese tree
Make them from timber that has been thinned from forests
Japanese forests will have better air flows and will be revitalized
And they will protect villages from mudslides
“A pair of chopsticks” should become a catalyst for changing our awareness. Perhaps someone could set my words to music.