Battling the plague of Japanese cedars

Posted By on Apr 17, 2017 in Columns |

From high up in a scrawny sugi tree dangles a thin, ancient wire. Some kind of barrier? Communication or power line? Not likely. We took the question to Fujino-san, who worked in the sugi (Japanese cedar) and hinoki (Japanese cypress) plantations before the industry collapsed under a wave of imports half a century ago.

He explained that, in the old days, such wires were attached to the fragile saplings in order to keep them growing straight. Every winter and spring, after each heavy snowfall, workers trudged the steep slopes, pulling and shaking wires in order to dislodge damaging accumulations. With that, plus regular culling, the investment in these trees was immense.

Bordering our wasabi patch stand several towering specimens. Their overhanging branches have the effect of stifling wasabi growth, so we approached the owner about the possibility of felling two or three. To paraphrase: “Y’know, I planted those trees 70 years ago. It was really hard work looking after them for the first 10 or 15 years. So please . . . don’t fell . . . but you may trim.”

Well, the most intrusive of those trees are approaching 20 metres in height and are thicker than I can encircle with my arms. This is an important measure. It means I cannot climb them using standard gear for trimming by hand. There they stand, wearing the armour of nostalgia.

Leaving the wasabi patch, we emerge from the narrow gully to behold the Tama River valley, with slopes smothered in drab conifers. Behind those slopes lie further ranges, with more blankets of plantation.

The Okutama area alone holds at least 40,000 sterile hectares of sugi trees, and the same is repeated in many areas of Japan. The whole represents a staggering waste of time and money, the legacy of an anticipated (logical at the time) post-war acute timber shortage.

It was not just government agencies or forestry businesses that did all this planting, especially on private properties along main roads and in other impractical locations.

Our neighbour’s grandparents once worked a market garden between the river and the road opposite our home. Some 60 years ago, as creaking backs increasingly protested the toil, they decided to plant sugi trees, which they then imagined would someday be worth a handsome ¥10,000 each.

What are they worth? Our neighbour recently had those trees felled for the sake of road safety (their winter shade meant an exceptionally icy and slippery curve). The logs were carted away to be chipped for a hot-spring furnace. During felling, he queried a sawmill operator as to the sale value of whole trimmed tree trunks. One thousand yen each, he was told . . . “if you deliver them at your own expense”.

The sugi tree is still highly regarded as a building material in Japan, and there are areas where plantations make sense. At an Ome lumberyard recently we spotted sugi planks bearing the stencil of Akita-prefecture, on the northwest coast of Honshu. Why truck softwood 600 kilometers when there is an absolute glut of the material on your doorstep? Consistent quality, the manager explained. The plantations of Akita-ken have been properly managed, whereas those of Okutama have not.

So the sugi trees of Okutama, even those right by the road, are worth nothing when you count the cost of harvesting.

Less than nothing for those on further slopes. Far less than nothing if you count the cost of sporadic maintenance, erosion, compromised water supply, lost tourism, lost biodiversity, worthless real estate, a moribund local economy and, to cap it all off, sugi pollen allergy. This last item costs Japanese people at least $10 billion in medications and absenteeism each year. The misery of allergy sufferers is incalculable. The total impact on national productivity is probably significant.

No wonder author Alex Kerr describes the replacement of natural forests with useless, toxic sugi trees as “one of the worst crimes of the Japanese bureaucracy”.

Our discussions on how to unravel this vast environmental disaster include friends and neighbours, local government officials and forestry experts in business and academia. No ready solution has presented itself, though we do have some answers. We can see what occurs on a mountain slope some 10, 20 or 30 years after clear-felling of sugi trees. What emerges is a mixture of predominantly native broadleaf species.

Our friend Prof. Sugawara, who heads a major forestry research facility above Okutama, points out that when plantation trees are felled, suddenly there is birdsong where before there was silence.

Some birds bring in their droppings a collection of seeds gleaned from native plants, pockets of which survived the plantation flood. Animals bring seeds in their faeces, squirrels transport acorns and the wind bears lightweight and winged seeds such as those of various maples and the majestic native fir tree (momi).

Native species – the oaks, cherries, hazelnut, chestnut, zelkova (keyaki) momi and others, were decimated to make way for monoculture plantations.

Due to remnant seed-producing stands, the simplest, fastest, cheapest reforestation strategy is simply to fell sugi plantations and walk away. Nature will exercise reclamation more efficiently than any further human intervention.

We visited a 400-hectare mixed-forest property at nearby Hinohara. In the owner’s photo album is an image of a single tree-trunk being hauled out of the forest by helicopter. Momi! We learned that part of this lump of timber was destined for use in a Kyushu shrine, while the rest was transported to China. The relative-value proposition – keep spending on worthless monoculture plantations or encourage species that continually add value – is compelling. One mature momi is worth at least several thousand times the equivalent sugi tree!

Currently, native momi seedlings propagate readily within the sugi plantations. But the momi saplings soon wither and die, doomed by the perpetual shade and relentless competition of the alien armies of sugi.

Despite prevalent apathy, we are optimistic about the future of Okutama. This is a future of far greater beauty, environmental diversity and commercial vigour. A new and modern forestry industry can be based on naturally occurring timbers for cabinetmaking and other specialty uses. Building this industry requires an alliance of Tokyo-metropolitan as well as local stakeholders. It is a multibillion-dollar, century-long reclamation project.

We just want to plant a seed.