Forests in Japan: Under Attack, and Under Construction

One of Tokyo’s delightful green spaces. (photo by Jared Braiterman)

Although one can easily lose sight of reality living and working in an urban center such as Tokyo, Japan is actually 67% woodland.  Tokyo is chock-full of small green spaces (check out the blog of Jared Braiterman, a Design Anthropologist who posts almost daily from the city), and carefully tended showcase parks (like the beautiful and popular forested grounds of  Meiji Jingu Shrine in Shibuya), but what’s it like in the real countryside?

Well, first, a bit of history, taken from talks with my geologist friend Yukari, and from an excellent article by Winifred Bird, a graduate of Amherst College (Suma Cum Laude, Political Science) who now lives in Nagano. She writes free-lance for a wide variety of publications on topics including nature, science, and architecture, and was a Media Fellow at Vermont Law School’s Environmental Law Program in 2011. See her full profile–it’s rather fascinating in itself.  In a recent article for Yale Environment 360, Bird writes of the large number of Japan’s forests that are actually “artificial plantations”:  government

Aaaa-choo! … it’s Japanese cedar. Not only Japan’s national tree,  but also the country’s worst allergy offender.

subsidized projects containing mostly Cedar and Cypress, rather than a healthy variety of trees. Having grown up in rural New England amidst well-tended forests boasting a mixture of species, I noticed this myself on first moving to Japan, often thinking, “Why doesn’t this look like a real forest?” The forests I saw looked carefully arranged, with no variations in height or color–in short, fake.

True Old Growth forests are extremely rare in Japan, and the newer single-species plantations designed to feed Japan’s growing construction industry do not provide an ideal haven for wildlife.  In her Environment 360 article, Winifred Bird speaks with Mariko Moriyama, a representative of the Japan Bear and Forest Association, about the limited diversity in Japanese forests.  According to Moriyama, she writes, the outcome has been, “…the creation of forests where few animals can survive. Vast single-species stands of timber lack the plant diversity found in natural forests, and plant diversity forms the foundation for animal diversity. Black bears, for example, are omnivorous but prefer to eat young leaves, insects, berries, and acorns–few of which can be found in timber plantations. ” Does this not make perfect sense?  Moriyama-san puts it bluntly: “The results of the experiments are in. Japan’s traditional culture preserved amazing forests up until World War II. Our post-war approach has failed.”

In other words, even before the nuclear disaster in Fukushima, many of Japan’s forests were suffering.  Next, consider the current state of Fukushima Prefecture, which is 70 percent forestland.  The Japanese government has chosen to decontaminate much of the

Okuma, Fukushima: 10,000 tons of bagged waste from the decontamination process, temporarily stored in a baseball stadium. (Photo by Takayuki Kihara)

farm and forest land within the evacuation zone (areas outside of the zone are the responsibility of local governments) in order to bring families back and revitalize deserted neighborhoods. The process is well underway, and involves cutting (of tree branches),  scraping (of topsoil),  power-washing (of houses and trees in fruit orchards),  shaving (of bark from trees!),  bagging (of leaf litter), and thorough plowing (the deeper the better, to turn over the soil and dilute the cesium contaminating the topmost layer).  Technically, the focus of decontamination is on residential areas rather than forestland, but since there are no clear barriers in many rural areas of Fukushima, parts of the hilly woods in close vicinity to houses are being “cleaned” as well. And what’s being done with the refuse? The cut branches, scraped-off topsoil, and mountains of cesium-laced leaves?  As the photo shows, there’s no long-term, safe, or aesthetically pleasing solution. Some towns deposit the bulging bags in shallow pits, and some keep them above ground.  Meanwhile plastic bag manufacturers, along with companies specializing in geiger counters and power hoses, are making a tidy profit, I’m sure.

Going back to the writing of Winifred Bird, this January, she wrote another article for the  Environment 360 publication that deals with the projected effects of decontamination in Fukushima. By her assessment, the process (due to be completed in 2014) is likely to cause “huge amounts of radioactive waste that no-one wants to store long-term; immediate investments of money, labor, and time; damage to wildlife habitat and soil fertility; increased erosion on scraped-bare hillsides; and intrusion by people and machinery into

A Japanese Wild boar; human health trumps his habitat. This particular guy is from Kyushuu, but there are plenty of boars in Fukushima as well.

every area scheduled for remediation.”  In her article, she quotes Kiyomi Yokota, a naturalist and secretary of the Fukushima Nature Conservation Association.  Although Yokota regrets the upsetting of the forest’s ecological balance, he sees it as a necessary evil.  As he states, “If people want to go home, I don’t think I could tell them, `No, stop the decontamination and save the fish.”  In other words, declares Bird,  human health trumps habitat.

Last Sunday, the Japan Times featured another article by Bird, entitled, “Chernobyl Expert Takes a Look at Tohoku’s Trees”.  The expert, Dr. Sergiy Aibtsev, a Ukranian forest ecologist who has been studying contamination in wooded areas for 19 years, flew to Japan to tour the Tohoku forests and confer with Japanese ecologist Dr. Tatsuhiro Ohkubo (who’s only been studying contamination since the time of the triple disaster).  In Chernobyl, 26 years have passed, and the exclusion zone is still off-limits. Its forests are untouched, save for experiments and minimal management, and forests outside the zone are carefully regulated and monitored. Aibtsev, concerned that the removal of leaf litter, undergrowth, and branches from Fukushima’s forests “could undermine forest health”, explained the Russian approach to contamination.  Bird writes,

A forest?  Or a “holding tank for contamination”?

“Zibtsev explains that as long as trees and leaf litter are healthy, forest ecosystems trap radionuclides and prevent them from seeping down into the groundwater, or being carried into streams by erosion-or blowing away as dust in the wind. Ukraine’s management policy has aimed to maximize the role of forests as holding tanks for contamination rather than attempt decontamination. “

Bird also directly quotes Zibtsev, who uses a graphic comparison to make his point:

“The approach has been to let the ecosystem work. Fungi is much more effective than millions of people (at containing contamination).  It’s like if your body is functioning, and you decide, why don’t I remove my liver to clean it? And then you realize you can’t live without it. People in Japan want the forest to be clean. They want to rewind (back to) before 3/11. (But) we’re living in a new reality.”

Even Shinichi Nakayama, a nuclear engineer at Japan’s Atomic Energy Agency who is overseeing 19 of the decontamination pilot projects admitted that over-cleaning could present new complications. “You take it all away (“all”, meaning the greenery) and the eco-system is destroyed,” he pronounced.

Back to Bird’s phrase: human health trumps habitat?  I always thought the two were not rivals, but inter-connected. That connection, it seems, has been broken for Fukushima residents.  The forests that once sustained are now being stripped of their own sustenance.

So that’s how things stand in Fukushima. Now let’s move to Tokyo, where forests are

Jared Braiterman, reveling in a green space!

not under siege, but being created.  Although many Tokyo residents are unaware, a fabulous architectural project is under construction. I learned of this through the aforementioned blog of Jared Braiterman, the Design Anthropologist and seeker of green spaces.  The title of the post caught my attention: “What if a Forest is Created and No-One Knows?” , and I began reading, learning of a project that’s been steadily progressing since 2007 to create a “Forest on the Sea” or “Umi no Mori”.

Designed by the renowned architect Tadao Ando, the forest is an attempt to restore beauty and function to a landfill in Tokyo Bay, an 88 hectare raised landmass built of…waste. Ugly, eh? On his introductory site,  Ando speaks plainly about the landfill site, stating,

“The modern practice of mass production and mass consumption has given rise to a negative legacy throughout the wold in the form of refuse. In Tokyo Bay as well, a consequence of our urban activities is seen in a landfill of refuse and surplus soil that reaches 30 meters in height and stretches over 88 hectares-about the size of one golf course.

Umi no Mori (Sea Forest) will become a symbol of our recycling-oriented society through which Japan, a country that has a tradition of living hand-in-hand with nature, can make an appeal to the world about the importance of living in harmony with the environment. In view of the fact that landfills exist in all corners of the world, I perceive this island as a forest that belongs not just to Tokyo, but to the world, and through this project, wish to communicate the message of `living in harmony with nature’.”

Chart showing the “Wind Passages” effected from Ando’s Forest on the Sea.

Ando’s plan, begun five years ago, is to create a forest of mixed species, not only to beautify a barren space, but to create a passageway for breezes to blow into the city, providing relief from the sweltering summer heat.  As another part of Ando’s plan, local children have been involved with the planting. Various planting events have been held since 2008, including one attended by U2’s Bono. Funding for the project is purely through personal donations-also the idea of Ando, who hopes for donations of 1,000 ¥  from 500,000 people to complete his project. Here’s the link to his Umi no Mori site if you wish to make a donation, or know someone who is interested in the project. Better yet, spread the word!  The blog post I stumbled on was from 2009, and the author was lamenting the fact that so few folks knew about its existence. Well, though the Tokyo Sky Tree has been so over-publicized that I see it in my dreams, looming over me, this forest project hasn’t made much of a splash at all. Braiterman berates the Tokyo municipal government for not making the project more public:

“I think this park will eventually be fantastic. However, it’s a missed opportunity not to make its creation more participatory, more transparent, more public, more connected to the rest of the city, more educational, and a catalyst for public and collective thinking of the urban environment and waste production.”

And Braiterman’s right. Instead of putting their energy into the promotion of a project that

“Forest on the Sea”, shown in photo from summer, 2010. How many forests will need to be planted to cover new landfills?

isn’t costing the city a cent and serves the purpose of rehabilitating a shameful eyesore, the municipal government is busy accepting debris from Tohoku and burning it along the Bay, creating yet more pollution and showing an appalling lack of judgement and concern for its citizens. It’s a sickening cycle in the end, as the remains of the incinerated rubble are being buried in yet another Tokyo Bay site, creating yet another landfill ripe for rehabilitating.  Are there enough creative minds to deal with the mountains of refuse that are plaguing this already overcrowded country?  Not by a long shot; the landfills are winning the battle.

Meanwhile, up in Tohoku, the city of Sendai in Miyagi Prefecture is planning to use part of its own tsunami debris to build “tide-prevention groves”.  Rather than concrete sea wall barriers, city planners envision a raised coastline built from landfill and lined with trees, which will serve to slow the speed and reduce the power of future tsunamis as well as preventing land erosion. I love the simplicity of the design.

And that’s where I’ll close for now. Growing up surrounded by forests, living in Japan has led me to re-think my definition of their purpose.  Thinking of the woodlands in Russia and Fukushima that will remain as repositories for cesium, lying untouched, unexplored, untended, and unused, fills me with terrible sadness.  Human health trumps habitat, and for the sake of man’s safety, they will remain off-limits. The animals residing there are on their own.

Thinking of the newly-conceived forests built as cosmetic covers for landfills gives me mixed feelings as well. In the case of Sendai, city planners are making the best of a terrible situation, planning responsibly and considering aesthetics and practicality as well. Hopefully the trees along the coast will help to save their lives in the future. Still, the trees are covering a waste dump, containing the remains of its past life, and parents should educate their children to know the city’s history and teach them to create as little waste as possible in their lives.

Tree planting at Ando's "Forest on the Sea".  A sea of green to cover a multitude of sins. (photo by Andy McGovern)

Tree planting at Ando’s “Forest on the Sea”. A sea of green to cover a multitude of sins?

In the case of Tokyo, I feel deep disappointment and a sense of hopelessness. A project reflecting a positive transformation for the city does not receive enough attention, and landfills continue to multiply, rather than diminish. I also learned, while writing this post, that another of my favorite green spaces in Tokyo, Yamashita Park,  is built over landfill.  Strange, that more people do not find this unnerving.  Those who see only the surface of things, I suppose, are able to carry on their daily lives without questioning why. Baseball stadiums filled with radioactive soil?  Stripping the  leaves and bark from trees?  And still the question of whether Japan should continue to use nuclear power remains an issue?  As far as I’m concerned, the more pressing issue is the de-commissioning of each and every nuclear power plant across Japan: a long-term challenge, complicated by the reality that college students are already steering clear of any nuclear-power related programs. They know that the future is somewhere else.

Thank you for reading, and good night.


2 thoughts on “Forests in Japan: Under Attack, and Under Construction

  1. This is a good read. I love how every blog post you write leads to something new.

    This isn’t a case where we can just sweep the dirt under the rug or even throw the rug out.

    If the young generation isn’t willing to get their hands dirty with nuclear power, maybe that is a godsend. With nobody to run the plants they’ll have no choice but to shut them down eventually.

    I wouldn’t bet my money on that approach though.

  2. Ukrainian approach after the nuclear disaster in Chornobyl was isolation of the contaminated area and letting the mother Nature cure it. And this approach proved to be really effective. Now we even see a wildlife rebirth in the restricted zone. The Chornobyl forests these days are what European forests used to be two thousand years ago before people started converting them into farmland. Obviously the presence of humans in the area was much bigger problem for the wildlife than radiation.

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