Welcome to Save the World's Forests evaluation of protected and natural forests in Japan.


Land and Climate

Map of Japan, Eastern Asia
Japan is a chain of Islands in the Pacific Ocean
just east of the Asian Continent

Japan is located on the eastern end of the Eurasian Continent between the Sea of Japan and the Pacific Ocean in the Northern Hemisphere. It encompasses a land area at about 93 million acres that is about 1/25 of the size of the United States.

It is an archipelago with more than 6,800 islands spanning 2000 miles from north to south. The northern part is located in the Frigid Zone where the sea is covered with floating ice in winter. The southern part is semitropical, and palms grow naturally


The Forests

Hills and mountains cover 70 % of the land. Forests cover a total area of 62 million acres that is equal to 67 % of the land. According to Japan's forestry agency data as of March 1995 there were 33 million acres of natural forests left in the country. Here the term "natural forests" includes a secondary forest grow naturally. In this meaning it can be said that 53% of the forests are natural forests.

Japan is a monsoon area having heavy rains in early summer and typhoons in late summer and early fall. The abundant rains, 67 inches on average per year, have supported the forests' massive trees and diverse species.

Traditional people have preserved their forests, understanding the ability of the forests to prevent natural disaster such as landslides or floods.

A view of Satoyama
      A view of Satoyama
             from http://www.mizumidori.jp/satochi/project_0116.html

In particular, they have carefully stewarded an area called "satoyama", which is located between a village and the wilderness. It mainly consists of secondary forests, farmland, farm ponds, and meadows that are habitat for wild animals and plants, while and at the same time supplying crops. People have adopted a sustainable system of agriculture with minimal impact on the forests. This beneficial rapport between nature and humans has inspired the locals to adopt a spiritual philosophy venerating the harmonious coexistence of human and forest.

In ancient times, Japan was covered with evergreen trees. However, nowadays you can see such forests only when you get to deep in the mountains or at sanctuaries and shrines, the rest having been cut by industrialization or residential development.

A shrine in the paddy field
      A shrine in the paddy field                        Photo by E. Hirose

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Special Forest Highlights

Shirakami Sanchi

Shirakami Sanchi means "mountains of white god," located in the northernmost part of the Honshu Island, the biggest island in Japan. It covers 320,000 acres of hills and mountains. The northern part of the Honshu Island used to be covered with vast forests of beech trees. After the World War II, many of them were cut and replaced with cedars. However, Shirakami Sanchi was left mostly intact because it is located too far from big cities to allow for easy logging and commercialization of timber production.

The beech virgin forest that covered 42,000 acres of the area was registered as a World Natural Heritage in December 1993. It is one of the largest beech forests of the world and a model case of relatively new beech forests that have developed since the last glacial period in East Asia.

Beech, oak and walnut mainly grow in the area, and in spite of the high latitude, various kinds of animals such as Asian black bears, Japanese macaques, woodpeckers, and eagles live in the area. The beech forests provide many plants that become food for wild animals helping maintain a high animal bio-diversity.

Beech Tree Forest in Shirakami Sanchi
    Beech Tree Forest in Shirakami Sanchi                    Photo by H. Takahashi

Since Shirakami Sanchi became the World Natural Heritage, many people have visited the forest. And now its conservation has become an important subject of discussion among the locals and conservationists.

In addition, the dams built in the Akaishi River, which begins in Shirakami Sanchi, have negative impacts on the forest and aquatic ecosystems. For example, the river is famous for its abundant populations of ayu and char fish, but the dam has fragmented their habitat, threatening the population.

Iwana (char fish) 
       Iwana (char fish)                                                           Photo by T. Sugawara

Also a negative effect to wild animals by F16 fighter jets from the U.S. Misawa Air Base, located east of Shirakami Sanchi, if a serious ecological concern, especially the impact to black woodpeckers. There are only about 50 estimated to be left in the area.

Ashu Enshurin: An Educational Forest Reserve

Kyoto University's Field Science Education and Research Center and its surrounding educational forest reserve, known as Ashu Enshurin, is located in the western part of Japan. The reserve and center have leased land from a local village since 1920. Because the university has leased the forests, realtors have unable to develop the land for road building, housing, and agriculture projects. The center and reserve encompass about 10,000 acres at an altitude ranging from 1,160 to 3,146 feet, with two thirds of the area between 1,970 and 2,600 feet. They are located on the border between two different climates influenced by the Sea of Japan and the Pacific Ocean. The unique mix of climates supports a startling variety flora and fauna. At 1,970 feet the vegetation largely consists of evergreen broadleaf trees such as beech and holly. At higher altitudes, beech and oak mainly dominate. Unfortunately, around half of the forest reserve's area consists of second-growth forest, and 620 acres (6%) are artificial tree farms mainly consisting of cedar.

Ashu forest 
      Ashu forest                                                                  Photo by K. Kusakawa

This reserve has one of the largest forests in the western part of Japan. There are a diversity animal species such as black collar bears, Japanese serows, deers, Japanese monkeys, wild boars, raccoon dogs, foxes, badgers, hares, dormouse, giant flying squirrels, bat, scops owls, hawks, and great salamanders.

Recently, many beech trees have not been fruiting well, even though they appear to be healthy. Naturalists suspect global warming may be negatively impacting their reproductive cycle. The climate change may be off-setting the timing of the beech trees' fruit and pollen production with the seasonal presence of their pollinators. Unfortunately, the death of many beech trees has caused a reduction in bee populations, which in turn has forced bee-eating bears to descend into the villages during the summer. The forest ecosystem has suffered greatly under such circumstances.

Another concern is the outbreaks of bacterial disease on the beech trees that is carried by the insect larva Platypus Quercivorus. The outbreaks have been observed for a few years now and beech trees are withering up one after another. Warmer local temperatures have allowed the insect larva populations to dramatically increase and spread throughout the forest, thereby infecting larger numbers of beech trees.

Also the overuse of the forests for recreation is becoming a problem, because the number of visitors to this area is almost ten times as large as ten years ago.


Jomon Sugi 
      Jomon Sugi                              Photo by H. Takahashi

Yaku Island of Southern Japan

The island is mountain-shaped, located 37 miles to the south from the southernmost cape of Kyushu Island with a population of 14,000. The size of the islands is 195 square miles and the Miyanoura Mountain has an altitude of 6,350 feet. Forests cover more than 90 % of the island and 20 % of the forests were registered as the World Natural Heritage in December 1993. Though it is a small island, it has a variety of kinds of natural features, including vegetation ranging from semi-tropical to semi-alpine that changes according to altitude.

The forests contain trees over a thousand years old, and those trees are cedar trees called Yaku Sugi (sugi means cedar in Japanese). Most of them are located at an altitude of around 3,300 feet. One of the largest Yaku Sugi has a height of 83 feet and a diameter of 54 feet and is called "Jomon Sugi." In addition, pines, hemlocks, and camellias are prevalent on the island.

Since it is an isolated, small island, Yaku has a limited number of animal species, especially of mammals. However, the island has unique animals such as the Yaku monkey and Yaku deer, which differ from their mainland counterparts. A popular proverb says that there are 20,000 monkeys, 20,000 deer and 20,000 people on the island. Unfortunately, the Yaku monkey often damages fruit crops.

Yaku-zaru (Yaku monkey)
      Yaku-zaru (Yaku monkey)
                        Image from http://www.yakushimapain.co.jp

Since being registered as a World Heritage, many tourists visit the island, contributing to garbage and water pollution problems. The local town has been trying to solve the problems by improving land use through zoning land into sections such as reserve areas, buffer zones, and living and beach areas.

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Concerns and Suggestions

Even though two thirds of its land is covered by forests, Japan is one of the world largest timber importers. Foreign imported timber is cheaper than Japan's domestically grown timber, even after considering freight costs for importing timber.

Unfortunately importing timber has not only supported deforestation in other countries, it has also caused a decline in Japan's local timber industry. Tree farming was encouraged as a national policy in the middle of the 20th century. Now many tree farms have been abandoned and are particularly vulnerable to landslides during heavy rains.

Many forest ecosystems are being seriously damaged by global warming, causing wild animals to be deprived of food and habitat. The suffering animals are forced to scavenge in local villages and farms, and damage fruit and vegetable crops. Villagers and farmers sometimes kill the larger animals that can be dangerous to humans.

More and more, we are degrading our natural environment, and more and more people are retreating to the last remnants of our natural environment for spiritual and recreational activities. Their overuse has caused further environmental pollution and destruction. It is ironic that nature-loving people are partially responsible for degrading nature.

We must realize how important it is to live in harmony with nature and to not take too much from nature.
Taking a short-term, resource extractive economic perspective is not in the best interest of the future of humanity, for humans depend upon a healthy environment for food, air, nature and happiness.



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Save America's Forests Fund