What Happened to Japanese Forests?

By Kaizhao (Zero) Lin

Thoughts about Japan’s environment after the SCI forest volunteer program

 
“Parasite” took home the Palme d’Or by unanimous vote at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival, making Bong Joon-ho the first Korean director to win the award. Photo Courtesy:  Kaizhao (Zero) Lin

“Parasite” took home the Palme d’Or by unanimous vote at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival, making Bong Joon-ho the first Korean director to win the award. Photo Courtesy: Kaizhao (Zero) Lin

“If you have time this summer, please go to Japan to practice your Japanese and learn more about Japan,” my Japanese instructor Azusa Tojo said this to us in our final Japanese 102 class at Syracuse University.

The opportunity came to me as soon as I found that the Service Civil International (China) opened a forest protection program in Japan’s satoyama, which aims to inform volunteers of the current Japanese forest situation and do some farm work with the locals. Therefore, I got a chance to conduct my field trip and immerse in Japanese culture through this program.

“Satoyama (さとやま)” is not a place but rather a Japanese term meaning “deep forest.” The real destination of our program is Tonsabayashi Shi (富田林市), a two-hour drive from Osaka. Our main mission was to help the local elders cut down old or malnourished trees so that other trees can grow better and healthier.

Before the volunteer program, I asked myself how much I knew about the Japanese environment or even the global environment — not too much. Environmental issues have always been a concern to the global community but have rarely been addressed and implemented. Japan, on the other hand, highlights its anxiety toward the issue with appropriate reactions and solutions, even in the small city of Tondabayashi.

Ichihara-san, the leader of the camp who has lived in Tondabayashi for most of his life, told us that Japanese forests were widely used for housing construction decades ago, and the vegetation of the forests has changed a lot due to deforestation.

After cutting down the trees, we had to peel the tree because only the core could be used for making artifacts. All the trees after peeling would be carried down the mountain and kept together. Photo Courtesy:  Kaizhao (Zero) Lin

After cutting down the trees, we had to peel the tree because only the core could be used for making artifacts. All the trees after peeling would be carried down the mountain and kept together. Photo Courtesy: Kaizhao (Zero) Lin

According to Ichihara, the problem that Japanese forests are facing today, surprisingly, is caused by a common plant: bamboo. Due to limited regulations that were implemented decades ago on the import of animal and plant products, bamboo came to Japan from China as a foreign plant. It gradually appeared in the forest, and its rapid growth rate has led to the death or extinction of many native plants. In the forests of Tondabayashi, Bamboo trees regularly reach skyscraping heights in a matter of years, as opposed to the decades that the ancient evergreens took to achieve the same.  

In addition to the problem caused by the excessive growth of bamboo, the current situation of Japanese forests is partially due to some social problems in Japan: One of the primary causes is urban immigration. 

Japan’s rapid economic development was sluggish for a while in the late 19th century because of the bubble economy, according to professor Margarita Estevéz-Abe, associate tenured professor of political science, who teaches my Politics and Society of Japan class at Syracuse University. But Prime Minister Shinzō Abe successfully re-invigorated the economy since entering office, subsequently causing fewer Japanese youths to stay in the countryside today as they increasingly disregard their inherited farmlands and forests. Xu Jingbo, international studies professor at Fudan University, called this group of young adults the Heisei 1st generation in his book “Meet Japan.” (Heisei “平成” is a Japanese era under Emperor Akihito’s regime.)

The work was tough and boring, but it was a good time enjoying the fresh air in the forests. Photo Courtesy:  Kaizhao (Zero) Lin

The work was tough and boring, but it was a good time enjoying the fresh air in the forests. Photo Courtesy: Kaizhao (Zero) Lin

Nevertheless, an outstanding environmental protection method in Japan is the garbage classification. Our camp lacks electricity and water, but the locals still strictly implements the garbage classification. For example, a plastic bottle needs to be separated into two parts: the bottle cap and tape should be put into the clear plastic bin, and the bottle, with the water remained, should be cleaned and put into its respective bin. There are more complex classifications among different objects, which led all campers to decide to generate as little trash as possible.

Before I arrived in Japan, the trending topic on Weibo, a Chinese social network, was related to the “Shanghai garbage classification.” The implementation rate of garbage classification in China is not high — even the more developed cities, such as Beijing, Guangzhou and Shenzhen, have not fully implemented the policy. Although Japan is a relatively small island country, it is impressive that it can spread the ideology of garbage classification to all cities and even the countryside like our camp.

SMAP, a famous Japanese band, has a song named "Sekai ni Hitotsu Dake no Hana" — “The Only Flower in the World” — that stimulates lots of my thoughts on the volunteer program, such as Japanese elders’ passion for life and their cautiousness about garbage sorting and other issues. We can hardly deny that Japan, as a special Asian flower, has its own splendid bloom. Every country is a unique flower in the garden of the world, but the ultimate goal of the garden is to ensure that all of them are always impeccably taken care of and has its own fragrance.

“世界に一つだけの花 / The only flower in the world

一人一人违う种を持つ / Having their different seeds

その花を咲かせることだけに / So all we have to do is

一生悬命になればいい / Make them sprout and grow into flowers

 

News and Copy Editor Kaizhao (Zero) Lin, a junior studying international relations and newspaper journalism at Syracuse University, wants to discover and retell the stories that he feels empathetic and grateful to.