Forestry in Japan
Killing two birds with one tree
A proposal for easing both a natural and a man-made disaster in Japan
A different kind of suffering weighs on about 20m people (a sixth of the population) at this time of year which, though less anguish-filled, is not trivial. From late February until May they endure pollen allergies, mostly caused by Japanese cedar, or sugi, trees. Usually the affliction, entailing sneezing, eye irritation and huge medical bills, is shrugged off as shoganai—it can’t be helped.
But a way could be found to ease the allergies that could also help rebuild homes. It would involve thinning out the sugi and other conifer plantations that cover about 40% of Japan’s forests, most of which are now abandoned as uneconomic. The timber could be used to restore and beautify lost villages.
The sugi were planted across Japan after the war as material to rebuild destroyed cities and towns. Sugi, straight and tall, are ideal for construction. But after tariffs fell, imported wood put the sugi foresters out of business.
The higher they grow, the more pollen the magnificent, abandoned trees emit. Officials say some owners, many now in their 70s, reject subsidies to plant new ones that emit less pollen because the payback is too long. As a result, says Kevin Short, a columnist for the Daily Yomiuri, an English-language newspaper, “immense clouds of yellow-green sugi pollen dust float down onto the urban areas, like some amorphous monster out of a science-fiction movie.”
Though Kiyohito Onuma of the Forestry Agency says his sneezing wife and children often ask him to do more to ease the problem, the public pressure is muted. Partly this is because the sugi have always grown near temples and shrines, and are part of national folklore.
Mr Onuma says the government cannot override private contracts by cutting down the forests. But vast public expenditure is earmarked for post-tsunami reconstruction. It might be possible to pay enough to provide an incentive to thin them out. But this would require co-ordination between the agricultural, health and economy ministries, construction companies and elderly people set in their ways, none of whom find it easy to work with each other. That, sadly, is also one of the main reasons the reconstruction is taking so long.