Friday, January 6, 2017

Nursery Rhymes for Forests: the Forestry Seeds and Seedlings Act of Japan

Probably quite a lot of people would be surprised to hear that the huge city of Yokohama is the major production center for tree seedlings in Kanagawa Prefecture. At least I was astonished. Actually, the area spreading from around Wuerthrich and Masakarigafuchi Citizen Forests to Seya, Oiwake, and Yasashi Citizen Forests is traditionally the supplier of tree seedlings for more than 400 years. The Cedar Avenue of Nikko 日光, listed in the Guinness Book as the longest tree-lined avenue of the world, is from the seedlings from farms near Wuerthrich Citizen Forest in the early 17th century. Now the place is Seya 瀬谷, Izumi , and Totsuka 戸塚 Wards that is a typical suburbia for Tokyo with lines of houses and condos, rather than seedlings … Even though, there remain several farmers who preserve their family business with hundreds of years of history. As of 2016, Kanagawa Prefecture has 9 seedling producers, the majority of whom are from the area. You may think why such a tiny number of statistics is relevant. It’s because in Japan production of commercial tree seedlings are strictly controlled by national law. It would sound sooooooo “command-and-control economic policy of Japan.” During the time of PM Koizumi when liberalization was the policy mantra, the system was almost for abolition. It survived, with reason.

You may not believe we have a leading seedling farm
very near from this busy Route #1 in Yokohama.

Betweenthe 14th to 16th centuries, Japan was a fragmented archipelago where the land was dissected by warlords. All of them were avid followers of Sun Tzu strategy, i.e. to win a war having enough economic power was (and is, I think) the MUST. They vigorously promoted industrial policy that could exploit comparative advantage of their domain. Timbers were (and are) important resource for construction and civil engineering in Japan. There was (and is) a huge demand. The region of good quality timbers could do nicely by trading their product. Warlords who governed the forests of better woods, especially coniferous trees such as pine, cedar and cypress, supported energetically the industry of afforestation. Then, one of the warlords, Tokugawa Ieyasu 徳川家康 conquered all the rest, and became the top dog, called Shogun 将軍, in 1603. To control possible usurpers of his post, he and his children established a system that automatically forced the former warlords, now feudal lords in each prefecture, to spend their wealth massively in a variety of ways. (e.g. They had to travel between Tokyo and their territory regularly with strictly defined, i.e. veryexpensive, way.) Inevitably, the provincial economic policy of comparative advantage was pushed more rigorously. Those superior quality seedlings became often prohibited to be exported beyond their border. They were the trade secret those days. In Japan we have the list of “the Most Beautiful Forests of the Nation,” the forests of Japanese cedar in Nara Prefecture 奈良県 (Yoshino Sugi 吉野杉), of Thujopsis dolabrata in Aomori Prefecture 青森県 (Aomori Hiba 青森ヒバ), of Japanese cypresses in Nagano Prefecture 長野県 (Kiso Hinoki 木曽檜), and of Japanese cedars in Akita Prefecture 秋田県 (Akita Sugi 秋田杉). All can go back to those days for the origin of their fame (and woooow-price). The result? Quite unintentionally, feudal 500 years of market competition for differentiated product of timber protected Japanese diversity of coniferous trees at gene level.

… though ours are not celebrities from
Nara,Aomori, Nagano, or Akita,
 the forest in Kanagawa is also beautiful …

After Meiji Restoration of 1867, the system of Japanese economic policy mimicked European style, i.e. the centralized command from the capital city, Tokyo. A policy the national government took for forestry was the deforestation for nationwide construction of “modern Japan” and uniform afforestation of the deserted mountains with the seedlings of Yoshino Sugi. That was a disaster. The half-cooked policy measure let the fake “Yoshino Sugi” seedlings to dominate the national seedling market. Worse. The baby cedars transferred from one place to another could not survive in different climates. The massive die-backs occurred here and there. Lessons were learned and the time was when the Soviet Union of planned economy emerged. In 1939, the Forestry Seeds and Seedlings Act 旧林業種苗法 was established to control the market of seeds and seedlings for commercial forestry. It also designated each governor of a prefecture as a custodian of good forests that must be sustained not only for commercial reason, but also for their public values … hey, forests are very long-term thing for reservoir of water, buffers of natural disaster, and place of meditation, i.e. the space the tragedy of commons can easily occur and hence even a tiny provincial government must intervene (; so the law said). All the same, during the World War II Japanese forests were mobilized, and Japan became scorched land atomically or otherwise. After 1945, the epic reconstruction came with massive demand for timber and for afforestation of deforested mountains. The 1939 law was rewritten for the new economic policy, to provide enough seedlings of coniferous trees to be used in construction sectors … Some say they short-cut the locality issues of trees for expediency … Whatever, the large afforestation project at that time is the origin of hay fever these days!  -_-  Since then, the Forestry Seeds and Seedlings Act was updated several times according to the condition of forestry in Japan. The last update was in 2016.

A typical artificial cedar forest

The act covers 8 kinds of coniferous trees that are considered to be important for (at least commercial) timber and construction industries. Pines, cypresses, and cedars are of course included. The law says the supply of those 8 kinds of trees are allowed only by the producers who passed the national license exam (which some say is harder than the national bar exam), and updated their knowledge without fail in regular interval. The labeling of seeds and seedlings must follow the legally defined format. What they can sell in the market shall pass the strict quality inspection done by each prefecture. To assist farmer’s quality control, each prefecture must provide technical support for seeds / seedlings improvements, which is the job of Dr. Saitoh for Kanagawa Natural Environment Conservation Center 神奈川県自然環境保全センター. Each prefecture in Japan registers “superior quality wild trees (of 8 species) within the border” that can act as parents for the seeds and seedlings the licensed farmers would nurture. If necessary, the scientists of a prefecture modify the seeds according to the emerging demand, as Dr. Saitoh does for pollen-less cedars and cypresses. The licensed farmers closely cooperate with the prefectural scientists in order to commercialize the quality-controlled baby trees. Needless to say, foreign import of seedlings is strictly controlled. … We might expect some twitter feeds from the Trump Tower lambasting Japanese forestry as “horrible protectionism!” … I think there is a merit in this time-honored policy born out of 500 years of experience. The law has ultimately systematized the traditional approach preserving DNA-diversity of 8 kinds of trees in each locale. Nowadays, some younger people have started to ponder to use the scheme for afforestation of broad-leaved forests, in order for the improvement in general biodiversity ... Before going there, we must talk about current domestic timber industry in Japan first. ;)

The seedlings of
Quercus serrata (the one with leaves)
and Quercus acutissima (in Kanagawa Prefecture of October,
they have already shed their leaves).

The contact address for Kanagawa Natural Environment Conservation Center 神奈川県自然環境保全センター is

657 Nanasawa, Atsugi City, 243-0121 2430121 厚木市七沢657
Phone: 046-248-0323
You can send an enquiry to them by clicking the bottom line of their homepage at

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