Friday, January 20, 2017

The Tree Awakens: Japanese Forestry for post-globalization

True. As of 2015, Japan still satisfies 67% of our appetite for woods by imports. But they once dominated 81% of the market (; the domestic bottom was 2002). Something is happening. What is it?

A history of Japanese wood procurement, in 1000 cubic meters.
From the data 木材需給表 of Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fishery of Japan.

The start was the change in 1987. Till 1986, Japan bought more raw material logs from overseas and processed them domestically in factories built along the coasts. Then in 1987, the stats for imports of wood products surpassed the timbers. According to the import-export stats from the Ministry of Finance, in 1988 Japan imported logs from 50 countries of every continent, except Antarctica. About 62% of them were from non-EU, non-North American, not-Aussie or not-Kiwi countries. Nonetheless they earned only 56% of Japanese payment for imported logs. It was the time the global development issues and deforestation entered the mainstream of world discussion. People started to talk about climate change and the importance of forests. Simply deforesting for money became rather barbaric both for sellers and buyers.  Meanwhile, in the middle of the 1980s EC, Canada, America, Australia and New Zealand had already switched their strategy for processed woods, and did better business. They showed to the rest of the world how to sell the trees. Everybody upgraded their forestry to value-added, and began legislating the rules for cutting trees and setting export tariffs. The world price for wood set off to going up. Then in the 1990s, China started their miracle years which still continues to this day at least for woods trade. Their way to use woods is definitely different from us. We Japanese are fussy about the quality of woods. Chinese people do not care much, since their main usage of woods is to package their industrial products, such as freight boxes and stuffing. Whatever the quality of timber, the world price of woods stays in a not-so-cheap range because of Chinese demand.

Are Japanese imports Timbers or products?
From the statistics of Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries of Japan, in 1000 cubic meters.

On the other hand, around the same year of 1987, Japan began to have fewer and fewer human babies. By the turn of the century, people really understood the high-growth era was over both for economy and population. Forestry is a long-term business. Everybody agreed that the business model of mass deforestation and afforestation, and importing tons of woods for current consumption, would never be profitable again. In addition, the neglected forests have limited capacity to produce high-quality timbers. The demand for domestic wood shrunk, which caused a dramatic drop of domestic price for woods. Chance! Though they are still pricy compared to the imports, could there be any way of industrial resurrection? The Cabinet decided 2011 Master Plan for Forest and Forestry which was the first for the 21st century Japanese forestry. The policy defined Japanese forestry as a part of environmental issues that should also support rural economy where the effects of declining population concentrate. The Plan has established a legal foundation for subsidies and other public supports to the industry. Japan is after all an archipelago covered with forests. Reducing “wood mileage” makes sense. The Plan sets the national target for domestic wood supply to cover 50% of the Japanese market by 2020, the Olympic Year, until when the construction business is expected to thrive.

The history of Japanese population (measured by the vertical axis), from e-statdata of Japan.
The numbers after 2016 are a projection subject to the assumption
for 2010 mortality and birth rates continuing forever.
The USD price of timber per cubic meter since 1990.
Data from UNECE: domestic market average in Europe and US/Canada, not adjusted for inflation.
Japanese price is the average of cedar and cypress logs per cubic meter, from 2015 White Paperfor Japanese Forestry, adjusted by annual USD/Yen FX (BOJ data), but not for inflation.

There is another tail-wind for Japanese forestry to be resuscitated. Technology. The recent advancement in construction materials with processed wood makes it possible to use below grade timbers for earthquake-tolerant pillars and walls, while the debris is minimum for waste. Before, drying processed woods was done by heating them up with lots of imported fossil fuels in factories built near the ports of international trade. Now drying temperature is optimized in high-tech factories, such as biodryer, to make the usage of fuels minimum without creating burn-marks on products. Although once dead industry lost the skills of foresters, the new technology has started to create a new ways to do the business. The efficiency in cutting timbers could be improved by using CAD and robots. The machines manage to cut out wood parts for mass-housing construction, which enables carpenters to build a full-spec house in less than a month. It can stimulate more domestic demand for wood products. Especially after the Great Tohoku Earthquake, the prefectures with large forests in Kyushu Island and Hokkaido began observing constructions of large wood factories in depopulated villages deep within the forests, where they can easily have logs from nearby. Then, earnest while endeavor for renewable energy turned their eyes to wood chips that can be supplied even from the worst-quality logs found in neglected forests. Power stations for biofuels are sprouting here and there, including devastated Tohoku Region. In 2014, domestic supply of chips for biofuels surpassed the imports. Mr. Masaaki Nagai of Kanagawa Prefecture told us forest instructor trainees that these days people compete for biofuel chips in all over Japan. There is a rumor in 2017 the price of paper in Japan will shoot up because of the material shortage.

By pasting together wood boards alternately
in their vertical and horizontal grains,
we can create strong enough mass of wood product
that can replace traditional one-timber pillars.
To build an earthquake tolerant house,
we don’t have to search anymore for
“perfect trees” from quasi-abandoned forests.
LaminatedVeneer Lumber.
This one pastes horizontally thin ribbons
made of spirally stripped woods.
It becomes very thick boards
that can be walls of a pillar-less large room.
Since this method does not require flawless trees,
it can use the lesser-grade trees
commonly found these days in Japanese forests.
It won’t leave much waste either.
A biodryer that is situated in Hakone area.
This structure keeps the temperature inside
at 35ºC that is the level promoting
swift natural evaporation of humidity from woods.
The walls of the building are wet
due to organic vapor from the products inside.
Inside of the biodryer
Although this one is for old models,
with prefectural subsidy
a factory in Kanagawa Prefecture introduced
CAD-based robotic machines
that can process a timber with
2 bandsaws operating simultaneously.
How to build a house nowadays in Yokohama
… is a giant LEGO play.
Clever computers prepare the parts
out of timbers swiftly,
and the workers assemble them quickly.

In this new development for the forestry, the policy in Kanagawa has also adjusted to the 21st century. To be continued next week …

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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