A Tale of Two Forests: Reforestation Discourse in Japan and Beyond

By Knight, John | Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, December 1997 | Go to article overview
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A Tale of Two Forests: Reforestation Discourse in Japan and Beyond

Knight, John, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute


In the much-criticized international wood trade in the Asia-Pacific region, Japan, the largest importer of tropical wood, is often singled out as bearing a major responsibility for tropical deforestation (Anon. 1993; Time 1989), as well as for boreal deforestation on the northwest coast of America (Mitchell 1991: 83). In the Western news media, Japan has been variously dubbed an 'eco-outlaw' and an 'environmental predator', and charged with 'crimes against the Earth' (Holliman 1990: 284). However, Japan is not only criticized for rapacious overconsumption of tropical wood and responsibility for consequent environmental destruction abroad; it is also accused of simultaneously practising a selfish, nationalistic forest conservation policy at home (Laarman 1988: 160-1; see also Mitchell 1991: 83). Export-related deforestation of the Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia is, critics argue, an instance of Japan carrying out a kind of 'pollution export' to other, less powerful Asian countries and in the process protecting its domestic forests (Brazil 1992: 337; Myers 1986: 297-8; Onishi 1991: 89).

With mountain forest making up two-thirds of its territory, Japan too is a forest country, and forests have long been important economically and symbolically. Pre-war and wartime over-felling of forest in Japan led to landslides and extensive flooding, but also represented destruction of the quintessential national landscape of wooded mountainsides. It is against this background of earlier deforestation that post-war reforestation is hailed as a great national achievement, one which restored Japan (as a common Japanese expression puts it) as the 'green archipelago' (midori no retto).

Hence, while Japanese forests are cited as parasitical on deforestation elsewhere, the official (and widespread) view in Japan itself is that Japanese reforestation is an expression of recovery from (earlier) deforestation. The Japanese government fends off criticism of its role in tropical deforestation by invoking domestic reforestation as the basis of tropical reforestation through its environmental aid programmes (Kotari 1989; 1992; see also Tomiyama & Nakada 1992: 81-2). Thus, when, in defence of the timber trade, the Malaysian government challenges the right of already deforested Northern countries such as Britain to pronounce on tropical deforestation (Eccleston 1996: 132; Gunn 1994: 30-1), this same logic allows Japan to serve as a model for reforestation.

Japanese forests have become an important card played by both sides in the rhetorical contest over tropical rainforests. But while these two sides are clearly opposed over the timber trade, they seem to share the assumption that Japanese reforestation has succeeded as claimed. Below I show that national pride in, and international admiration for, Japanese reforestation notwithstanding, for the upland Japanese who actually live next to it, the post-war forest contributes less and less to local livelihoods and is experienced as a hostile force which threatens to make their village settlements uninhabitable. In addition to tropical (and boreal) deforestation, therefore, the Asia-Pacific wood market has brought about another environmental crisis. But while tropical Southeast Asia and boreal America have suffered from over-cutting and deforestation, environmental disorder in upland Japan takes the form of under-cutting and over-forestation.

Global markets demand global perspectives in which different localities can be viewed relative to one another (Myers 1986). Markets are mentioned by George Marcus as a likely object of a 'multi-locale ethnography' through which anthropology could adapt to an internationalizing political economy (1986: 1713; see also Marcus & Fischer 1986: 90-5). Arguably, the inclusion of Southeast Asian forests and Japanese forests in the same frame would allow for a multi-locale analysis of (or at least an important part of) the global wood market.

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A Tale of Two Forests: Reforestation Discourse in Japan and Beyond


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