In Japan's rush to rebuild after World War II, the focus was on
infrastructure rather than environmental management. But a
combination of higher public interest in the environment, and a
revamping of tax regulations is boosting efforts to reverse the
country's lingering legacy of environmental degradation.
"There is an awareness these days [of the need for care when
engaging in environmental engineering] and it has been there for
quite a long time," says James Nickum, an expert on environmental
management at Tokyo Jogakkan College. "That doesn't mean there are
no more significantly controversial projects, but there seem to be
fewer than 10 years ago."
Extremes of nature in Japan have long necessitated a culture of
redesigning the landscape for human needs, with such tasks as
waterway management to prevent flooding during typhoons a deeply
ingrained part of traditional village life. Evidence also exists of
periodical deforestations and replanting, particularly during the
Edo period (1603-1867).
Because of the postwar focus on growth, Japanese by the 1980s
were much less inclined to think of nature as something that needed
active protection, says Fumi Hayashi, a social scientist at Toyo
Eiwa University who studies how societies conceptualize nature.
But recent studies show that the apathy toward environmental
issues is significantly less prevalent than it was two decades ago.
Under Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, the so-called "iron
triangle" of industry, politicians, and bureaucrats has weakened,
giving municipalities more power over such areas as natural-
resource management. Many residents are also willing to
significantly increase their tax burden in the interests of lending
nature a helping hand.
The result has been a mushrooming of local initiatives, often
driven by grass-roots organizations, to improve tax-based funding
for environmental improvements.
Ironically, one high-profile effort this spring targets culling
Japan's trees - or at least, better management of them.
After World War II, thousands of cedars were planted around the
countryside as a money crop for their timber. But low-cost logging
in China and Southeast Asia has made harvesting them commercially
"Despite being at the perfect felling age of over 35 years, the
buildup in unharvested cedar and cypress trees is increasing at an
extraordinary rate nationwide," says Ryoichi Ishii, a forestry
expert at Nomura Research Institute. The backlog of trees waiting to
be felled more than doubled from about 2.7 billion acres in 1981 to
about 5.6 billion acres in 2002.
Unharvested, they are vexing residents by releasing large clouds
of allergenic pollen each spring. The problem has become so severe
that the Tokyo municipal government is asking citizens to donate
1,500 yen ($13) each for a project that aims to replace cedar
forests west of the capital with a different species of tree.
Such a move would not only be positive from an environmental
health point of view, but could also "be positive ecologically if
the culled trees were replaced by a greater variety of species,
ideally a mixed canopy," says Mr. …