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March 01, 2022

Tree destruction in Japan: a no-win situation

There is a common image of Japan as a haven for nature. In some ways - that is clearly true. However, there is one environmental habit in Japan which is negative: cutting down all or nearly all of the trees, bushes and plants from gardens when knocking down an old house and replacing it with little to no greenery after building a new house. My observation indicates that an average of only about 5% of the original greenery is restored. 

Over the last five years, I have investigated this issue on many construction sites, taken before and after photos and have found that it is, sadly, normal practice now in Japan. On average, in the hundreds of sites I studied there were previously around 10 to 20 trees or bushes. 

The majority of the new sites constructed have only one tree or a couple of bushes. In about two-thirds of the plots there was no greenery at all. This practice, if continued, would mean a tremendous amount of greenery to the urban environment of Japan. Based on information from the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism (MLIT), I estimate that this could mean something to the tune of 10 million trees and bushes lost in Japan every year. 

Urban forest planted by collective individual efforts can have a significant effect on mitigating high air temperatures in Japan, and many other cities, according to a study on the subject in Tokyo. Trees in the city can also help fight air pollution

So, why has the amount and size of gardens declined so much? 

Garden is a luxury

In my research, economic considerations were mentioned several times by people, both Japanese and long term foreign residents. Many Japanese people, I was told, can’t afford to have a garden, due to the high cost of buying land and of paying a gardener to maintain it. Another underlying issue is the old habit of dividing up the estate among family members, with the land being split up into smaller lots and greenery destroyed in the process. However, this does not seem to be the main factor now, as 90% of the new housing I have investigated have been on the same size land as the previous old house.

How about the point that many Japanese cannot afford land big enough for a garden? My research has shown that very often the plot is large enough for a garden, or for two or three green areas. The free space is there, so elements of the existing garden could be kept or new green areas could be planted for a relatively low cost. 

Are companies walking the talk?

I contacted housing companies, such as Daiwa House and Sekishi House. They often have long reports touting their efforts at sustainability. It seems that various positive efforts are being made. However, the evidence we can see in the streets of Japan indicates that these fine aims are far from being put into practice. I have photographic evidence from many houses made by such companies that show no green areas at all, or only a tiny strip, on grounds which previously contained extensive gardens. 

Daiwa gave me a reply which was weak and evasive, and then declined to reply in more detail. Sekisui were better, responding with various moderately impressive plans and concluding by saying: “As a result of these activities, we are planting over 1 million trees per year, and the cumulative number of planted trees since the start of the project in 2001 has reached 16.11 million.” This offers some hope. 

public attitude towards trees

We might say that a continued respect and love for nature is partly what makes this habit so jarring, but also where positive change may come from. Ironically, one of the reasons for the habit may be because Japanese people continue to hold nature in high regard: a Japanese lawyer in Nagoya told me, “Some people consider it to be disrespectful not to look after trees and plants, but since they don’t have enough time they think it’s better not to have a garden at all.” 

I had raised the issue with a Japanese gardener who, by chance, was cutting down some trees in the house across from where I live. He told me, “It’s fine to prune trees, but I feel sad to cut them down altogether. But what can I do? It’s my job and nowadays people don’t want trees so much.” He seemed happy that a foreigner was taking interest in this aspect of Japan and gave me a shoot from one of the trees he had cut down. I’m now trying to get it to grow in my own garden, where I have several bushes and small trees saved from local gardens that have been destroyed in the last five years.

Carrots and sticks

What I recommend, then,  is that a zoning law be created requiring a minimum of 25 percent of the previous greenery to be kept or replanted. This isn’t a lot, but would be a significant improvement from the 5 percent rate happening now. This is the 'hard' method, involving the Japanese government at national and municipal levels administering firm rules that enforce the replacement minimum. If adopted, this would soon become part of house building companies procedure and after five or ten years would be regarded as the norm. 

The 'soft' method may be to draw on the 'nudge theory' of Nobel prize winning economist Richard Thaler. The government could launch a public campaign to rediscover the Japanese love of nature and tie that into the concept of having a nice garden; make it the marker of a good citizen. It may influence the choices of house building companies, architects and homeowners. Possibly, financial incentives could be offered to bolster this: get 10,000 yen for every new tree in your garden! Why not? 

One way or another, for the sake of the environment, people’s health and the preservation of Japanese cities’ beauty, the utter destruction of gardens needs to stop and evolve into a more sustainable practice. That’s what I’m fighting for.

Image by Sean Michael Wilson