Japan – How Japan Saved its Forests: The Birth of Silviculture and Community Forest Management

Three hundred years ago Japan was on a course of rapacious deforestation that was turning the nation’s landscape into a wasteland. Community management of village forests was a tipping point that launched a new era of professional silviculture which spread from village to village, restoring Japan’s forests. It saved the nation from ecological disaster.

The Problem

Japan had a serious deforestation problem 300 years ago, a consequence of unsustainable forest use that had been building up for a long time (Totman 1989). As long ago as 600-850 AD, construction booms in Nara and Heian, along with demands of the ruling elite for timber to supply armies and build castles and religious monuments, had caused serious deforestation in the Kinai region. Forest use was “exploitative”. Timber and other forest products where taken without regard to replenishing the supply.

Villagers throughout Japan had depended for many centuries on a variety of non-timber forest products essential to their survival. Most important were:

  • A clean and reliable water supply for rice field irrigation and household use.
  • Fuelwood and charcoal for domestic cooking and heating.
  • Leaf litter and grass that villagers applied to their fields as organic fertilizer. One hectare of agricultural field required five to ten hectares of forest to keep it going. Grass from the forest also provided fodder for livestock.

Exploitative use of forests worked as long as Japan’s population was small. The rulers’ demands for timber sometimes led to severe local deforestation, but they were always able to shift the logging to new areas with “old growth” forests that contained an abundance of large trees for high quality lumber. Logging for timber demands of the elite often suited villagers because it opened up land for agriculture while also creating secondary forest, which was the best vegetation for providing organic fertilizer, fuel, fodder, and other forest products for subsistence.

The situation started to change around 1570. By then, Japan’s population had increased to ten million people, and villagers’ needs for subsistence forest products had increased correspondingly. Large-scale military conflict during the 1500s required large quantities of timber for the armies. With the advent of the Tokugawa shogunate and peace, followed by rapid growth of cities and monumental construction projects for castles, temples, and shrines, logging increased during 1600s to a scale never before experienced in Japan. Conflict between villagers and rulers over the use of forest lands – subsistence products for the villagers vs. timber for the rulers – became more intense. By 1670 the population had increased to nearly thirty million, and with the exception of Hokkaido, the old growth forests had been completely logged. The supply of timber and other forest products was running out. Soil erosion, floods, landslides, and barren lands (genya) were becoming ever more common. Japan was headed for ecological disaster.

The Solution

Japan responded to this environmental challenge with a “positive tip” from unsustainable to sustainable forest use that began around 1670 (Totman 1989). Although the details were completely different from the Apo Island story, the general form of the “positive tip” was the same: the central role of catalytic actions and mutually reinforcing positive feedback loops, local community, outside stimulation and facilitation, letting nature and natural social processes do the work, demonstration effects, social/ecological coadaptation, and using social/ecological diversity and memory as resources. It is difficult to single out the initial tipping point with certainty, but it seems to have derived from the centuries-old tradition of cooperation among villagers for protection against bandits, allotting rice fields and irrigation water, and storing rice. Until then, village cooperation had not extended to forest management, but villages started responding to the forest crisis by refining the management of satoyama secondary forests for subsistence needs (McKean 1982, 1986), and for the first time, planting sugi and hinoki plantations to help satisfy timber demands of the rulers.

The advent of tree plantations stimulated a need for silvicultural technology to plant and care for the trees, a technology that until that time existed only in rudimentary form. Local woodsmen, agronomists, and government forest officials developed new techniques for producing sugi and hinoki seed, planting sugi cuttings, thinning and pruning the plantations, and providing other care to ensure the healthy growth of sugi and hinoki necessary for high-quality timber. Itinerant scholars wrote silviculture manuals, and silviculture “missionaries” traveled around the country, spreading the new technology from village to village. The creation of managed tree plantations stimulated new social institutions for the ruling elite and villagers to cooperate on timber production in a way that provided villagers incentives to produce timber: yamawari (dividing use rights of village forest land among families), nenkiyama (long term leases of forest land to villagers by the government), and buwakibayashi (villagers producing timber on government land and sharing the harvest with the government).

Managed forestry continued to develop and expand in conjunction with a “virtuous cycle” of mutually reinforcing silvicultural improvements, social institutions for forest land use, and timber marketing institutions. The “positive tip” that began with extending village cooperation to managing forests lands had stimulated a series of mutually reinforcing changes that slowed down deforestation and eventually led to the reforestation of Japan. The deforestation was severe and reforestation took a long time, reaching completion in the 1920s (Totman 1993, 1995).

Japan’s forest story has continued with new twists and turns since then. There was substantial deforestation during World War II, followed by intensive reforestation during the 1950s to 1970s. The reforestation emphasized sugi and hinoki plantations, even cutting natural forest to make plantations. Japan’s switch to imported wood, fossil-fuel energy, and chemical fertilizers for agriculture, in full swing by the 1980s, eliminated the demand for forest products from satoyama secondary forest and greatly reduced the demand for sugi and hinoki. There was no reason to continue managing the secondary forest, which is now undergoing natural ecological succession and the loss of many plant species adapted to the open and well-lighted environment of managed forests. Many sugi and hinoki plantations have fallen into neglect because the thinning, pruning, and other care necessary to produce high quality timber do not seem worth the effort.

This story of forestry in Japan is not intended to be authoritative or complete. The evolution of Japanese forests during the past three centuries has been complex. The main point of the story is that Japan adapted to a deforestation crisis in the late 1600s by changing from unsustainable forest exploitation to managed and sustainable forestry. Adaptation featured a tipping point that turned the nation from ecological disaster toward ecological health, restoring a natural resource base that put Japan in a strong position for its economic development during the Twentieth Century.

Numerous other societies, past and present, have not been so fortunate. Past civilizations with a deforestation crisis collapsed if they did not make the change from unsustainable forest exploitation to sustainable forestry (Diamond 2004). There are also numerous places in the world today that are suffering because they did not make that change. Particularly tragic examples are Haiti, which is trapped in inescapable poverty due to deforested, eroded, and unproductive landscapes; and North Korea, where deforestation, floods, and resulting crop damage have been responsible for famine in recent years.


  • Diamond, Jarod. 2004. Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. Viking, New York.
  • Totman, Conrad. 1989. The Green Archipelago: Forestry in Pre-Industrial Japan. University of California Press, Berkeley. [Published in Japanese translation: I(R)-‘ _(translator). 1998.
  • Totman, Conrad. 1993. Early Modern Japan. University of California Press, Berkeley.
  • Totman, Conrad. 1995. The Lumber Industry in Early Modern Japan. University of Hawaii Press, Honolulu.

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