A lot of the foreign reporters and observers who rushed into Japan after the triple whammy hit on March 11 mistook the Japanese custom of wearing face masks as preparation for the potential radioactive fallout. Many viewers around the world watching the coverage from Japan might have made the same assumption. Admittedly, some were indeed wearing those masks because they were afraid of airborne radiation dust coming in from Fukushima, but most were more likely trying to fend off different kinds of offensive substances getting into their system.

This is spring — the hay fever season with huge amounts of cedar pollen wafting on the air. Hillsides and mountain foothills glow orange all around the country at this time of the year, and the nightly weather forecast on TV always includes a pollen warning for the next day. Since Fukushima, that segment also includes an alert of the level of atmospheric radiation (with details of wind direction and strength).

Hay fever was never quite such the problem it is now. But then again, neither was iodine, caesium and other radioactive substances but in a curious manner, these two problems are related.

For most foreigners Japan has a very urban image, but in fact it is one of the world’s most heavily forested countries — a contender as poster pin-up for the UN designated International Year of the Forests, 2011. According to a UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation’s Global Forest Assessment Report (2005), 25 million hectares or close to 70% of Japan’s land is forest. Only Finland has more trees. The world average is only around 30% and Australia is way down the list with only 21.3% (NZ is 31% ). Japan’s forest may be the critical factor in two current health problems. To understand why, we need to look at the trees, not the forest.

Japan’s hillsides and mountains used to be quite different from the way they are now.  Old-growth forests have long gone, leaving only a few pockets with most of the rest managed forests. Until as late as the 1960s, most of them would be dominated by broad-leaf trees such as beech, oak, elm, birch, horse chestnut, and many others. These forests used to provide people with food, as well as timber and for tools, baskets, roofing materials, fabric and most important charcoal for fuel. Trees were coppiced so that they grew back and grew another harvest within 10-15 years.

Typically, rural farming communities were self-sustaining. They grew rice, vegetables and other cereals in the fields, and during summer people collected fruits and nuts in the forest and in winter made charcoal, from the forest trees, making them an indispensable resource for the rural economy.

Charcoal was used mostly in the city for cooking. Its consumption reached its postwar peak in 1957 — 2.2 million tonnes — but soon went out of favour when imported oil products became readily available, a change that devastated rural economies. Only a fraction over 1% of that 1957 figure for charcoal is used today and the demand for those other forest products has been replaced by cheap mass-produced plastic tools (also derived from oil).

That switch from charcoal to oil signalled urban economic growth, and rural life lost its wealth and the capacity to sustain itself. The loss of income in the rural areas drove many farmers to the city for work. The urban centres needed cheap labour and out of work farmers migrated from the countryside, either in winter or permanently. The catalyst for Japan’s “economic miracle” of the 1960s, imported cheap oil, may have created the army of workers the economy needed, but it destroyed the old charcoal-based energy system and set in motion decades of environmental degradation.

Old forests were either abandoned or cleared for other income options — mostly plantations. More than 10 million hectares of Japan’s forests are now plantation — fast-growing evergreens such as cedar, cypress and pine planted during the late 1950s and ’60s in straight rows. Their wood is good for house building, but not charcoal. They only yield an income when they mature.

Which is where the pollen blows in, because right now a generation of these trees  has reached stage where they are producing huge loads of pollen, but sadly, not much saleable timber, because their value has been diminished by cheap imports. In fact these plantations haven’t been maintained properly either because there are fewer forestry workers employed to look after them — nearly half a million in 1960 down to 5000, and they are getting old. A quarter of Japan’s forestry workers are over 65.

Nearly all the young and able workers have gone to the cities. At its peak during the miracle decade, half of the seasonal migrant workforce was made up of people from the Tohoku region, the area hardest hit by the recent earthquake, tsunami and Fukushima radiation hazard. In those days youngsters graduating from junior high school were so prized by employers they were known as the “golden eggs”.

As young people left, rural areas decayed and the forests were left to their own devices. Now the gap between city and rural life in Japan has grown so wide country people have long felt they were completely left way behind. How to catch up and be part of the economic miracle? Companies were reluctant to invest in industrial plants, but the power utilities were looking for locations from whence they could supply power to urban industries — by nuclear power.

When a rural area agreed to a nuclear power plant it would be rewarded not only with jobs (although many would would be only as subcontractors) but all kinds of flow on benefits to encourage locals and to bring in more industry — government subsidised flow on benefits such as roads, railways, ports and of course electricity. Locals suspicious of the health hazards were assured the plants were foolproof (there are people still claiming that Fukushima is an example of the safety rather than the hazard of nuclear power plants). To the eyes and ears of the rural (and coastal) poor, shiny new infrastructure installations were symbols of affluence too tempting to refuse.

Such was the scope of the government’s largesse that many of Japan’s “nuclear towns” have a totally disproportionate range and volume of public buildings, sporting venues and other “municipal” facilities.

Now, after what some are already calling 3/11, nuclear power has lost whatever gloss it had. Even the opposition leader of the Liberal Democratic Party, which propagated that nuclear energy policy for four decades, has called for its review. So things must be serious. In the short term, natural gas and oil may fill the nuclear void, but with the era of cheap oil nearing its end, as admitted in International Energy Agency’s World Energy Outlook last year, maybe Japan should start seriously looking at its forest as a potential energy source.

Who knows, we may even get a return to the old diversity of the mixed forests instead of mono-cultural plantations. And fewer people needing to wear those face masks.

Peter Fray

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