Look: Beneath the Beeches

Back to Contents of Issue: May 2004

Contemplating lost Japan.

by Michael E. Stanley

Spring comes late to the mountains of Japan. While most of the nation revels in the warmth and light of Golden Week -- a string of holidays running from the end of April into the first week of May -- snow still lies thick on the ground in the mountain depths. On rugged slopes such as this one at Nagano Prefecture's Nabekura, scattered fragments of the archipelago's original forest cover survive. But while much of Japan's cultural image centers on a sensitive coexistence with the archipelago's natural environment, a look at what has happened and continues to happen will reveal that image to be a patent falsehood.

Very little of this remarkably rich and varied forest environment remains; most has been sheared off, the slopes re-planted with monospecific stands of Japanese cedar. Around older villages a mixed-species type of forest (satoyama) remains, but this too is essentially a synthetic environment. The great untouched beech forests of Honshu have dwindled as the nation's rapacious appetites have grown -- first for land, then for lumber.

These mountains were once home to a diverse range of creatures, including deer, bear, wolves, boar, monkeys and serow -- an animal that looks like a blend of goat and antelope with thick soft fur. The small-statured wolves of Japan were hunted out long ago, the last one allegedly shot in the mountains of Nara Prefecture in 1905. Populations of deer, bear and serow have dropped dramatically. While the fish-scale pattern of the cedars' serried ranks may catch the eye and seem oh-so Japanese, their dense growth allows little of the original forest's rich understory to grow in the un-dappled dark beneath their boughs. The animals are forced to find the few remaining patches of indigenous vegetation or seek other sources of food.

Fields and orchards are tempting targets; the farmers react with predictable outrage and the animal population slips further. They may be legally protected in a sliver of woods wedged between farmed forests and fields -- but they become targeted pests when they search for sustenance.

As I sit on a rock in the chill silence beneath Nabekura's beeches, I am struck with wonder at the sight of such bare beauty -- and I grieve for what has been lost.      @

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