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Japan's forest resources

Mitsuma Matsui

MITSUMA MATSUI is Director-General of Japan's Forestry and Forest Products Research Institute, Ushiku, Ibaraki. This article is a short version of one that appeared in the Journal of Forestry, Washington, D.C., February 1980.

Forests cover two thirds of Japan's land area, and generally tree growth is favoured by the temperate climate, abundant rainfall, and fertile soils. For centuries forests have served the Japanese people in many ways. Foreign visitors will be surprised to discover how intensive and complicated forest land use is in Japan. Over the years, management has been in reasonably good accord with natural and social conditions, but recently many problems have arisen-for example, conflicts among land uses and a decline in vigour of the forest industry.

Natural regeneration is occasionally employed for creating high forests of Pinus densiflora, for example- but diversity of species and luxuriant undergrowth usually make it unfeasible. The most common method has been the planting of nursery-grown seedlings (or cuttings in some cases) after clearfelling.

In some localities tree planting for timber production dates back more than 300 years. Especially toward the end of the nineteenth century, traditional techniques developed in these areas greatly intensive practices in other parts of Japan. It was after 'World War II, however, that planting was expanded from rather limited. areas to a nationwide scale and in all classes of ownerships. Today more than one third of the forest land in this country is planted. The popular species, in decreasing order of planted area, are sugi (Cryptomeria japonica D. Don), hinoki (Chamaecyparis obtusa Endl.), karamatsu (Larix leptolepis Gordon), akamatsu (Pinus densiflora Sieb. et Zucc.), todomatsu (Abies sachaliensis Fr. Schmidt), and akaezomatsu (Picea glehnii Mast.).

JAPANESE VILLAGERS DONATE THEIR LABOUR TO REFORESTATION ON ARBOUR DAY where forest consciousness is in the people and trees cover two thirds of the land

The latest forest resource statistics, current as of 31 March 1976, are summarized in the table. Forests cover about 25 million ha, or 67 percent of the total land area, but the amount per caput is only 0.2 ha, as compared to the world average of 1.2 ha. National forests account for 31 percent, and private forests for 59 percent. National forests are mostly in remote mountainous districts, and include a large number of protection forests and national parks.

Several years ago, the Forestry Agency set as a target 13 million ha of man-made forests on sites with the capacity to grow 5 m³ or more of wood per ha annually in fully stocked plantations. I. Mashimo, soil scientist, identified (1973) forest area suitable for plantations as totalling 12.7 million ha. Some 10 million ha were found to be unsuitable for clear-cutting and planting because of poor sites, but they appeared to offer a potential for timber production under natural regeneration. The remaining area was non-productive forest and bamboo forest.

Forest-land area and growing stock in Japan

Forest type


Growing stock




1000 ha

Percent ..................Million m³


9 377










1 386


1 449






25 263


1 215


2 186

Source: Forestry Agency (1978).

About 9 million ha, or 37 percent, of total existing forest are already in the man-made category. Its composition by stand-age class reflects the historical trend in annual planted areas. Young stands less than 25 years old cover 80 percent of the total manmade forest area. They are distributed among the live youngest age classes like a pyramid. Stands 10 to 15 years old occupy the greatest area, because of the rapid increase in planting soon after the war and the gradual decrease after a peak of 415 000 ha was reached in 1961. In recent years the planted area has been about half that level.

The total growing stock is 2.2 million m³ or 87 m³ per hectare. Man" made forests, mostly of softwood, have slightly less growing stock (85 m³/ha) than natural stands (96 m³/ha), which include the old growth. A break down of growing stock of man-made forests by species shows that sugi occupies a dominant position (59 percent) followed by hinoki (20 percent). akamatsu (9 percent), and karamatsu (8 percent).

Annual removals from growing stock in the 1953-67 period fluctuated narrowly between 70 and 75 million m³. The share of industrial wood, though, increased remarkably from two thirds to nine tenths of all removals, making its gain at the expense of a constant drop in use of fuelwood. Thereafter, total timber removal trended downward, and in 1975 it dropped below 45 million m³.

It seems clear that the recent level of removals is considerably lower than the annual growth of all forests: most of the plantations are too young to harvest. In fact, the growing stock increased by 107 million m³ (man-made forests + 133, natural forests -26) from 1971 to 1976. As removals during these five years totalled 264 million m³, simple calculation tells us that the average annual growth was 74 million m³, exceeding the removals by 40 percent.

Such a favourable balance was achieved mainly through the rapid reduction of the harvest, which in turn produced a big imbalance between consumption and supply of homegrown timber. Consumption of round-wood volume rose to 118 million m³ in 1973, a peak in a trend that had risen from around; 65 million m³ in the late fifties. Reflecting a slowdown of the economic growth of Japan, recent consumption has somewhat declined to about 100 million m³. On the other hand, domestic timber production showed a trend similar to that of removals, dropping from 57 to 36 million m³ between 1967 and 1976. To meet the ever-increasing deficit of wood products, :import of logs and other processed wood increased sharply to 65 percent of total supplies in 1976. About half of the log imports consist of tropical hardwood, and most of the rest are softwood from the United States and the USSR.

In sum, the condition of timber land in Japan has improved in the recent decades primarily because of extensive conversion from poor hard-wood stands to plantations of conifers. In the future, these plantations will expand the country's supply of softwood considerably, but at present they are mostly too young to off set the decline in supply from natural stands. Furthermore, recent unfavourable trends in domestic timber prices, together with a sharp rise in forestry wage rates, have undoubtedly influenced owners' willingness to sell timber.

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