Joi Ito's Web

Joi Ito's conversation with the living web.

helping plant a tree with Governor Domoto at the Tokyo University Forest in Chiba.
Yesterday, we visited the Tokyo University Forest in Chiba. It was established in 1894 and has been vital in studying forestry issues. In the book Dogs and Demons, Alex Kerr writes about how the national policy to plant Cedar is misguided and is the cause and an example of many of the problems in Japan. He uses it as an example of bad bureaucratic policy and inability to change once something is on track. We talked a lot about the cedar problem. We saw sketches by researchers from the early 1900's trying to think about how to manage forests and increase productivity. This planning didn't look or sound nearly as stupid as it sounds in the book. Also, the problem with forests and big forest projects, is that they are quite difficult to change. The Tokyo University Forest is a multi-generational project and has some research projects that are now almost a century old. It seems understandable that the researchers in 1900 didn't realize that Japan would be aging and importing in 2003... So, the take-away for me was that although Kerr's book captures many of the facts, it didn't seem like the researchers were as ignorant, stupid or evil as you might think after reading Dogs and Demons. They are concerned and are trying to figure out what to do and there is the problem of a bureaucracy with a lot of inertia that they must deal with.

We talked about Japanese animism. In Japan, there is a concept of the Sato Yama which doesn't really translate directly into English. It's the small mountain forest which often has the spring where the river flows from. The community cares for the forest and the river. There is a great deal of Shito ritual involved. People used to make little shrines at the springs where the rivers start. The God of the river was worshiped. (Incidentally, this God is female.) The God makes sure that you don't pee in the river or otherwise taint the source of the water for those people downstream. Very practical. Many people have forgotten these rituals and people are building golf courses on top of springs. Alex Kerr also writes about Japan's "love of nature" being sort of fake. I think that it is quite misguided, but I did sense a real love of nature and a hope that things could change from the forestry researchers that we talked to. As Alex Kerr points out, there was a lot of public works money poured into rivers and forests that caused harm, but the researchers seem to be trying to guide things back on course.

Governor Domoto is creating a new bill to allow people to set up special communities to manage Sato Yama's. A community is in charge of a small forest/mountain/river/spring and they follow many of the Shinto rituals and provide for themselves. This sounds interesting.

The researchers also talked about the extinction of the Japanese Wolf. There is evidence that they were exterminated systematically, although this is not conclusive. There are rumors that meat laced with poison is secretly used in Hokkaido. In any case, there are no more wolves on the main island of Honsshu, so there are a lot of deer and wild boar spreading across Japan. The deer cause wear on the land and also spread the dreaded forest leech. These tiny leeches can spring up your pant leg or through your socks and attach themselves very quickly. They seem to be areal problem for people treking through the mountains these days. They showed us a map of the deer territory in Chiba and how it had expanded. Then they showed up the spread of the leeches which basically mapped the spread of the deer. They also explained how the wild boar usually leads the way creating the paths and the deer follow.

The local farmers have been pleading to the Governor to figure out a way to get rid of the deer. We all decided that systematic extermination was a bad thing. Maybe we should make venison and wild boar a Chiba delicacy and start a trend. We started by eating a wild boar that was caught in the forest. It was good. ;-)


Your post raises visions of Itami's Tanpopo: had the boar gorged on imo recently? :)

There may be a lot of subtleties about how forests should be "managed," but in no rational scheme is cutting down trees a part of it. I guess your point is now that everything is completely screwed up, where to go from here? Why not just get the scientists from Tokyo University the hell out of there and let nature establish a new equilibrium, which may include leaches, but who cares?

I agree with Kerr that the love of nature is fake: You have to go deep into the Northern Japan Alps or the Southern Japan Alps to find any place that is not seriously "dicked with" (maybe you could say there is a deep love of "dicked with" nature--like bonsai--among Japanese). There is a Shinto shrine on trail number 6 up Mt. Takao (the Mori to Mizu trail) that is located at a waterfall. I guess the waterfall wasn't dramatic enough for the nature-worshipping shrine-keepers, since they improved it with concrete to create a longer fall. Then they put chain-link fencing and plywood on the side of the trail to prevent hikers from seeing the waterfall without entering the shrine (and presumably paying money).

Another example: the Azusa river in Kamikochi from below the Kappa-bashi bridge on upstream for many kilometers has an artificial bank formed by stones contained in wire hurricane fencing. Takao is a national forest and Kamikochi is a national park: why do they do these things?

And why do shrines and little trashy snack bar hovels exist in national forests? Get them the hell out, I say. I guess these hillbilly types who operate them must have owned the land since before the parks were created, but the government doesn't need to allow them to stay for generation after generation without any control over the dumping of trash and rusted machinery on their land.

Hi Wolfram. I agree that a lot is "dicked with" and agree that bonsai is more about "power over nature". Having said that, I think if you go back to Japan before it started "dicking with" stuff and when it really just worshipped it, the ethics aren't that bad. My favorite shrines are just a bunch of stones piled up or a ceremonial rope around a tree. It's interesting climbing a mountain and finding a little pile of stones at the top of a river by a spring...

I think there are a few dynamics. Stuff that is institutionalized all get screwed up. Also, with no "community support" shrines and temples do stupid things to make ends meet.

I think the Sato Yama idea of a community of people adopting a mountainside might work... I sure wouldn't let people "dick with" my mountain.