Japanese find it easier to be green

In a country that has often paved paradise, more citizens back taxes aimed at stemming environmental degradation.

In Japan's rush to rebuild after World War II, the focus was on infrastructure rather than environmental management. But a combination of higher public interest in the environment, and a revamping of tax regulations is boosting efforts to reverse the country's lingering legacy of environmental degradation.

"There is an awareness these days [of the need for care when engaging in environmental engineering] and it has been there for quite a long time," says James Nickum, an expert on environmental management at Tokyo Jogakkan College. "That doesn't mean there are no more significantly controversial projects, but there seem to be fewer than 10 years ago."

Extremes of nature in Japan have long necessitated a culture of redesigning the landscape for human needs, with such tasks as waterway management to prevent flooding during typhoons a deeply ingrained part of traditional village life. Evidence also exists of periodical deforestations and replanting, particularly during the Edo period (1603-1867).

Because of the postwar focus on growth, Japanese by the 1980s were much less inclined to think of nature as something that needed active protection, says Fumi Hayashi, a social scientist at Toyo Eiwa University who studies how societies conceptualize nature.

But recent studies show that the apathy toward environmental issues is significantly less prevalent than it was two decades ago.

Under Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, the so-called "iron triangle" of industry, politicians, and bureaucrats has weakened, giving municipalities more power over such areas as natural-resource management. Many residents are also willing to significantly increase their tax burden in the interests of lending nature a helping hand.

The result has been a mushrooming of local initiatives, often driven by grass-roots organizations, to improve tax-based funding for environmental improvements.

Ironically, one high-profile effort this spring targets culling Japan's trees - or at least, better management of them.

After World War II, thousands of cedars were planted around the countryside as a money crop for their timber. But low-cost logging in China and Southeast Asia has made harvesting them commercially unviable.

"Despite being at the perfect felling age of over 35 years, the buildup in unharvested cedar and cypress trees is increasing at an extraordinary rate nationwide," says Ryoichi Ishii, a forestry expert at Nomura Research Institute. The backlog of trees waiting to be felled more than doubled from about 2.7 billion acres in 1981 to about 5.6 billion acres in 2002.

Unharvested, they are vexing residents by releasing large clouds of allergenic pollen each spring. The problem has become so severe that the Tokyo municipal government is asking citizens to donate 1,500 yen ($13) each for a project that aims to replace cedar forests west of the capital with a different species of tree.

Such a move would not only be positive from an environmental health point of view, but could also "be positive ecologically if the culled trees were replaced by a greater variety of species, ideally a mixed canopy," says Mr. Nickum.

Indeed, unless something is done urgently, Japan's cedar woes may become permanent. Forestry workers here are aging rapidly and there is a danger that soon there won't be enough left who are physically capable of thinning work.

"If culling can't be carried out, then mixing in broadleaf trees won't proceed and forests that are too dense to operate in will spread," says Mr. Ishii.

More than 30 municipalities around the country are addressing the issue broadly, introducing environment taxes to help restore or preserve woods, as well as fund forest maintenance and education programs.

"One of the main reasons behind these forest taxes has been regional autonomy laws introduced in 2000 that make it easier for local municipalities to impose new tax regimes," says environmental policy analyst Mikihiko Watanabe at The Japan Research Institute, a private research consultancy.

"Other key factors," he adds, "are more interest in environmental problems among the general population, and a higher awareness of the important role that forests play in cultivating water sources."

Two of Japan's 47 prefectures, Okayama and Kochi in western Japan, have also recently imposed such forest taxes. Although the levy only amounts to about 500 yen ($7) a year, the fact that there has been little resistance suggests a shift in thinking, says Mr. Watanabe.

In the 1980s, few would have been willing to foot the bill. But now, "Japanese view the forest's function in maintaining the water table, or the enjoyment provided by beautiful scenery as a kind of service that requires upkeep," he says.

Indeed, surveys show that households in Kanagawa, south of Tokyo, would be willing to pay an extra 2,000 yen ($17) annually to improve the environmental-friendliness of drainage facilities, for instance.

Citizens of Hyogo, west of Osaka, wouldn't mind a new tax of about 9,000 yen ($80) for steps to prevent erosion, or to make exhaust emissions 20 percent cleaner.

Other projects considered of equal value were introducing protective measures for 190 types of wild bird, or creating 75 kilometers of hiking trail.

Japanese companies, long known for their environmentally friendly products, are also playing a more active role in forest conservation.

Toyota Motor Corp., for example, sponsors forest, wetland, and mangrove swamp projects domestically and also in China.

It runs a school in central Japan to teach elementary students about environmental issues, and supports a number of nonprofit organizations such as the WWF (World Wildlife Fund).

And TEPCO, Japan's largest electricity supplier has donated millions of dollars toward reforestation.

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