Media Mix, July 24, 2021

Satoyama area

Here’s this week’s Media Mix, which is about some of the root causes of the killer mudslide that hit Atami on July 3. As Shukan Asahi pointed out, this sort of disaster is bound to happen again, and not just because climate change is intensifying rainfall. Japan doesn’t really have an effective forest management policy, and even if it did, there doesn’t seem to be enough trained people to carry it out. Traditionally, the concept known as “satoyama,” wherein rural areas, mainly surrounding farmland, were kept tidy by residents, helped forests thrive, but since World War II, during which so much of the archipelago’s trees were cut down for the war effort and then replanted with fast-growing cedar, the forests have mostly fallen into disrepair. Now that wood for construction is commanding a good price, lots of timber companies are cutting down trees, but many are doing it illegally, which isn’t difficult. Part of the forest management problem is that ownership of forested land isn’t clear. Property owners are supposed to maintain their forests by cleaning out undergrowth and removing dead trees, but, as with so much land in Japan, many have died over the years and their heirs have neglected the properties. Timber companies take advantage of this by going into a remote forests and clear cutting, often without anybody knowing about it, but they can only clear cut in areas that have some kind of road access, so sometimes they get found out by local residents. I remember once reading about loggers getting caught in the act and then pretending that they made a mistake, that they were on the wrong tract of land and then just disappeared. Since no one could find the owner of the land, nothing was done, and this seems to be a big part of the problem. Before the government can devise effective forest management regulations it has to be able to enforce them, and if it can’t find land owners then it can’t do anything, unless it wants to just take over the land. Given how hesitant Japan is when it comes to eminent domain, I doubt that will happen. Though rain is what causes mudslides, in a way it’s good that Japan is a wet country. Clear-cutting is bad for watersheds and leads to more landslides, but overgrown, unmaintained forests tend to catch fire more easily in dry weather. 

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