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May 20, 2024

Myths of Modern Japan 02

By Terri Edwards

Myths of Modern Japan #2: "We Japanese Love Nature".

My first thought when I saw Tokyo was: 'Where are all the trees?' True, this is an overcrowded city and space is at a premium, but even when spaces exist there are rarely any trees to fill them. And the problem is certainly not unique to Tokyo: it could just as well apply to most big cities in Japan.

Lack of space is certainly not the root cause (if you'll pardon the pun) of the problem. I could take you on tours of a hundred empty concrete plazas in the heart of downtown Tokyo. Every new shopping mall has one, and not a few office buildings, and these huge spaces are always treeless, flowerless, barren. You might see a few shrubs-in-tubs, but far fewer than you'd find in even the most desperate shopping mall in Britain, for example.

There are even buildings with indoor plazas and fake trees — the latter are becoming increasingly popular in Japan. This year a fake electric sakura (cherry tree) went on sale with light-up blossoms for a million yen (about ten thousand dollars); real bamboo fencing is increasingly being replaced by plastic. I'm told it lasts much longer than the real thing and is much cheaper to replace.

This is a land where dead leaves are considered to be a form of dirt; a major nuisance — a useless husband is described as lying around the house like dead leaves. Those trees that do manage to survive in the concrete jungle get their branches stripped down until they appear to be little more than slightly lumpy telephone poles so that they drop as few leaves as possible.

Tokyo is a city where, even if you are exceptionally vigilant, you will see no birds except sparrows and crows and no animals except dogs and cats. I live in the far distant suburb of Kamakura — it would be stupid to describe Kamakura as a town as there's nothing separating it from neighbouring Yokohama except a dirty concrete-lined river, and nothing separating Yokohama from Kawasaki or Kawaski from Tokyo. Kamakura has more wildlife than all the above-mentioned areas, but the situation for the last remaining free animals and birds is pretty desperate.

Animals such as raccoons and vulperines (a beautiful fox-like creature with a white stripe down its nose) are forced into ever-decreasing spaces. Woodland and gardens are routinely cleared of undergrowth, and the edges of hills are concreted over and fenced at the top so that nothing can get through or over them. The consequences of this attempt to "improve" the environment are disastrous to wildlife, not to mention unsightly.

A family of beautiful vulperines living near my house was forced to move when their favourite trees were cut down; their lives had not been made any easier when the houseowners next to their den fixed up anti-burglar light devices with trip switches. Year after year, big trees are lopped or removed so that the larger species of owls have nowhere to nest. Yet what do the local people care? Those I've spoken to have never seen an owl, let alone a vulperine. Many Kamakura residents assume that there are enough woodlands here to protect the birds. But most of the woods in Kamakura are restricted to the tops of ridges, so that there is no water for the birds and not enough cover to protect the smaller species from predators.

Every year the woods are cut back and back, the worse culprits being the residents of the temples and shrines in the town. These establishments employ small armies of gardeners who are always looking for something to lop. If the art of cooking in Japan consists of being skilled at chopping, the same is definitely true of Japanese gardening. Nobody here seems capable of figuring out that when you lop a tree or cut back a bush, you are making birds and animals homeless. And those who have figured this out could not care less. I once saw so-called gardeners in Yokohama pulling birds' nests out of trees and smashing them on the street, fledglings and all. If these men die as Buddhists (as most people do in Japan) I'm hoping that karmic theories prove to be true.

Japan is also a country where almost any form of weather elicits a negative comment — if the sun's shining it's "atsui" (hot) and if it isn't it's "samui" (cold). Women carry parasols to protect their complexions from sunlight — freckles are not considered cute over here — and men quite often walk along the streets with their newspapers or briefcases over their heads to achieve the same effect. You cannot open windows in most trains, buses and offices, and if you can and do, people will complain.

Spring hay fever has reached epidemic proportions and people regard any kind of fresh air as if it were poison gas. The hay fever should more strictly be called "tree fever", as it is caused by the large numbers of fast-growing non-indigenous cedar trees which were planted by the Japanese government after the war to replace native deciduous forests cut down for the war effort. No effort is being made to replant the deciduous trees; the cedar pollen drifts down to the cities, gets tangled up with the air pollution, and causes misery to huge numbers of people (including yours truly).

One of my students told me she hates Japanese weather, because summer is too hot, winter is too cold, and in spring she has hay-fever. She is definitely not alone in feeling this way. I don't consider the Tokyo winter to be especially cold — it's about the same as a British summer, actually, but the summer can be hard to take. Temperatures in Tokyo can hit up to 40 degrees Centigrade because of the heat island effect, caused by too much air-conditioning and the lack of green spaces and trees. And yet an enormous number of people have told me over the years, without the slightest hint of irony, that "we Japanese love nature."

Article © Terri Edwards. All rights reserved.
Published on 2005-05-01
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