How did the Shogun address deforestation in Japan?

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The shogun responded to deforestation by implementing a national plan to reduce logging and replace destroyed forests. Under the new policy, one had to obtain special permission from the government for the harvest and use of wood. The shogun also encouraged the planting of trees.

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Imagine this. It's the 1600s. You're living on an island, one of over six thousand in your country. The population is growing rapidly and gathering together into cities. Houses are springing up everywhere, and they are nearly all made of wood. Private homes aren't the only building projects, though. Huge royal palaces and gigantic temples are also in the works throughout your city and country. All of this construction requires wood, lots and lots of wood, for that is the standard building material in your land. Yet people still need wood for other uses, too, especially for fuel like firewood and charcoal.

You notice that the forests, once so grand and sprawling, are now dwindling, and that leads to more environmental problems. Trees prevent runoff that can lead to water contamination, but now with fewer trees, more pollutants are seeping into the water supply. This runoff also causes soil erosion that creates all sorts of troubles, everything from a lack of nutrients in the soil (crops need those!) and flash flooding. Trees also help clean the air, so with fewer trees, even the air you breathe is becoming more polluted. Something needs to be done and fast.

Luckily, you live in Japan, and your leader, the shogun of the Tokugawa clan, is mindful of the problem of deforestation and is working to do something about it. Together with the feudal lords, he has worked out a system to protect and expand the forests. The lords, and even common farmers, have begun to plant large numbers of seedlings. It makes sense, right? If you cut down trees, you ought to plant more to replace them. Finally, someone has thought of that! The lords have also limited access to their forests, patrol them to make sure people don't steal the wood, and restrict the number of trees that can be cut (people need permission to cut timber now). The shogun has also issued an edict called the “Yamakawa Okite.” This edict is focused on preventing flash flooding, but because this problem is partly caused by deforestation, the edict includes a ban on digging up tree roots and an order to plant more trees. The shogun, the lords, and even the common people have banded together to gradually regain the forests.

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In late seventeenth-century Japan, the devastating environmental impact of decades of deforestation become abundantly clear. As well as bringing about a chronic shortage of wood, deforestation had led to significant levels of soil erosion. In turn, soil erosion led to further ecological catastrophes such as flooding and mudslides.

The Tokugawa Shogunate responded by implementing an extensive national program aimed at protecting existing forests as well as encouraging the growth of new ones. Central to the new policy was the concept of forest management by feudal lords. They were given the responsibility of taking the necessary measures, such as instituting seeding protection, selective cutting, and stepping up patrols against timber thieves.

Feudal lords ensured that access to their private forests was severely limited; anyone caught stealing timber from the lord’s forest would be subject to severe punishment. Furthermore, it became necessary to obtain special permission from a government official for the harvest and use of wood. Combined with an extensive program of replanting forests, these measures did the trick, contributing to a dramatic fall in timber production.

By the early eighteenth-century, Japan had a very successful and efficient system of forestry management in place, which not only improved the environment but contributed significantly to a greater understanding of trees and the vital part they play in the ecosystem.

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The Japanese were facing a crisis in the 17th Century that could have ended their civilization. This crisis was a study in overuse, in this case, of forest resources. For centuries, Japan relied on their forests as a source of wood, fertilizer, and feed for its agricultural industry. The economic and population growth of the period dramatically increased the demands for these forest applications. In response, the Japanese were clearing the forests of the island at an alarming rate, causing the ecological problems of flooding, soil erosion, and silting of the vital riverways.

The Shogun, which acquired power around 1600, realized that the future of Japan depended on creating a sustainable forest program. They developed a program of natural conservation that was ahead of its time. An important facet of the program was the reforestation initiatives that were created. Incentives were granted for villages to operate tree plantations. Trees could be developed on the plantations and then transplanted to deforested areas. The forestation program was supplemented with a national dendrology program that educated and researched tree growth. Much of the knowledge gained during this period is still employed today.

Another important aspect of the Shogun program is that it called for permits to clear forest lands. Companies interested in harvesting wood from the forests were now required to acquire approval from a high government official to do so. The improvements made by the Shogun slowed the ecological destruction that was occurring in Japan, but the program was not truly considered a success until the Twentieth Century. This demonstrates how quickly nature can be destroyed, and how long it can take to recover.

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