Environmentalism in 1666

Our journey through environmental history has so far taken us from medieval England to ancient India and the Roman Empire.


Today we revisit Japan’s Edo period in the mid-1600s, a time of turmoil that resulted in an amazingly complex environmental policy that still influences our ideas on conservation today.

The Edo period began in 1603 when Tokugawa Ieyasu seized power and established the Tokugawa shogunate, with headquarters in the city of Edo. During this time the Tokugawa shoguns, or generals, effectively controlled the country, becoming even more powerful than the Emperor in Kyoto.

The period preceeding the beginning of the Edo period had been a time of growth both in terms of economics and population. By 1570, shortly before the Edo period began, Japan’s population had reached 10 million. This spike in population and the corresponding need for natural resources led to a serious environmental problem for Japan. For the first time, the country was faced with widespread deforestation.

Deforestation was not an entirely new phenomenon. As long ago as 600 A.D. there had been localized deforestation, most notably in the Kinai region, as wood was required for housing, war, or monuments. This didn’t become a serious environmental problem at first since Japan’s population was small and there were plenty of forests for use while the others were abandoned. In fact, many people at the time actually encouraged deforestation so they could use the newly cleared land for agriculture and created new growth forest products that were used for fertilizer, fuel, and animal feed.

When the population reached around 10 million, however, this system of forest exploitation became unsustainable. For about a century, beginning in the mid 1500s, timber harvests for use in ship-building, construction, and firewood ravaged the Japanese forests as Japan’s population ballooned.

In the mid 1600s, people started to notice the environmental issues that deforestation had wrought in Japan. Not only was it much harder to find decent timber, but soil erosion had become noticeable. Erosion in turn led to flooding, mudslides, and the silting up of rivers and streams.

In 1666, the country had reached a breaking point and the shogunate took action. They implemented a national plan to reduce logging and replace the forests. To begin with, one had to receive the approval of a high government official to harvest and use wood. In addition to that, the government began to encourage the planting of tree saplings and the study of forest management.

The plan was incredibly effective. By the early 1700s, Japan had a complex and successful system of forestry management in place. Villages applied their community approach to agriculture, which had made for successful rice harvests, to forestry management. In time, some of the world’s first tree plantations were created.

With the creation of trees as a form of controlled agriculture came far greater research and understanding into trees. Scholars and woodsmen developed new techniques to plant and care for tree species, many of which are still applied today.

While Japan’s forestry management system was effective, it was by no means fast. It took hundreds of years for the country to recover from the damage caused by exploitative use of their natural resources. The program was judged to come to a successful end only in the early 20th century. That’s something to think about with our own consumption of resources.

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