Can Japan Maintain Its Ecosystem?
By Turner Wright
People who have not visited Japan often imagine the country to be what Hollywood sells: tall buildings, fast trains, and lots of people. Many Japanese, even, live much of their lives within the urban sprawl, quickly forgetting that, quite simply, the countryside is Japan. And, due to actions taken in the last few decades, even that is threatened.
The Japanese ecosystem, known as satoyama, is in disarray. More and more young Japanese are putting down roots in major cities such as Tokyo and Osaka, leaving the country living to their parents and grandparents. Unfortunately, though the birthrate continues to fall in Japan, the aging population continues to rise: the Asian nation now boasts largest percentage of elderly in the world, and is far from the model of population growth. With the aging workers the only ones available to maintain the fields, they are less willing to put in the time required.
National Geographic recently reported on this phenomenon, referencing an animated film, My Neighbor Totoro, which hoped to raise awareness about the decline in satoyama. Kevin Short, a professor of environmental education at the Tokyo University of Information Sciences, explained, "small paddies are being consolidated into larger ones with drainage pipes that drain much faster and more effectively than in the past, meaning that [the paddies] no longer stay wet and muddy throughout the year... If they cannot get water throughout the year, frogs and dragonflies that breed in these areas are unable to return and are becoming rarer, as are the larger species, such as herons and other birds, that feed on them in turn."
Individual efforts in terms of farming communities may not be the end-all solution, however; environmental groups in Japan hold very little political leverage, if any. The nation's policy on construction (build, demolish, rebuild, pave creek beds, and so on) is also not exactly conducive to a stable ecosystem.
Many plant and animals species have been threatened as a result of Japan's intensive construction efforts. Fewer gray-faced buzzards have been migrating based on patterns in the last twenty years. Following WWII, a campaign was launched to promote the spread of the Japanese cedar (sugi); although the reforestation plan was a success, studies showed its negative effects to include a reduction in the water table and biodiversity and an increase in erosion and hay fever.