Thursday, August 28, 2008

Eco-friendly burials on Japan's Mt. Ontake--a feasible idea?

A friend in the village, I-san, has talked with me on a couple of occasions about creating a eco-friendly burial ground on Mt. Ontake. I'm intrigued by the idea, and so was happy to find the following blog entry recently.

There is a growing literature concerning the negative environmental impacts of western burial practices (i.e., attempting to preserve a body with embalming fluid, coffin, concrete, etc.). See the Centre for Natural Burial website for more information.

Ontake-san is a sacred mountain, and many worshipers expect that their spirits will return there after they die (stone monuments on the mountain are erected for this purpose). So, it seems like a logical step to move towards creating a green burial ground on the mountain. Anyway, seems no less obscene--in my mind anyway--than the ski resorts, tourist shops, and mountain huts that currently litter the mountain.

Keeping nature in mind in Japan's most beautiful valley

I found an article in the Mainichi Daily News that I thought was relevant to my last post about environmental management. (Find the article here).

The article discusses the vegetation growth that has occurred Yamanashi prefecture's Shosenkyo (昇仙峡), a valley that was designated as part of the Chichibu Tama Kai National Park in 1950. Since that time the valley has become known as "Japan's most beautiful". . .which is definintely argueable. Apparently, a hands-off management policy since the areas inception to the national park has allowed the valley's vegetation to grow to the point where it is obstructing some of the rock formations for which the valley has become famous. The tourists are starting to complain.

So, logging concessions are currently being considered. Seems logical. However, in an age of illogic, we get statements such as the following, which came from the hairperson of the Shosenkyo Tourism Association, Takehiko Suzuki:

"We would like to cut down the trees with nature in mind. . ."
I think I undertand what Suzuki is trying to say, but find it fascinating that he feels a need to reference 'nature' as something inherently good--something that must be kept in mind while making management decisions; this despite the fact that the trees will be cut precisely because nature 'took its course', as it were (the photos--courtesy of Mainichi Japan--are from 2008 and 1956, respectively).

Obviously, the Shosenkyo that was incorporated as part of the Chichibu Tama Kai National Park in 1950 was also not a completely 'natural' landscape; it had been stripped of trees by humans. Therefore, we must ask what. . .or perhaps when. . .is 'nature'? Unfortunately, much of modern environmental discourse continues to draw on uncritical notions of 'nature' as being inherently good, and 'humanity' being inherently destructive. We're left with trying to keep nature in mind so that we don't mess things up too bad. . .or at least that's the sense I get.

In Otaki's case, leaving 'nature' to do its thing is not an appropriate course, as forest expansion is threatening the village itself. At the same time, in other places, valuable forestland is being destroyed as urban areas expand. This calls for localized responses that take into account local social, cultural, and economic needs, as well as ecological needs--rather than generalized reponses that rely on reified notions of nature to condone doing nothing. In other words, humans need to own up to the fact that we too are a part of nature--so that we can begin making management decisions that reflect the realities of our socio-natural environments.

By the way, Shosenkyo is beautiful; everyone should try to visit sometime.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

環境整備: Maintaining the Environment

Otaki is literally being engulfed by the forest. Abandoned fields and plots of forest have quickly become overgrown and wildlife has moved in. The areas of thick forest are also unappealing to most villagers, giving them a sense of becoming enclosed.

For these reasons, residents of Otaki participate in 環境整備作業 (environmental maintenance/management/improvement activities--something like that). Yesterday, I finally had a chance to participate in one of these projects: clearing weeds and trees from along the prefectural road that leads from Makio Dam to Otaki.

There were only about 10 of us there that day, which isn't bad for a village of 1,000, where a third of the population is over 65 years of age.

It was a hard day of work, but they let me use a chainsaw, so I had no complaints. I don't know what the organizers were thinking. Also, I think my chainsaw skills were being whispered about. Ah, I'm the egghead; not supposed to be too proficient with such tools.

With such a rapidly aging population, I wonder about how long Otaki can keep the forest held back. I'm amazed at how active the elderly residents are, but there's simply too much land to be managed.

Combine this trend of decline in rural areas with the rapid sprawl of Japan's urban areas and you get a frightful prospect indeed--huge swaths of unmanaged forest butted up against cities. I think it's time for politicians and the general public in Japan to begin recognizing this growing problem.

In the meantime, here in Otaki we'll keep maintaining.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Wildlife in Kiso: A chat with one of Nagano's top hunters

The other day I had the privilege of meeting with T-san, widely considered Otaki's top hunter, and one of the best in Nagano prefecture. The conversation was illuminating. T-san has a detailed and nuanced understanding of the movement of wildlife in Otaki, the Kiso region, and Japan as a whole.

T-san spoke of what he thought was the loonacy of the National Forest Agency's heavy cutting in the Kiso Valley, and Otaki in particular. He considered it a waste that trees that had been nurtured some hundreds of years were felled with little thought. Now, he lamented, it's just bamboo grass (a hearty, fast growing grass that dominates much of the groundcover in Otaki).

In the postwar period, employing this kind of clear-cutting, the Forest Agency advanced further and further into the mountains around Otaki. Coversion of older, mixed forests, to younger, plantation-style forests reduced the overall area of suitable wildlife habitat. With less and less habitat in the back forests, wildlife have been forced into smaller and smaller ranges, which has pushed them up against and into human communities.

T-san's assessment was reinforced for me on the way home when on the road I encountered ears of corn that had been devoured and tossed there by macaques.

So, that was the shop talk. After our chat, T-san's wife took me into the backroom of the home to show me some of her husband's work. My hometown is full of hunting enthusiasts, so I'm not unfamiliar with the fruits of the hunter's labors, but this was my first time encountering such a scene in Japan--it was a bit surreal.

I am not, at heart, a hunter, nor a supporter of recreational hunting. However, I respect the cultural traditions and rights of local communities when it comes to environmental management decisions. Also, I recognize that hunting often fulfills cultural, social, and ecological needs. In Otaki, bear hunting has long been a social, cultural, and economic activity. Winter hunting camps, where groups of men used to spend weeks at a time, still remain in some remote areas. This being said, some bear populations in Japan are in danger, but the solution is not as simple as allowing bears to roam as they will. The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) is currently undertaking a project to study the situation of bears in Japan--their initial assessment seems fair (you can find it here).

I-no-shishi (wild boar) and kamoshika (Japanese serow) are also hunted with some frequency.

As our visit came to an end T-san and his wife invited me to come back in the fall to drink and feast on i-no-shishi (absolutely delicious--by the way). They also showed me their bee hives, from which they make honey using wild Japanese bees. T-san explained to me that the bees gather pollen from a variety of wild flowers, which gives the honey an amber color and a "wild" taste. I was delighted when T-san presented me with a bottle of the wild honey--I gazed with wide eyes at it's rich color and dreamt of slathering it on a piece of homemade bread. I also received peaches that were fresh picked from a local orchard. The peaches were somewhat small, but fragrant (I gobbled one for breakfast this morning and was pleasantly surprised by its sweetness).

Thank you T-san!!

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Monkeys on the Move

"I fell down right in my field and just started crying."

These were the words of a neighbor here in Otaki, describing the experience of finding that about 100 stalks of corn she planted had been carried raided by monkeys; the ears of sweet corn devoured.

These words came to mind as I scoured over various reports this morning about monkeys causing trouble in oddly different places in Japan. Most of the reports were about a monkey that was discovered in Shibuya station in the heart of Tokyo.

The Japan Times article.
Mainichi Daily News article.
Guardian U.K. video.
Japan Probe blog.

One report from the Mainichi Daily News (article here), however, talked about Uozu, a municipality in Toyoma prefecture that has recently armed civil servants with shotguns to boost numbers for its "Harmful Wildlife Hunting Corps". In the report the mayor of the city is quoted as saying:
"It's easy for staff to help out with the extermination even during weekday working hours. Anything to reduce the damage just a little."

What's with all the monkeys?

Japanese monkeys are called macaques (Macaca fuscata fuscata; there is also a subspecies, Macaca fuscata yakui , which are only found on Yakushima, an island in the south of Japan). Macaques play a prominent role in the Japanese landscape--not only the natural, but also the social. Anthropologists Ohnuki-Tierney argues that macaques occupy a prevalent space in Japanese conceptions of self; she suggests that they serve as a metaphor for humans because of the great amount of group behavior they exhibit--a trait viewed in Japan as essential to being human.

Another anthropologist, John Knight, picked up on Ohnuki-Tierney's theme in his study of human-wildlife conflicts in Hongu-cho, Wakayama prefecture. Knight suggests that the close proximity of macaques and humans in rural areas, like Hongu-cho, produce a variety of often contradictory emotions on the part of residents. During his fieldwork, macaques were often spoken of in criminalistic terms because of the damage they inflict to crops. Macaques were referred to as dorobou (theives) who nusumu (steal). At the same time, due to their organized group behavior macaques were talked about in militaristic terms with a sense of respect Residents referred to saru gundan (monkey armies) with taishou (generals) and suggested that they strategized in picking targets and executing raids.

I've witnessed a similar phenomenon here in Otaki. On the one hand, I often hear quotes like the one above; residents are frustrated and worried about crop damage caused by macaques. However, on the other hand, I also hear macaques praised for their tenacity and wit. Just today one of the best hunters in the village talked me about how macaques have become smarter recently.

What's clear is that macaque populations are increasing and that their habitat is decreasing. There are several factors contributing to this. First and foremost, forest conversion from broadleaf to pine (mostly timber) tree varities, has created a lack of forage for macaque populations. Second, the extermination of the Japanese wolf around the turn of the century means that there are no longer any significant carnivorous predator species in Japan. Third, bans on hunting macaques, along with a general decline in the number of hunters in Japan, has allowed macaques to move more easily into residential areas. Fourth, massive rural depopulation has meant an increase in forested land near residential areas as fields are abandoned and allowed to grow wild. Finally, rapid sprawl eminating from Japan's metropolises have brough urban areas closer and closer to macaque habitat.

The result. . .monkeys on the move. Japan's being overrun by macaques. I must note that it has been suggested that that monkey found in Shibuya may have come from a zoo-park in Tokyo, but the veracity of this suggestion does not invalidate my point. In fact, in an article entitled, Monkey mountain as a megazoo, Knight also explores the phenomenon of monkey parks in Japan where macaques are baited with food for the purpose of tourism.

Clearly something needs to be done. Arming civil servants with shotguns is one approach--and, oddly, probably the most logical measure that can be taken at this point. In the long run, a more reasonable approach would be to begin managing Japan's forestlands (which occupy 67% of the country) in a way that takes into account the ecological needs of animal species such as macaques. As it is now the Forest Agency (rinnyachou 林野庁) is dominated by the continued employment of out-dated German techniques for producing timber. This approach is legitimized most recently through assinine appeals to discourses of climate change and the need for carbon sinks. Not that measures to combat climate change are not needed; they are. Hoewever, a better approach would be for the people of Japan to sustainably manage and utilize domestic forests, and to curtail consumption of overseas timber (which, to follow the logic of the climate change argument, often comes from forests reconized for their ability to absorb carbon).

Obviously, climate change is an important issue; one that needs to be addressed. However, in Japan this shouldn't be done blindly with the simple notion that the more trees the better. Local communities, who are facing the brunt of poor ecological decisions concerning forestlands, need to be more involved in decision making processes. Japan's urban population needs to begin recognizing the role that rural communities play and find better ways to support them. Otherwise, the monkey's are gonna take the place over.

Knight, John. 2006. Monkey Mountain as a Megazoo: Analyzing the Naturalistic
Claims of “Wild Monkey Parks” in Japan. Society & Animals 14:3.

Knight, John. 2003. Waiting for Wolves in Japan: An Anthropological Study of Human-Wildlife Relations. Oxford University Press,
New York.

Ohnuki-Tierney, Emiko. 1987. The Monkey as Metaphor for the Japanese.
Chapter 2 In The Monkey as Mirror. Pp. 20-38. Princeton University Press.
Princeton, NJ.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

A Japan of regions. . .what of the local?

(Hihata S. 1878. Kaisei Shinano no kuni saiken zenzu: zen. [Nagano] : Nishizawa Kitaro)

In a continuation of municipal amalgamations that have been occurring since the Meiji Restoration (1868) , there is new talk of eliminating Japan's current 47 prefectures and creating about a dozen "regions". See Japan Times article here.

Though the argument is made that creating large regions will allow for greater decentralization and local autonomy, one wonders why it is always the centers of political and economic power, rather than local communities, that push for such structural reforms.

Through an examination of the post-war land reform from the perspective of the central government and its contradictory needs to promote economic growth while maintaining its constituency of small-scale farmers. Mary McDonald* has argued that the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP 自民党) has preserved some of the principles of land reform while gradually reregulating agricultural land to allow for new capital formation both external and internal to agriculture. Preservation has come with slow movements towards capital expansion that have allowed arable lands to stay largely in the hands of a spatially diverse constituency and also through price supports for key crops, namely rice. In this way Japan’s conservative regime has worked its way slowly towards a new constituency by appeasing expansionist voices from urban areas while promoting a switch to producer focused (rather than household) landholding in the key rural areas.

In other words, the post-war period has seen a political balancing act played out over the landscape as LDP leaders have worked to increase economic growth in urban areas while appeasing their rural base. However, it seems now that the scale is tipping. Massive depopulation of rural areas (with accompanying migration to urban areas) along with a rapidly aging popuation means that protecting the countryside is less and less of a political or economic necessity.

From the perspective of local communities, this move towards regionalism is troubling. The series of amalagamations that took place in 2005 under Prime Minister Koizumi have already left many rural areas isolated and without access to basic necessities, namely medical care. Here in Otaki there is no longer a full-time physician.

Massive municipal entities will also be disatrous for Japan's already ailing forests and other natural areas. Even after the 2005 amalgamations many newly-formed cities are having difficulties managing the large areas of forestland they have acquired. Often, forest-management takes a backseat to the many problems and issues confronting the urban centers of these new cities. Forest management is often left to volunteers (see my previous posts: Forestry and fall leaves and Spirit and forests)

*McDonald, M. G. 1997. Agricultural Landholding in Japan: Fifty Years After Land Reform. Geoforum 28:55-78.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

the First Notes of Fall

Walking yesterday evening I looked to the hillsides above the village. The fading light of the day lay on the tree tops at a low angle--not the sun of summer. The mountains had a crispness that is not present in the damp heat of July and early August. Each tree stood out clearly from it's neighbor, sharp shadows defined the spaces between.

Clouds billowed into the sky like the tops of souffles cresting the ridgelines surrounding Otaki.

As dark descended a layer of moisture blanketed the trees and plants, cooling the air. I pulled a jacket from my pack and zipped myself into it.

A full moon rose and took it's place in southeastern corner of the sky. The landscape glowed silver and I spotted Mt. Ontake crouching shyly in the back of a canyon, a veil of clouds at it's crown.
I felt drawn by the mountain. Soon I was in my car speeding up the eastern slope past the large stone monuments that denote the returned spirits of the dead. I stopped in the middle of one of the ski gerunds, which was full with weeds and grasses, the occasional flower. A dormant ski lift stood looming in the near distance. Scrambling over tarp-covered lift chairs I planted my feet on the lift's platform. Here I was awarded a clear view of the Otaki valley that stretched out below me--clouds lay between the ridges, sleeping like curled dogs.

A cool breeze came up from the Kaida plateau on Mt. Ontake's western slope, rustling the trees and producing a symphony of odd sounds: creaks, pops, and wooshes. I was cold and a bit unnerved, so I returned to my car.

I drove back down the moon-lit mountain. "Summer's over", I thought.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Sorting. . .

I apologize for the long absence; I've been graced by visits from guests lately, so have been spending time playing in the mountains and canyons.

I came across an article in the UK Guardian about a village, called Kamikatsu, in Shikoku that is striving to become a "zero-waste community" through a strict recycling program. The story intrigued me for two reasons. First, I wonder about the idea of "zero-waste". Second, I see similarities between Kamikatsu and Otaki in the resistance that some residents have to activities that draw on newer environmentalist themes.

I wonder about the term: "Zero-waste". What does this mean exactly? I applaud the efforts of the residents of Kamikatsu, but it's important to note that recycling, not reduction (in either consumption or packaging), is the primary focus. In other words, reducing waste to zero will not be the final result; only the treatment of waste. There's nothing wrong with this approach, but the message is misleading and may be detrimental to efforts at reducing consumption, which is the most effective method for reaching a goal of "zero-waste". However, "zero-waste" itself may be a self-defeating concept, in as far as waste is an inseparable part of life, one that we may do well to accept and deal with, rather than seek to eliminate. For example, the article mentions that wooden chopsticks are recycled to pulp, that is in turn made into paper. This is okay, but wouldn't it be better to simply do away with wooden chopsticks altogether? Is it so hard to wash and re-use? It seems to me that instead of thinking ways to deal with waste in a quantitative manner (zero-waste), we would do well to think of waste qualitatively. Does this waste NEED to be produced? If so, can we do anything useful with the waste? It appears we should do away with the term "waste" itself, as it connotes something bad that must be gotten rid of. Not all "waste" is bad. . .starting here we might begin to think of new ways of using and reusing the things in our lives.

This article also caught my attention because of the reference made to resistance among older village residents to the new recycling program. Though I haven't found specific resistance to movements in Otaki that draw on broader environmentalist themes, I have noticed an alienation among older residents concerning such things. Because notions of "nature" have developed largely in urban areas, older residents of Otaki have little sense of the concept. For these residents the natural environment is very much a reality of their lives--at times mundane, wondrous, dangerous, etc.--rather than something romanticized and inherently good or whole. Therefore, a recycling program, for example, framed as a way to help the environment appears to have much less resonance among those who have grown up non-urban environments. It's easy to disregard the attitudes and postures of older residents, and often this is what occurs. However, this is an elitist and presumptuous position to take, and it ignores the vast body of experience and knowledge that local residents hold concerning their environment. At the same time, we cannot canonize all of the beliefs held by community members; besides, these beliefs are not homogeneous and so they cannot be represented as such.

There's a need for dialogue and democracy when it comes to matters concerning the local environment. In Otaki this situation does not exist; the national forestry office makes most management decisions, and local residents largely allow this by accepting that they have no voice in such matters. Larger environmentalist themes, dressed in their guise of unquestionable science, are used to legitimize the authority of the national forestry office. In this situation power operates in the realm of words, which are then translated into policy and eventually on the ground realities. It's important, therefore, that local residents educate themselves in the language of contemporary environmentalism, so that their voices can be heard as well.

Anyway, kudos to Kamikatsu for their efforts at recycling. I hope more communities in Japan will follow suit. However, space needs to be opened for the varied views and opinions of local residents to be heard.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Unstable Weather

Late summer in Japan is a time of very unstable weather, as typhoons and other monsoonal storms move up from the south. These rapid changes in the weather seem particularly pronounced here in Otaki. Because the Kiso Region is located at the southern tip of the Japanese Alps the area gets the first smack of all the storms rolling in from both the Japan Sea and Pacific Ocean.

An amazing thunderstorm passed through Otaki today. There had been fair weather in the morning; fair enough to get my laundry done. But clouds began gathering just after noon. It was a monsoonal storm, and it flowed in quickly across the mountains from the southwest.
The sky was filled with electricity, and my body anticipated the strikes of lightening that soon began ripping through the sky. Thunder rolled out in thick blankets that rumbled down out of the clouds and across the mountains. I stood mesmerized watching the sky as it continued to flash and rumble; rain began to fall in torrents from the sky.

I had some good video of a lightening strike, but couldn't get the format worked out. But, here's another that has some decent sound of the thunder.

This morning the mountains were still soggy and drapped in thick clouds, but by about 9:00 I could see blue skies. Now the sky is a rich blue, with stacks of fluffly cumulus clouds billowing up behind the ridgelines to the south--perhaps a sign of the next coming storm.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Return to the Mountains

I got back to Otaki yesterday evening after about 10 days in Kyoto. It feels great to be back in the mountains where the heat and humidity of the cities are things only talked about in expressions of pity for those sweating it out below.

Otaki has transformed itself once again. The brilliant greens of early summer have settled into deeper, richer shades anticipating (despite the heat) the coming fall. I've heard from villagers that from the end of August the temperatures in Otaki begin to tumble and don't stop until spring comes again.
My time in Kyoto was wonderful. A trip to the ocean with the in-laws. We drove to the Japan Sea, fighting a horrendous downpour that killed 4 in Kobe--the road was a muddy river in parts.
The sea was muddy with runoff, but we ventured in anyway. The final two days brought sunshine and clearer waters. I was impressed by the beauty of the ocean. Most of Japan's coastal waters are shady as far as swimming goes, but the coast in Tango (the town's name) was wonderful.

The best part of Kyoto was seeing my four nieces and nephews, two of whom I hadn't seen for about a year as they have been living in China. A minor highlight was a festival at the Mitsubushi plant in Nagaokakyo where the comedy duo angaaruzu アンガールズ performed.

I feel like a bit of stranger being back here in Otaki--it seems like I've been gone for a long while. However, a walk around the village today helped me get back into the rhythm of life here. I went to S-san's house, whom we asked to watch after our plants while we were away, and found that she had properly tresled our tomato plant. It was looking better than it ever had under Chizuko and I's care. Something to be said about a life farming.

During my walk I also spotted a honey hive sitting on the eave of a wood shed--plenty of bees.
Also received a bag of veggies--green peppers, potatoes, and carrots--from two woman who were preparing for dinner. We talked of the heat of the cities and the blessing of living in the mountains.

I was surprised to see the amount of water that has been released from Makio Dam while I've been away. The agricultural and domestic needs of the Nobi Plain (where Nagoya sits) are met in part by the waters held safe in Otaki. Villagers here have no control over the dam, the level of the water. . .no access to the reservoir. I'm thinking we need to start a campaign, for said amount of donated funds, we'll not piss in the damn lake.