By Go Terada and Hiroyuki Tanaka
At its plenary session on June 5, the Upper House approved by majority vote a bill to revise the Act Concerning Utilization of National Forest Land. With this, the bill became law. The bill was backed by lawmakers from the Liberal Democratic Party and Komeito as well as the Democratic Party for the People and Nippon Ishin (Japan Innovation Party). The new law gives private operators the right to engage in large-scale logging and sale of Japan’s national forests countrywide for up to 50 years. The government says that it will balance “making forestry turn a profit” and replanting after felling (reforestation), but concerns remain about the destruction of forests and hard bargaining to lower prices because many aspects of the application of the law have not been specified and will be hard to monitor.
After World War II, the government promoted large-scale afforestation nationwide in anticipation of demand for timber. With the liberalization of timber imports, however, prices have stagnated. The act concerning utilization of forests, which governs privately owned forests, was enacted last year, and the revised Act Concerning Utilization of National Forest Land is a desperate attempt to resolve the decline of the domestic forestry sector.
The revised act allows private operators to be given the right to log and sell several hundred hectares of Japan’s national forest. There are concerns that forests will be destroyed as large companies and foreign-affiliated firms enter the market and small and medium-sized operators are squeezed out. At the Diet, Minister of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Takamori Yoshikawa explained: “We do not anticipate that foreign companies will enter the market. There are no benefits for them at this [small] scale.” A Liberal Democratic parliamentarian commented: “Forestry in regional areas is not profitable. There is no way that foreign companies will enter the market immediately.” The government, however, said that the objective of the revisions is to “make forestry a growth industry.” If forestry were in fact to become a growth industry, it may accelerate the entry of new players looking to make a profit from Japan’s national forests. The government’s explanation is filled with contradictions.
According to the Japan Wood-Products Export Association, log exports to China rose 60-fold from 15,000 cubic meters in 2012 to 948,000 cubic meters in 2018. The Chinese government banned logging in natural forests after major flooding in 1998. China’s growing domestic demand for timber cannot be supplied with artificial forests alone, and Japan’s lumber industry is very interested, seeing “potential” there. Some experts say that “it is natural to develop external demand, but it could lead to the destruction of Japan’s forests if the wood products continue to be exported at low prices.” “The task is to strengthen the system [for applying the revised law] by drafting government and ministerial ordinances, which do not go through the Diet,” said an opposition party Diet member. The situation requires close monitoring.
Under the revised law, the government will seek applications from private operators to be loggers in national forests designated as “logging areas.” The revised law clearly states that the “logging rights” will be for up to 50 years. In exchange, the government will collect a “tree fee.” The agriculture minister will request the operators to reforest, but the revised law contains no provisions requiring them to do so. Other matters are also left unspecified in the law, so many aspects of the implementation of the law are left up to interpretation.
For the immediate future, the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries envisions that about 10 areas totaling a few thousand hectares will be designated as logging areas.
In response to a question at the Diet, the government said it will “make an overall evaluation” of applicants in selecting loggers. Concrete criteria are lacking, however. There are concerns that small and medium-sized companies will be pushed out, and many members of both the ruling and opposition parties called for caution to be exercised in implementing the law. The government will create guidelines for the implementation of the law by next spring and open them for public comment. (Abridged)