There is a common image that Japanese people love nature. In some ways that is clearly true, thankfully. However, in various important respects what happens in practice seems to go very much against that. In a world increasingly focused on sustainability and protection of the environment there is one habit in Japan which, I suggest, needs to change.
I’m referring to the bad habit of cutting down all, or at least 90% of the trees, bushes and plants in an old garden when knocking down the existing house and building a new house there; and replanting either no greenery at all, or only a tiny amount, less than 5% of the trees and bushes that were there before in the old house’s garden.
Over the last five years I have investigated this on many sites and taken various before and after photos and have found that it is normal practice by most house building companies, such as Daiwa House and Sekisui House. On average, in the sites I studied, there were previously around 20 trees or bushes. The majority of the new sites constructed have only 1 tree or a couple of bushes. In about two thirds of the plots there was no greenery kept or replanted at all. This practice means at least a 95% loss to the urban green environment of Japan. The Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism (MLIT) reported that there were a little over 900,000 new houses built across Japan in 2018. Even if we presume that only half of these involved tearing up an existing garden that still means something in the region of 10 million trees and bushes lost to Japan – every year.
Some would say that of course the land needs to be cleared, in order for the diggers to get access and to allow the foundations of the new house to be laid, etc. Yes, but it is not normally necessary to clear all of a garden for either reason. Access on one or two sides is sufficient, so why not leave the other two or three sides of the garden as is? Why don’t the architects leave an element of the existing garden in their design? This is sometimes done, so it’s not out of the question. Even if a near total clearing is necessary for access or the new building design, then what is the excuse for not making a new garden there later?
So, why has the amount and size of gardens declined so much? As part of my investigations I have pondered: was it common practice in say, 1950 or 1900 to clear the old plot of all previous greenery when building a new house there? Or is this recent? The Shinto land purification ritual (Jichinsai 地鎮祭) is of long standing of course. But perhaps in the past the whole area was not totally cleared down to just soil?
Even if land was totally cleared of greenery in the past, it seems it was normal to build up a new garden, as even houses built as recently as the 1970s often have quite sizeable gardens with quite a lot of greenery in them. However, it’s very rare for new houses to have even medium sized gardens now. So, what changed? It’s an issue we see around us every day and yet no one seems to know quite why. So, I have put on my Sherlock Holmes hat and tried to find the answer. Can you ‘dig’ it, Watson?
Firstly, how about zoning laws? I’ve asked about it to many people, such as Alex Kerr, a long time expert in the area of the destruction of nature in Japan, to a department head in the city hall in Kumamoto where I live, to the ‘Japan for Sustainability’ group, the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism, etc.
The consensus seems to be that there are no set, clearly enforced, national zoning laws as to what happens specifically in gardens.
According to a report by Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism explaining zoning rules municipalities lay down a ‘District Plan’ which includes the aim of striving for the preservation of green areas and notes that in regards to residential housing: ‘The ratio of green space to the building site is to be regulated’. Since I could not find any actual guidelines for what such might be it appears to indicate that it’s an expression of an ideal rather than a set zoning rule, or something noted formally, but not done in practice. At the end of this article I’m going to recommend that firmly applied regulations should be implemented.
In my research economic aspects were mentioned to me several times by various people, both Japanese and long term foreign residents. Many Japanese people, I was told, can’t afford to have a garden, both in terms of the cost of buying land and the cost of paying a gardener to maintain large trees, etc. An underlying issue being the old habit of dividing up the estate among surviving family members, with the land being spit up into three or four smaller lots and the greenery destroyed in the process. Anne Kohtz, an architect in Tsukuba, adds: ‘… a lot of it was originally due to inheritance taxes, which became particularly high after the war. In order to afford the inheritance taxes, people very often had to sell half the land…’ However, this does not seem to be the main factor now, as 90% of the new housing units I have investigated have been on the same size land as the previous old house (or larger, with two neighboring houses made into one larger mansion plot).
The high land prices during the bubble years of the economy may be a key period in which garden size decreased. During this time, it became common for real estate agents to raze the ground of any greenery and remove large ornamental stones or ponds to make the plot more appealing to higher-profit commercial clients. It seems perhaps the habit stuck, so that now its normal for land to be cleared for convenience. Though it’s worth noting that the almost legendary bubble years were quite short (1986 to 1991), meaning we have had almost 30 years of a slow-moving economy, so why would the construction and housing industry still be stuck in an outmoded and environmentally unfriendly 1980s thinking which seems too out of place with what is happening in much of the rest of the world?
I contacted such companies, such as Daiwa House and Sekisui House. They often have long reports touting their efforts at sustainability and environmental policies, and proudly display awards to prove it. Category 3 of Daiwa’s environmental activities aimed at the preservation of biodiversity notes the aim to:’…preserve our natural environment…such as through the protection of forests… we will also promote town planning that blends with the surrounding environment, as well as making green efforts.’ Sekisui’s Sustainability Report 2019 notes many good aims, including: ‘…helping to preserve the environment and creating a sustainable society’….’In FY2018 too, we continued planting based on our Gohon no ki project while keeping the regional ecosystem in mind. In that ﬁscal year, we planted 930,000 trees in the gardens of detached homes and collective housing across Japan.’
All that sounds very good, and it seems that various positive efforts are being made, such as solar panels on the roofs of new houses, for instance. However, the evidence we can see in the streets of Japan indicates that these fine aims are far from being put into practice in relation to gardens. I have photographic evidence from several sites made by such big companies that show no green areas at all, or only a tiny strip on new houses which previously contained extensive gardens. I have contacted various of these companies to ask if they will adopt more environmentally policies, and am eagerly awaiting their responses. Daiwa gave me a reply which was weak and evasive, and then refused to reply in more detail. Sekisui were better, replying with various moderately impressive plans and concluding by saying: ‘As a result of these activities, we are planting over 1 million trees per year, and the cumulative number of planted trees since the start of the project in 2001 has reached 16.11 million.’. This offers some hope. The figure of 1 million trees per year here is a positive step, but as I estimate the current loss rate to be around 10 million trees, it is necessary for other major building companies to follow suit.
Another financial point that came up:
if the problem is a lack of money for gardens then how is it that so many more Japanese seemed to be able to afford them in the past, when Japan was a less well-off country than it is now?
Most Japanese people had less money in say, 1930 or even 1960, than they do now, yet houses built then still normally had quite large gardens. A possible explanation for that is that most of those older houses with large gardens were owned by middle class or upper class people, and that the average working class Japanese person in, say, 1930, had no garden then either.
However, that is also partially unsupported by my recent research, which seems to indicate that finding that normally a family of a roughly similar income group moves into the new plot, but does not keep the previous garden or replant another. A related point though may be that less grandparents live with their children nowadays. Some I have spoken to said that it was common for granny and grandad to look after those old gardens in the past. If nowadays fewer grandparents are there to do that, and both parents are working, then it’s perhaps a reason why gardens get neglected.
A general point mentioned was that some people think of trees as a source of bugs and slippery leaves; in other words, just a nuisance.
Which brings us to the point whether many Japanese simply can not afford land big enough for a garden? A bit more of the old empirical investigation showed this idea to be less strong than it seems: my research has shown that very often the area is still large enough for a garden, or for 2 or 3 green areas. As noted above in about two thirds of the cases I have visited, no green areas were made, despite more than 90% having space for it. Even apart from car parking, its common to leave quite a lot of space completely empty and concreted over within the new housing plots. The free space is there, so elements of the existing garden could be kept or new green areas made for not that much more cost – especially to very wealthy housing companies; but simply are not, for various reasons, only one of which is monetary, it seems.
Anne also mentioned an element I had not thought of before: air conditioners. Thanks to the wide spread use of these: ‘…a traditional garden is no longer used as a natural air conditioner, which was really necessary 50 or 60 years ago. Since most people have mechanical air conditioners, having a garden space, engawas to open, fu-rin bells to psychologically feel cooler, and the jimado-ranma combination to promote stack cooling are no longer necessary’. This sounds like a possible culprit to me, though some Japanese people I have asked about it did not agree. A related point is that concrete radiates heat back into the air. So, the destruction of so many gardens and the replacement by large areas of concrete is playing a role in why summers are getting hotter in Japan.
If you don’t like the heat, keep the garden!
A further cultural point is that perhaps many people would like to have a garden, but feel unable or reluctant to resist the pressure from large companies to raze the ground and create very little new greenery. If the option of saving some of the garden or replanting is not mentioned by housing or construction companies then perhaps some people think it’s simply not an option. A related point to this, which was mentioned is the increased reliance on ‘professionals’ doing things, instead of doing it yourself. For example, if a construction company tells the new owner they have to rip out their garden before rebuilding their house, or selling their land, they may not feel able to protest. Then, once a garden has been removed, setting up a new one may be presented as costing a lot. Since my research shows that large areas of plots are simply concreted over, it would also cost a lot and be difficult to remove that layer to get to soil, even if a family later wanted to make a new garden.
This may go some way to answering the question: ‘why not do the garden yourself?’ Other than cutting large trees, most can be done by yourself quite cheaply and enjoyably. Why don’t Japanese people go the DIY route as so many do in other countries? Why don’t younger Japanese see gardening as an enjoyable thing to do on the weekend?
Is it a question of convenience? Various people told me that trees are seen as a nuisance – bothersome to look after, and that it’s much easier to have empty concrete or pebbles.
Convenience is, we might say, a modern virus which appears to help us but which often ends up making things worse. For example, the loss of cooking skills thanks to microwaves; music being easily available online meaning people no longer have that great feeling of finding a rare piece of vinyl in some dank record shop; and the loss of the beauty and health benefits of gardens, because they are simply too much bother.
However, much as the beauty of vinyl records has made something of a comeback in recent years and cooking programs refocus us on the enjoyment of baking a cake yourself, we can hope in Japan the general feeling may move back to the idea that gardens are worth it.
All the above does not mean that Japanese people, across the board, are indifferent to nature now. We might say that a continued respect and love for nature is partly what makes this habit so jarring, but also where positive change may come from. Ironically, one of the reasons for the habit may be because Japanese people continue to hold nature in high regard, a Japanese lawyer in Nagoya told me: ‘Some people consider it to be disrespectful not to look after trees and plants, but since they don’t have enough time, they think it’s better not to have a garden at all.’
Also, Ken Rodgers, the managing editor of Kyoto Journal cautions us not to over-generalize and think that all Japanese are the same in regards to this issue: ‘Some would probably like to have a more natural environment… others seem to be happy to concrete their yards. I know of at least one case here where an old garden was preserved as a feature on a new apartment site, that added value and exclusivity.’
My own research supports this point. I was investigating a plot where a lovely big garden was ripped up and replaced with absolutely no trees at all, just bare concrete over a large plot, but was delighted to notice on the next street an example of quite the opposite attitude. There, a Japanese man in his 30s was happily making a new garden, by himself, DIY style. He told me that the old house and garden belonged to his grandparents, and after building the new house there, he had decided to rebuild most of the garden. He expressed disappointment that more people did not do the same. The next week I saw his whole family out, laying a new lawn.
So, what I am recommending is that a zoning law be created requiring a minimum of 25% of the previous greenery to be kept or replanted. Not a lot, but much better than the 5% rate happening now. This is the ‘hard’ method, involving the Japanese government at national and municipal levels administering firm and widely applied zoning rules that enforce the replacement minimum, and a penalty imposed for not doing so. If adopted, this would soon become part of house building companies’ procedure and after 5 or 10 years, just thought of as normal.
The ‘soft’ method may be to draw on the ‘nudge theory’ of the Nobel prize winning economist, Richard Thaler, which has proven successful in many wide scale changes, such as getting more people to save pension money in the UK. The government could launch a public campaign to rediscover the Japanese love of nature and tie that into having a nice garden. Make it the sign of being a good citizen, with pride in the beauty of Japan. It may influence the choices of house building companies, architects and home owners. Possible financial incentives could be offered to bolster this: get 10,000 yen for every new tree in your garden! Why not?
Some may say that the 25% regulation is an unwelcome infringement on our rights to decide for ourselves what we do with our property. Yet car parking space is already regulated in much the same way as I’m suggesting. So why not green spaces? Are we saying cars are important but the environment is not? And the coronavirus crisis has influenced this debate, of course. As Forbes magazine recently wrote, many researchers have noted with alarm the connection between deforestation and viruses: ‘Scientists have been warning that deforestation may be creating an accidental laboratory for the emergence of new viruses in environments that have been disturbed by humans. In the wake of HIV, Ebola and SARS, scientists documented a potential path for viruses from bats through other mammals to humans. Some scientists and doctors have further argued that path is paved by deforestation.’
Not only is this bad for the environment, it’s bad for people too. Various studies have confirmed the link between green space and health, such as a study in the Netherlands, that concluded:
‘This research shows that the percentage of green space in people’s living environment has a positive association with the perceived general health of residents. Green space seems to be more than just a luxury and consequently the development of green space should be allocated a more central position in spatial planning policy.’
For these reasons, as well as for preserving the beauty of cities in Japan, the total destruction of gardens needs to stop.