Junko Otsuka quit her job in Tokyo and headed for the woods, swapping a computer for a bush cutter and her air-conditioned office for the side of a mountain. She was part of a new wave of women taking forestry jobs, the result of economic, social and environmental policies sprouting in Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Japan.
Otsuka, a 30-year-old graduate from University of Tokyo, said she’s fine with the 20% pay cut to be the first female logger at Tokyo Chainsaws, a lumber company. The Sugi and Hinoki trees she harvests -- cedars and cypresses in Japan -- are used to build local homes under the government’s program to encourage the use of domestic wood.
Otsuka is one of about 3,000 women joining Abe’s campaign to revive forestry and logging as part of his growth strategy for the country. Along with farming, it’s seen by his government as key to creating jobs and sustaining population in rural areas as manufacturers such as Sony Corp. and Nissan Motor Co. shift their factories to emerging markets.
“When I studied forestry at university, I learned that trees on Japanese mountains, ripe for harvest decades after planting, were left untouched as nobody wanted to do the job,” Otsuka said in an interview during a break from her work on a 95 degree-Fahrenheit (35 Celsius) day on the side of Mount Mitake, about 40 miles from the center of Tokyo. “I am in the place where I should be.”
More than two-thirds of Japan’s roughly 146,000 square miles of land is wooded, much of it reforested after widespread harvesting for rebuilding following World War II. About 40% of the country’s forests are man-made and ready for logging and replanting, according to Shinkichi Mizutani, executive director of More Trees, a Tokyo-based conservation group. The need for sustainable management dovetails with the government’s push to revitalize communities outside it’s urban centers.
Abe came into office with his three-arrow strategy to end 15 years of deflation that stunted the economy. Nineteen months along, the first two points -- monetary and fiscal stimulus -- have succeeded in stoking inflation. The government now plans corporate-tax cuts, trade liberalization, reduced barriers for agricultural land consolidation and special zones of lighter regulation to spur investment and raise salaries.
Less than 70% of Japanese women between 25 years and 54 years old have jobs, the lowest rate among the world’s richest countries, according to estimates by Japan’s Cabinet Office. The nation’s workforce may swell by more than seven million people and gross domestic product could jump by as much as 13% if participation by women equaled that of men, Goldman Sachs Group Inc. said in a report May 6.
“In advanced economies rich with timber resources, such as Germany, forestry is an important industry to sustain growth and employment for rural communities,” said Hisashi Kajiyama, a senior research fellow at Fujitsu Research Institute in Tokyo. “Japan was an exception because its resources were exhausted in the era of postwar rebuilding. The situation is beginning to change as trees replanted after excessive logging are becoming available for commercial use.”
The prime minister set a goal of maintaining Japan’s population above 100 million for the next 50 years by revitalizing regional economies and enhancing women’s roles. He got a warning in May from the Japan Policy Council that almost half of Japanese communities face the risk of extinction as younger workers migrate to urban areas in search for jobs.
The value of Japan’s wood products has fallen 80% from its 1980 peak of 967 billion yen ($9.5 billion) after tariff cuts and the yen’s appreciation boosted imports and depressed domestic prices, according to the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries. The nation agreed to eliminate import quotas in 1964 and cut tariffs to as low as 3.9% from 20%, spurring an influx of cheap products. Purchases from overseas jumped 27% to 1.22 trillion yen last year. Lumber futures traded in Chicago fell 6.2% this year.
Abe plans to double Japan’s wood output to 39 million cubic meters by 2020 and raise the share of its reliance on domestic sources to 50%, from 28% now. The government is considering boosting subsidy payments to forest workers and companies to achieve the goal. The policy could increase sales for companies such as Sumitomo Forestry Co. and Mitsui & Co., the biggest private owners of Japanese forests after Oji Holdings Corp. and Nippon Paper Group Inc. Higher production would curb imports from countries including the U.S., Canada and Russia.
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