Japanese start-ups entering reforestation market

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Masaya Nakagawa, center, prepares to plant saplings with young employees in a forest of Tanabe, Wakayama Prefecture.

WAKAYAMA — A prolonged downturn in the timber industry has left many forests in Japan in poor condition, but reforestation efforts have begun to attract attention.

The United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) include sustainable management of forests, an ideal that has encouraged start-ups to enter the industry. Reforestation is also attractive to young people from urban areas for its flexible work style in a natural setting. Also, the government is supporting forestry as one of the country’s growth industries.

Changing image

Early in the morning, as the sky began to clear, a young employee of start-up company Nakagawa Co. in Tanabe, Wakayama Prefecture, was mowing waist-high brush to clear an area where saplings would be planted. The company undertakes forestry management on behalf of landowners, working to grow saplings into mature trees.

Founder Masaya Nakagawa, 39, used to work for a local forestry cooperative. Dissatisfied with the state of forests that were often left as stump-strewn wastelands, he established the company in 2016 to specialize in reforestation.

Hoping to “change the industry’s image of being dangerous and demanding,” Nakagawa adopted a flexible work style, allowing employees to decide their own shifts and have second jobs. The workers are paid a daily fee and are not involved in logging operations. Drones are used to carry saplings.

The company’s flexible work style made a splash on social media, enabling it to increase its staff from three to 27. The average age of the staff is 37, and 13 of the company’s employees moved from big cities like Tokyo and Osaka.

Employee Yoshitaka Sugiura, 36, had worked for an electric power company in Tokyo. An acquaintance who did an internship with Nakagawa told Sugiura about its easygoing corporate culture. Sugiura became interested and joined the company in April 2020.

Work begins early in the morning and ends in the afternoon. After work, Sugiura said he spends time on hobbies such as cooking and reading.

“I have plenty of time for myself,” he said.

The land area under Nakagawa Co. management is now about 20 times greater than its starting level, and sales have risen from an initial ¥2.7 million to ¥200 million in the company’s fourth year.

“I want to protect and nurture forests by nurturing people,” Nakagawa said.

Growing momentum

The domestic timber industry has long been in a slump because of low foreign timber prices, and an increasing number of forests have been left untended or abandoned after logging.

The 2015 census counted 45,440 forestry workers in Japan, down by two-thirds over 30 years. Among them, the number of silviculturists, those who manage and nurture forests, decreased by three-quarters to 19,400.

According to the Forestry Agency, only between 30% and 40% of land logged each year is subsequently restored. In the five years through fiscal 2018, the cumulative total of unrestored land came to 2,560 square kilometers, an area greater than all of Tokyo. This is because reforestation does not bring immediate profit considering the labor involved, as it usually takes about 50 years from planting saplings to felling trees.

However, forests are effective in preventing landslides and absorbing carbon dioxide. For those reasons, forest conservation was listed as one of the SDGs adopted in 2015.

In 2016, the government designated forestry as a “growth industry” and established in 2019 a special tax to support forest management. It will levy an annual tax of ¥1,000 per taxpayer from fiscal 2024. It is already expanding subsidies to forest owners to encourage them to grow trees. The enforcement of the forest management law in April 2019 allowed municipalities to entrust forest management to private companies on behalf of owners.

The agency has set a goal of increasing the reforested area from about 30,000 hectares a year to about 70,000 hectares by 2030.

Business opportunity

Tokyo-based Green Foresters was established by former trader Shotaro Nakai in 2020. “Three days of work and one day off” is the company’s philosophy. It engages in reforestation in the northern Kanto region and elsewhere.

“Mountain restoration is an area of great social need and has room for growth,” Nakai, 35, said.

Another start-up, Gujo Satoyama in Gujo, Gifu Prefecture, was established in 2016 and is mainly staffed by those in their 20s and 30s.

Asahi Group Holdings, Ltd., a leading beverage company, has been examining the use of fast-growing saplings in company-owned forests in Hiroshima Prefecture since October last year.

“As a drink maker dealing with water, we’d like to contribute to forest conservation,” an Asahi spokesperson said.

Wood prices are rising worldwide, and the market has shifted its attention to domestic wood.

“We will develop technologies to improve work efficiency and expand exports of domestic timber to support aspiring forestry workers,” a forestry agency official said.