Miyakoji is rich with lush and beautiful woods and forests. In fact, forest area makes up 80% of the town’s area, and forestry has long played an integral role in the town’s identity and economy.
The area was particularly known for its cultivation of shiitake mushrooms, which were sold nationwide, as well as its timber production. In fact, in 2010, Miyakoji exported more timber to other prefectures than any other place in Japan. Although struggling with future prospects of depopulation, Miyakoji was doing OK.
However, Miyakoji’s status as an important timber and shiitake producer was destroyed, and its depopulation crisis exacerbated, following 3.11.
The nuclear accident of 2011 put every industry in Fukushima under stress. Immediately following the disaster, extremely strict food checks were introduced for produce from Fukushima Prefecture, and decontamination efforts – such as top soil removal, treating soil with potassium, rinsing trees with high-pressure water hoses and removing bark – were undertaken across the entire prefecture.
Orders for the evacuation of Miyakoji were issued following 3.11, and were lifted on April 1 2016 after rigorous decontamination efforts and safety checks. Despite most areas of Fukushima Prefecture continuing to move forward with optimism and enthusiasm, areas which were evacuated after 3.11 face various social and economic problems. Miyakoji is no exception.
What challenges has Miyakoji been facing?
1. Many, many trees
Miyakoji was unable to continue with its timber sales in the years following its evacuation in 2011, and even the return of sales has been slow since people have been able to move back to the area.
Also, the decontamination process of removing a variable amount of top layer soil, was very difficult to implement in heavily wooded areas such as Miyakoji. The sheer volume of soil to be removed poses challenges in itself. Additionally, difficult decisions must be made regarding whether the benefits of top soil removal for decontamination purposes outweighs the drawbacks of depriving the surrounding trees of nutrient-rich soil and of destabilising the land.
2. No More Mushrooms
Miyakoji’s production of trees with bark integral to shiitake mushroom cultivation was completely halted. In Fukushima Prefecture, foodstuffs measuring over 100 Becquerels per kg cannot be sold, and for shiitake mushroom bark, this limit is even stricter; 50 Becquerels per kg. Although the wood in question generally measures under 50 Becquerels per kg upon having its bark removed, without bark, the wood is useless for shiitake production.
3. The Next Generation
Miyakoji was evacuated for 5 years, which has exacerbated depopulation – an issue which had loomed over the village even prior 3.11. After 5 years living in neighbouring cities or towns, young people evacuated in 2011 have little incentive to return home. Amongst those who do decide to return, the proportion who wish to take on the daunting challenges facing the future of forestry in Miyakoji are even slimmer.
So, where do we go from here?
1. Carrying On
Representatives from the Central Fukushima Forestry Association stressed to me the necessity of continuing the 20-year cycle of felling, growing and nursing trees which is essential for the maintenance of the mountain, and critical for reducing the risk of forest fires. These activities have been carried out continuously from 2013.
2. Confronting Prejudice
The drop in sales of Fukushima timber, despite being proven to be safe after extensive testing, has led to a more active approach to changing consumer prejudice regarding Fukushima wood. It is sure to take time to teach consumers about the efforts of those in the foresty industry to ensure the quality and safety of their wood.
3. Continuing Traditions
In a town where an increasing number of people doubt if there is any benefit to having mountains at all anymore, arguably the most important challenge to overcome is the lack of interest young people feel towards not only the forests, but also living in Miyakoji. This is especially important for the children who couldn’t experience playing in the forests as children due to evacuation.
It is essential for young people to become interested in the forestry industry if Miyakoji is to ride out the challenges of the future decades. One way of promoting interest which has recently been instigated is the introduction of nature walks and tree climbing events for local kids, to encourage them to feel close to Miyakoji’s beautiful forests.
I think concern about the future of areas such as a Miyakoji is understandable, but my time in Fukushima has taught me that this prefecture is resilient and brave; it rises to challenges and achieves amazing things against the odds. I’m filled with admiration for the people of Miyakoji and great respect for the way they are proactively persuing solutions to the challenges faced by their hometown.