November 30, 2005


A 150 Year-Project: Meiji Shrine Forest in Central Tokyo

Keywords: Newsletter 

JFS Newsletter No.39 (November 2005)

In the heart of Tokyo, bristling with skyscrapers, there is a forest 700,000 square meters in area located on the site of Meiji Jingu shrine. The forest is mainly composed of evergreen broadleaf trees, such as chinquapin, oak and camphor, and provides habitat to many wild birds. This forest was created about 90 years ago as a project with a 150-year vision. It was planted with the cooperation of about 110,000 volunteers, who planted some 100,000 trees of 365 different species donated by people around the nation.

The practice of creating shrine forests has its basis in traditional Japanese thought and concepts of nature. Since ancient times, Japanese people have believed that deities come down to earth from the tops of tall trees, and that their spirits dwell in plants, trees, stones, water and other natural objects. They build Shinto shrines to offer respect and veneration to these deities. The sacred forests surrounding these shrines, called "forests of tutelary shrines," have been protected over long periods of several hundred to over a thousand years, and it is forbidden to pick even a single leaf off a tree without reason.

The history of the Meiji Jingu forest project dates back to July 30, 1912 when Emperor Meiji passed away. After it was decided to build his mausoleum in Kyoto, the ancient Imperial seat for more than 1,000 years, Tokyo citizens asked the government to build a Shinto shrine--not a grave--in Tokyo to commemorate his virtues and offer veneration. Consequently, it was decided that a shrine commemorating Emperor Meiji would be built in what was then Yoyogi in Tokyo. Following this decision, in 1915 several leading experts in forestry and landscape architecture launched the shrine forest project.

Creating a Forest with Trees Donated from around Japan

It was decided that the many trees necessary to create the forest would be collected through donation from around the nation. Dr. Seiroku Honda, Dr. Takanori Hongo, and Keiji Uehara, then a student, were the main planners.

Most of the site planned for the forest consisted of farms, grasslands and marshes. The project team discussed which tree species should be planted as the dominant components of the forest, which was to cover an extensive area, in order to create a setting appropriate for the majestic shrine buildings. One of the important roles of the forest was to protect the shrine from dust carried by strong winds blowing off a nearby military drill court in use at the time. It was also necessary to consider smoke pollution caused by steam locomotives of the Yamanote Line, which had just started operation.

For these reasons, and despite some government officials' proposal to designate cedar and cypress as the main tree species, the planners set out the following conditions: that the dominant trees should be adapted to the climate and the soil type, resistant to smoke pollution, and able to grow naturally without maintenance. They also said the trees should look natural and appropriate for the divine shrine. They chose 80 kinds of trees and shrubs for the shrine forest, having also excluded bushes and trees that bear edible fruit or colorful flowers, ornamentals requiring intensive maintenance, and foreign species or variants. They started to accept donations of trees in 1916.

As many as 95,559 trees of 365 species were donated. There remained some trees such as red pines on the site, which used to be Imperial property. Since the planners needed to immediately create a forest with an atmosphere appropriate to the shrine, they zoned the site into five main sections with surrounding areas according to usage and underlying landscape, envisioning four 50-year stages in the naturally changing form and conditions of the forest. In 150 years, the forest was supposed to be composed entirely of evergreen broad-leaved trees such as oak, chinquapin and camphor.

Planting Project for an Eternal Forest

For the first stage of the forest, tall indigenous trees such as red pines and black pines were designated as the main trees. In addition, cypress, sawara cypress, cedar and fir were planted as under-story trees, and evergreen broad-leaf trees such as oak, chinquapin and camphor were planted as the lower under-story trees. The pine trees were expected to gradually wither over the next 50 years, as the cypress and sawara cypress grew taller. This would allow sunlight to reach the evergreen broadleaf trees and help them grow vigorously, ushering in the second-stage forest.

The forest was to enter its third stage about 100 years after its creation. The main trees expected to flourish in this stage were evergreen broadleaf trees such as oak, chinquapin and camphor. In addition, tall old trees of species such as cedar, cypress, sawara cypress, fir, as well as zelkova, Aphananthe aspera (a kind of elm) and gingko would be seen here and there in the forest of evergreen broadleaf trees. In another 50 years, conifers were expected to disappear, and the forest to mainly consist of large old oak, chinquapin and camphor trees, together with their seedlings growing from naturally fallen seeds. Finally, the tree species composing the forest are expected to stabilize in the fourth stage of the forest. At this stage, the forest will no longer need to be tended, becoming an eternal, naturally-growing forest.

According to a book about the plan, "Forest Project," written by Takanori Hongo after the shrine had been constructed, evergreen broadleaf trees such as oak, chinquapin and camphor were supposed to become the dominant trees of the shrine forest at this final stage. Conifers such as pines, cedars and sawara cypress, as well as some broad-leaf deciduous trees were to be planted during the first stage. Thus, the Meiji shrine forest plan included a vegetation map that took into consideration both the growing and withering of trees.

About 90 years have passed since the forest was created, meaning it is now at the third stage and approaching the fourth. The cedars and pines that were the dominant trees during the first stage have already disappeared, and the forest is now mainly composed of the optimum trees for the land such as oak and chinquapin. The original number of species donated was 365, but this has decreased to about 270, some of them having disappeared from the forest. Surprisingly, the Forest Project foresaw this natural selection process.

Importance of Urban Forests

Three rules for managing the forest were also set up: (1) Do not pluck any leaves, branches, etc., from the forest, (2) Do not walk in the forest, and (3) Do not bring out anything from the forest. "Even shrine forest managers are prohibited from picking fruit from the trees or from bringing out even a single dead leaf. And, they have strictly kept these rules," says Koji Okisawa, a shrine forest manager.

Meanwhile, a total of 110,000 youth volunteers from across the nation were involved in practical tasks, such as building the entrance path to the shrine and planting trees according to the project plan. The spirit of these youthful volunteers has been inherited by Hibiki, a non-profit organization (NPO) made up mainly of university students. This NPO is active in protecting valuable forest areas in the city and passing on traditional Japanese culture. (Japanese)

Shrine forests that calmly stand watch over the changing times have been developed using theories and ideas based on the natural sciences as well as on the Japanese view of nature inherited from the ancients. Like parks, shrine forests are familiar and valuable green spaces for citizens and contribute to the greening of urban areas. In addition, they play a significant role as oases of relaxation, while helping protect the environment.

The importance of forests in urban areas has been recognized particularly from the perspectives of disaster prevention and environmental conservation. If we compare a three dimensional forest with the same area of lawn, the forest has about 30 times more surface area, thus exerting greater soundproofing, air purification and water quality conservation effects. Moreover, a thick wood is thought to absorb at least 100 times more carbon dioxide than a lawn, which greatly contributes to alleviating global warming.

The ability of forests to mitigate damage from disasters was proved in January 1995 when the Great Hanshin Earthquake struck Kobe and its surrounding areas in western Japan. Natural forests with native broadleaf evergreen trees helped prevent the spread of fire. Planting long-lived urban trees, therefore, can be a very important preparatory measure for natural disasters, including the great earthquake likely to occur in the Kanto area in the near future.

The 90-year-old Meiji Jingu artificial forest continues to grow in the heart of Tokyo. Even 100, 200 or 1,000 years from now, this forest that invites us to take a deep breath will still be thriving.

(Staff Writer: Nobuko Saigusa)