16 : Japan’s Fishery Forest Movement as a Sustainability Transition

Norie Tamura

FEAST Project, Research Institute for Humanity and Nature, Kyoto, Japan


Hein Mallee

RIHN Center, Research Institution for Humanity and Nature, Kyoto, Japan


This paper discusses the emergence and development of the Fishery Forest Movement in Japan as a case study of a sustainability transition. In this movement, coastal fisherfolks initiated and carried out tree-planting activities in the upland areas of the watersheds that connect to their coastal fishing grounds in order to safeguard the productivity of their fisheries. They started as spontaneous grassroots initiatives, but gained momentum as the fisherfolks linked up with upland communities, local governments and schools, and city-based consumer organizations. From separate beginnings in Hokkaido and Miyagi in the late 1980s, the movement expanded across the country and was reflected in a number of key national policy initiatives. The dynamic networking across sectors and regions was one reason for the movement’s success. Another factor in the success was the skillful mobilization of a range of narrative motifs and their integration into a persuasive meta-story of the connectedness of forests and coasts. While the movement has been relatively marginal in terms of its actual tree-planting activities,  its strong narrative and charismatic outreach have enabled it to exert considerable influence over the public debate on the issue. In terms of contemporary sustainability theory, the movement may be regarded as a successful example of niche innovation. The fact that it has been more successful in influencing public discourse than in changing the practice of watershed management in Japan suggests the insight for transition theory that “alternative” practices may be long-lived and influential, without leading to direct regime change.


Japan Fishery Forest Movement, sustainability transition, alternative initiative, watershed management, ecosystem connectedness

1 Introduction

The Japanese Fishery Forest Movement (hereafter FFM) is a civic movement in which coastal fishers plant trees in the watersheds and upstream areas of rivers. It began about twenty years ago as two independent movements in two regions in Japan, and has since spread across the country. With the catchphrase "The sea is longing for the forest," the movement is now widely known to the general public. 

This movement, which connects coastal areas and upstream mountain areas through afforestation activities, is distinctive in two respects: 1) it seeks to restore the continuity and connectedness of forest, river and ocean, and 2) the fishers themselves have taken the initiative in starting the movement. This study analyzes the development process of this movement and discusses the values it created and the factors of its success.



2  Early Days of the Movement 

The FFM began in the late 1980s as independent campaigns in two regions, Hokkaido and Miyagi Prefecture. In Hokkaido, the campaign was initiated in 1988 by a women's group which was part of the regional Fisheries Cooperative Association. Fisheries cooperatives are important organizations in Japan's coastal fishing communities, providing a number of services, including the joint sale of fish catches and the joint purchase of materials, as well as the provision of finance and insurance, and sale of daily living supplies. The women's group was mainly composed of the families of fishers and had been actively involved in women's empowerment and community service activities. Prior to the tree-planting campaign, the group conducted campaigns such as banishing synthetic detergents and promoting savings. The tree planting was a campaign to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the women's group. The choice of tree planting as a theme was due to the presence of Takehiko Yaginuma of the Hokkaido Fisheries Cooperative Association. As an official of the central organization leading the regional cooperative, Yaginuma was exposed to scientific discourse on a regular basis,and came to know the arguments that the poor catch of herring was due to overexploitation of forests, and the conservation of upstream forests was important for the conservation of coastal fisheries resources. He was motivated to promote the tree planting campaign. From the outset, he intended to make a long-lasting initiative with the goal of "Taking 100 years to restore the beach as it was 100 years ago". Therefore, he promoted awareness-raising activities, such as holding study seminars in each region prior to the launch of the campaign, in which 135 districts across the province participated. Yaginuma also emphasized the importance of bottom-up implementation, leaving the specific details of the campaign to women's groups in each region (Yaginuma 1999) .

Meanwhile, the activity in Miyagi Prefecture began with the initiative of one fisher. Shigeatsu Hatakeyama, an oyster farmer, felt that the deterioration of the coastal environment had compromised the quality of the oysters he farmed, putting his business in jeopardy. While reviewing the environment of his own oyster farm, he became aware of the deteriorating water quality of the rivers flowing into the bay, problems with agricultural water and domestic wastewater flowing into the rivers, and the degradation of the forests in the upstream area. As a fisher, he appealed for watershed conservation to protect fishery resources, but at the time, both the government and scientists were treating rivers and fisheries separately, which did not match Hatakeyama's awareness of the issues.A number of like-minded fishers formed a group and have been planting trees in the forests upstream since 1989. The movement was given the slogan "The sea is longing for the forest", which has now become synonymous with the FFM. Hatakeyama sums up his activities as "planting trees in people's hearts” (Hatakeyama 2010).



3  Outcomes and Characteristics of the Movement 

The movements in Hokkaido and Miyagi have a different pattern, with the former being a campaign of nested organizations and the latter a community effort led by a charismatic leader. However, the fact that they began at the same time, and that they shared the same motivation to improve the forests for the sake of safeguarding the oceans, resulted in a synergistic effect and ultimately gained widespread public attention. Organizations initiating similar activities have sprung up all over the country, and as of November 2019, practices have been reported in 128 locations over 31 prefectures (IISC 2019). In addition, the essay "Mori wa Umi no Koibito" (litt.“The Forest is the Lover of the Sea”) by Hatakeyama, the leader of the Miyagi movement, was featured in a public school textbook, making the catchphrase widely known, and recently, in 2016, the Ministry of the Environment launched a project on the theme of “Connecting and Supporting Forests, Countryside, Rivers, and Sea” (Ministry of Environment 2020). These can be interpreted as indications of a widespread societal recognition that the unity of the watershed is necessary for environmental conservation and that it should be restored. We argue that the FFM was a primary driver of such recognition.

One of the characteristics of the FFM is the diversity of actors involved. In addition to fishers and fisheries cooperatives, local governments and forestry organizations were involved. In Hokkaido, consumer organizations interested in "tree-planting fishers" wanted to support them through the purchase of their seafood (Mitsumata et al 2008, Tamura 2014). Alternatively, links to environmental education and rural return migration through tree planting festivals have been reported in Miyagi (Hatakeyama 1999). The transboundary nature of the original structure of the fisher's involvement in tree planting, and their ability to expand relationships beyond the watershed through the fishery products they produced, may have made it possible for a variety of actors to participate.

Another feature of the project is the various motifs of narratives. Fishers were aware of the lonstanding degradation of the coastal environment which is the foundation of their fisheries activities. They were also concerned about the land development of the areas along the inflowing rivers and in upstream forests. It was there that scientists proposed the hypothesis that it was forest degradation that was resulting in the degradation of the coastal environment, which provided the impetus for the movement (*1)

Interestingly, the scientific debate on the link between forest management and the coastal environment is still ongoing and no definite conclusions have yet been reached. So far, it has been suggested that there is no simple solution, as a variety of factors, including land use patterns, as well as the amount and type of forest, affect the relationship between forest management and coastal environments. However, tree planting continues as a movement, even while scientific exploration of the issue is still continuing. 

Historical motifs have also influenced it. In Japan, protected forests for fisheries have been institutionalized since the 10th century. Historical fishery forests were meant to provide shade for fish to congregate, which is somewhat different from modern fishery forests that improve the coastal environment through watershed management. However, the historical motif of protecting forests for fisheries resonates with FFM(*2) . The various narrative motifs combined to give the movement momentum.

*1.  From the perspective of fisheries, Tetsuo Inukai of Hokkaido University argued that the decline in oyster catches in Atsukeshi Bay was due to the deterioration of upstream forests in the 1970s. Katsuhiko Matsunaga, also of Hokkaido University, proposed the hypothesis that forests form leaf litter and it provides nutrients through river water in the 1990s. Masayuki Miura, who was involved in forest administration at the Hokkaido prefectural government, criticized large-scale forest development in inland areas of Hokkaido, arguing that the poor performance of Hokkaido's coastal fisheries was due to the degradation of inland forests in the 1970s. Yaginuma was inspired by Inukai and Miura, and Hatakeyama stated that he was encouraged by Matsunaga (Wakana 2001).

*2. For example, Yaginuma titled his book "All Forests are Fish-attracting Forests" in an attempt to carry on the historical image and expand their meaning.



4  Conclusion 

Agriculture, forestry and fisheries are a form of livelihood that exists at the boundary between nature and human beings. However, the modernization of technology and the establishment of globalized markets have made it possible to some extent to separate agriculture, forestry, and fisheries from nature. If we take the modern view of capitalism, the core of the forestry industry is the production of timber, while its multi-functions, such as water source nourishment and flow control, are ignored. Similarly, modern fisheries, which are solely oriented toward economic value, do not care about overfishing and exploitation of the marine environment. Agriculture, forestry and fisheries are implicated in global environmental crises such as climate change and biodiversity loss. This attitude of fragmenting the natural continuum, concentrating on efficient uses for humans and ignoring economic externalities is a major obstacle to sustainable natural resource use. 

From this perspective, the FFM paved the way for the rediscovery of the continuity and connectedness of watersheds and disseminated their value to society. Therefore, it can be said that the FFM is one example of a sustainability transition in the making. In his socio-technical transition theory, Geels argues that a successful niche development may cause a regime shift and create a new mainstream (Geels 2002). In the light of this, the FFM continues to remain in a niche for forestry and fisheries landscapes and has not yet reached the renewal of the dominant regime. But while its concrete tree-planting practices are marginal in terms of overall afforestation in Japan, it is exerting a much broader influence that cannot be ignored, shaping new values and having a significant impact on social narratives. In terms of transition theory, the FFM experience suggests the insight for transition theory that “alternative” practices may need to be reevaluated, since they can be long-lived and influential, without leading to direct regime change.




This research was supported by the FEAST Project (14200116), Research Institute for Humanity and Nature.


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