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Japan’s Tipping Point Blog 5: Biomass

This is my fifth blog on the Japanese renewable energy situation, based on my book, Japan’s Tipping Point: Crucial Choices in the Post-Fukushima World.  (By the way, it’s now available as a paperback as well as an ebook.)  Those of you who have followed these blogs already know that I think that the Japanese often specialize more in hype than substance.  Nowhere is this more evident that in their strange policy on wood and other forms of biomass. 

When I arrived in Tokyo, I saw many people wearing what looked like surgical facemasks.  At first I thought they were worried about radiation, but I learned that they were allergic to cedar pollen.  During the post-war decades, the government encouraged the reforestation of mountainsides, cutting down the cherry, bamboo, pine, and maple to plant sugi, Japanese cedar, in closely packed ranks, betting that the fast-growing trees would serve as lumber for the baby boom families.  But cheap foreign imports killed domestic timber sales, and the monoculture of trees remain unharvested, planted so close together that they resembled matchsticks.  That’s why most of the Eco-Model Cities include “thinning the forest” among their activities.  That may sound counterintuitive, since trees absorb carbon dioxide, but if the trees have more room, they will grow more fully to absorb more greenhouse gas, and stifled undergrowth will re-emerge.  Also, one hopes that they will replant other types of trees as well.

In Yusuhara, I visited a wood pellet factory, built in 2008.  On the surface, this project makes sense.  On every visible mountainside there are too many cedar trees that they are trying to thin, so why not utilize this local resource?  I watched a caterpillar tractor reach out a long claw arm and grab a few spindly trees from a pile before chewing at them to splinter them enough to place on a conveyor belt.  They were then dragged into a loud chipper.  The chips were subsequently ground to sawdust that was compressed and dried under high pressure. 

Yet virtually no one in Yusuhara (or elsewhere in Japan) owns a wood pellet stove.  There is a small town subsidy for them, but even the cheapest Japanese models cost 300,000 yen (nearly $4,000), and the high-quality imported German stoves cost 600,000 yen.  So people prefer cheaper kerosene stoves. 

Like a hundred other Japanese municipalities, Yusuhara built the wood pellet factory with misguided federal METI grants.  In Tokyo, I interviewed Minoru Kumazaki, 76, a retired forestry professor who heads the Japan Wood Pellet Association.  He was surprisingly candid, telling me that most wood pellet factories weren’t working at full capacity and couldn’t sell all their product.  Wood pellets might make sense in countries with large sawmills that produce waste sawdust.  But because Japan’s lumber industry is moribund, there are no large sawmills.  So these factories expend ridiculous amounts of fossil fuel to produce sawdust and then compress it.

Kumazaki’s grandfather and father ran a sawmill in a small mountain town, but it went out of business in 1960.  In pre-war Japan, Kumazaki’s family had no electricity.  “At that time, we were self-sufficient with forestry resources, burning wood and charcoal and building homes.  Of course, we were poor, so we couldn’t afford to import.  We grew all our own food, mostly rice and wheat, and of course things like tomatoes and cucumbers.  After the war, Japan got rid of firewood and starting using propane and kerosene, symbols of modern life.”

In rural Japan, I saw neatly split firewood, used to heat their hot tubs, cook rice for rice cakes, or to dry tea leaves.  Why not use Japanese technological expertise to make small, inexpensive, energy-efficient wood stoves especially designed to burn cedar, the ubiquitous monoculture?  True, it burns much faster than hardwood, but it splits easily, and when stacked and dried, it could provide cozy radiant heat (and local jobs) in rural areas.  And it would smell wonderful while it waited.  Such small stoves, placed at the heart of the home, would echo the irori, the traditional central firepit of the Edo-era Japanese home.

The magic of photosynthesis turns the sun’s energy into biomass, and humans have developed many ways to get that energy back.  The simplest way, of course, is essential to our lives – we eat it.  Japan once grew all of its own food and could do so again.  Instead, the country imports 60 percent of its food and then wastes much of it.

The average age of a Japanese farmer is 65, though there are some idealistic, dedicated young organic farmers.  There are a few other hopeful signs.  Forty years ago, for instance, the oriental white stork went extinct in Japan, killed by the mercury in pesticides.  Thanks to Tetsuro Inaba, a farmer in the small town of Toyooka, the storks (bred in captivity and then released) are back and thriving, and the organic rice of Toyooka is branded as “Stork-Nurturing Rice.”

Yet 40 percent of Japan’s rice paddies lie fallow because people eat other (often imported) forms of starch.  The government pays the farmers not to grow surplus rice.  Some have proposed using the fallow paddies to grow Hokuriku No. 193, a hardy, prolific strain of rice developed as animal feed.  In several pilot programs, bioethanol has been made from this rice, but without a subsidy, it can’t compete with gasoline.  It may suffer the same fate as plans to make bioethanol from Okinawan sugar cane – the powerful oil industry squelched it.  Still, wouldn’t it be a simple matter for sake manufacturers to modify their process slightly and produce bioethanol as a sideline?

And instead of incinerating 80 percent of wasted food, why not compost it at the household level for the family garden?  Or biodigest it to produce methane, as the Bioenergy Corporation does in Tokyo’s Super Eco Town?  And why not make compost out of human waste, as they do in Yusuhara?  I visited the Edo-Tokyo Museum in Tokyo near the end of my trip, and I learned there that human waste (“night soil”) from the city of Edo (as Tokyo was called before 1869) was prized by farmers in outlying areas, who bought it to nourish their crops. At the museum, I stooped down to shoulder a pole with two buckets of simulated night soil on either end, to see how it was carried.

Later I read Just Enough: Lessons in Living Green from Traditional Japan, by Azby Brown, an American architect who directs the KIT Future Design Institute in Tokyo.  “Japan entered the Edo period in 1603 facing extreme difficulties in obtaining building timber,” wrote Brown, “suffering erosion and watershed damage due to having clear-cut so many of its mountains for lumber, and virtually unable to expand agricultural production….  All the more remarkable, then, that 200 years later the same land was supporting 30 million people — 2.5 times the population.” 

According to Brown, that incredible outcome resulted, in large part, from recycling night soil.