Monday, May 30, 2011
Someone once asked Motoori Norinaga, the great eighteenth-century Shinto thinker, to define the word kami, a Shinto god. True to Shinto's ancient animist tradition, he answered, "Kami can be the Sun Goddess, the spirit of a great man, a tree, a cat, a fallen leaf." Yet in modern Japan, fallen leaves are anything but divine; it would be hard to exaggerate the extent to which the public now dislikes them. Most cities, including my own town of Kameoka, near Kyoto, lop off the branches of roadside trees at the end of summer, before the leaves begin to change color and fall onto the streets. This accounts for the shadeless rows of stunted trunks lining the streets in most places. I once asked an official in Kameoka why the city continued this practice, and he replied, "We have sister-city relationships with towns in Austria and China, and when we saw the beautiful shady trees on their streets, we considered stopping. But the shopkeepers and homeowners in Kameoka objected. For them, fallen leaves are dirty and messy. After receiving a number of angry telephone calls, we had no choice but to continue."Id., pp.201-202:
In 1996, NHK television produced a documentary reporting on the difficulties of growing trees in residential neighborhoods in Tokyo. One neighborhood had a stand of keaki (zelkova), which grow tall, with graceful soaring branches resembling the stately elm trees that once marked the towns of New England. Residents complained that the trees blocked the sunlight, shed too many leaves in autumn, and obscured road signs. Many wanted the trees chopped down altogether, but after discussion the city of Tokyo reached a compromise in which it cut down some of them and pruned the tall, arching branches off the rest, reducing them to the usual pollarded stumps found along streets in other parts of the city.
"New Japan does not like trees," Donald Richie wrote in The Inland Sea back in 1971. In Richie's day, this truth was expressed in the tendency to bulldoze parks and plazas; in the 1980s it developed into an aversion to falling leaves, which was discussed in an earlier chapter; in the 1990s, it became an attack on branches. Until very recently, in Tokyo, shady tree-lined avenues surrounded the zoo side of Ueno Park and Tokyo University, but not anymore. A desire on the part of civic administrators to widen the streets and do away with shade has led to new rules that require the pruning of all branches that extend over a roadway; this policy has been carried out all over the country.The Nakahara Kiiko mentioned refers to a heiress who "starting around 1990 ... purchased eight châteaus in France. She and her husband then proceeded to strip them of their interior decorations, after which they carted away statues and marble basins from the gardens and cut down the trees, leaving the properties in ruins." (pp.163-164)
Keats wrote, "the trees/ That whisper round a temple become soon/ Dear as the temple's self"a sentiment clearly not in the mind of the Cultural Ministry when it restored Zuiryuji Temple in the town of Takaoka in 1996. In the true spirit of Nakahara Kiiko, it cut down and uprooted a grove of ancient keaki and pine trees that had stood for hundreds of years in the temple courtyard and replaced them with a wide expanse of raked gravel. Although the temple's founder had expressly designed the courtyard to conjure up the cypress groves of Zen temples in China, the ministry decided that the flat gravel was more Zen to their liking and certainly more beautiful than those messy old trees that interfered with the view.
The new war on urban trees is baffling. I cannot fathom its causes, but I can proffer a guess. The inconvenience posed by trees hardly compares with the telephone poles that take up space on both sides of narrow roads, but perhaps the trees, with their unruly branches going this way and that, offend the authorities' sense of order. Perhaps the long decades sacrificing everything to industrial growth have had their effect: sterility has become part of modern Japanese style. Certainly, if you travel in Asia you can immediately recognize the Japanese touch in hotels and office buildings by the lack of trees and, instead, the rows of low-clipped azalea bushes round them.
A curious aspect of the tree war is the primitive level of skill with which it waged. Japan is the land of bonsai and is famous worldwide for its great gardening traditions. Many and varied are the techniques for pruning and shortening each twig and boughgradual clipping over years or even decades to shape a branch as it grows, props to support old tree limbs as they droop, canvas wrappings to protect bark from cold and insects, and much moresensitive techniques developed over centuries, of which until recently the West knew little. Yet tree pruning in Japan today is truly a hack job. No gradual, delicate work herejust limbs roughly chainsawed off at the base, with no treatment to protect against insects and rot. "What bothers me the most" says Mason Florence, "is the brutality of it. The trees look like animals mutilated or skinned alive in medical experiments."
Hat tip: Eric Thomson.