- Japan's Imperial Forest, Goryōrin, 1889-1946: With a Supporting Study of the Kan/Min Division of Woodland in Early Meiji Japan, 1871-76
Japan came to the attention of environmental historians with the publication in 1989 of Conrad Totman's The Green Archipelago: Forestry in Preindustrial Japan (University of California Press). The book, still widely read and assigned, appeared at a time when environmental history was a new field, populated mostly by scholars of United States history. It addresses the intriguing question why a small and densely populated country like Japan has survived as a heavily forested "green archipelago," rather than becoming a denuded ecological wasteland on the lines of, say, Haiti. (The answer is complicated, but it involves the afforestation policies of numerous feudal authorities during the Tokugawa period.) Widely praised as a pathbreaking work, The Green Archipelago was in fact the second volume of what has become, with the publication of the book under review, Totman's woodland tetralogy. (Totman's other studies of forest history are The Origins of Japan's Modern Forests: The Case of Akita; University of Hawai'i Press, 1985; and The Lumber Industry in Early Modern Japan; University of Hawai'i Press, 1995.)
Given the topic and Totman's track record as an environmental historian, some readers may be surprised to learn that Japan's Imperial Forest, Goryōrin, 1889–1946 , is not at heart a work of environmental history. To be sure, Totman writes about forest biomes and the impact of human activity on them, but beneath the surface talk of stands, stumpage, and sticks lies an institutional history of a particular subset of land policies in imperial Japan. In fact, the book is two separate institutional histories, one of the attempt to implant new notions of property rights in the immediate aftermath of the Meiji Restoration, and the other of woodland designated in stages through 1890 as the property of the imperial household. The discussion of early Meiji property rights is a "supporting study," which Totman describes as having been "written as a standalone essay for those readers who wish to examine the kan/min topic independently of the subsequent Gory¯rin experience" (p. 1). Perhaps for that reason it comes at the end of the book even though it deals with the period preceding the establishment of the imperial forest. Readers who like their history in chronological order should start with chapter 8 and then go back to chapter 1.
On second thought, the book is two-and-a-half histories. The seven-page preface and a four-page chunk of the conclusion are given over to yet another topic altogether, a brief comparison of Britain and Japan. Totman makes the comparison, apparently, because "observers of Japan often note the many ways in which it and Britain are similar—or dissimilar" (p. xxiv). One similarity is that the monarchy in each country has controlled forests at various times. Otherwise, for the forest historian, the countries' differences far outweigh their similarities, for reasons ranging from the geological to the institutional.
The "supporting study" begins with an audacious claim: "the Meiji government's 1870s–1880s program of woodland reorganization created the greatest conflict between government and people in the entire history of Japan" (p. 101). Golly. Totman [End Page 167] is not kidding, and perhaps he is right, depending on how one measures such things. The conflict he describes was of the seething, low-grade variety, marked by arboricide but not homicide. In any case, considerable crankiness ensued when the Meiji regime tried in the 1870s to redefine property rights, moving from a system that emphasized use rights to one centered on ownership rights. The part of the policy that has made it into textbooks is the agricultural land-tax reform, which gave peasants formal legal title to land they already effectively owned. Totman examines the much trickier problem of defining woodland property...