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Big Trees

The January 17th issue of Jinja Shinpō carried the latest article about sacred forests, this one concerning “big trees”. The article is by a professor emeritus of Kyoto University, Watanabë Hiroyuki (probably… there is the usual problem with the reading of the name not being given), and is about large, famous trees and their relationship with jinja.

The Japanese government has a formal standard for “kyoboku” or “kyoju” — “big trees” or “giant trees”. This is that the trunk must have a circumference of at least three metres at “chest height”, 1.3 metres above the ground. If the tree is on a slope, you measure from upslope. Professor Watanabë observes that it is not easy to make this measurement; the roots of such large trees tend to make the ground around them very uneven, which means that you can move “chest height” up and down quite a bit by choosing your spot. Since trunks are not perfect cylinders, this means that you can tweak the size of the tree while still following both the spirit and letter of the rules. As a result, the rank tables of the largest trees in Japan are not at all reliable, as a couple of centimetres can make several places’ worth of difference.

That said, of the top ten largest trees in Japan, eight are found at jinja. This is not really surprising, as jinja often have undisturbed woodlands, which gives trees a chance to get big. Once they have done so, they are often revered as “kami trees”, “shinboku”, and have shimënawa hung on them to mark their sacrality, which protects them and lets them grow even larger. Nine of the top ten are camphor trees, kusu-no-ki, because that species tends to grow large (the tree in Totoro is a kusu-no-ki), but the large sacred trees at jinja cover a wide range of species; 68 different species were reported in a survey carried out by the Shasō Gakkai, the academic society for the study of sacred forests. These trees can even be found outside jinja, complete with shimënawa. Some of them are at Buddhist temples, but are still decorated with the sacred ropes associated with Shinto. (Indeed, an area near where I live is called “kami tree”, although it is read “Shiboku”, and that tree was apparently in the precincts of a temple.)

When trees are declared sacred, people often want to touch them, to share their power, but this is bad for the tree, because it compacts the soil around the roots. Thus, a lot of sacred trees are surrounded by fences (and many of these have places for paying reverence with an offertory box).

Such trees are not an unalloyed benefit to the jinja. While they are healthy, people living next door might complain about fallen leaves, or about the tree cutting off the sunlight. The real problem, however, comes when the trees get old. Trees live a long time, but not for ever, and eventually they fall over naturally.

Now, if the jinja has a large forbidden forest (“kinsokuchi”, an area that people are not allowed to enter), then this is fine — the tree can just be allowed to fall over and rot, supporting the ecosystem of the woodland. Most jinja do not have such a forest, however, and certainly not one large enough for a giant tree to safely fall over in. If the jinja is in a residential area, the tree could fall on someone’s house, and even if it is not, it could fall on the sanctuaries.

The normal response to this sort of problem is to cut the tree down before it falls, and often replant. This is not so easy for a jinja. The trees are often quite close to the sanctuary buildings, which means that they cannot just be cut and allowed to fall, because then they might well fall on the buildings. In some cases, there might be no safe direction at all. The normal response to this situation is, apparently, to bring in a crane to support the tree from the top while cutting it at the bottom, so that the fall can be controlled. However, at a lot of jinja there is no way to get heavy machinery in close enough.

That means that the tree has to be cut down piece by piece from the top to the bottom. That takes a long time and is skilled work, so it is very expensive. Most small jinja simply cannot afford to do it, so the tree just stands there, getting steadily more dangerous — until it is no longer standing. Kyoto Prefecture has a program for supporting the sacred forests of both jinja and Buddhist temples, and as a result of this problem they get a lot of applications for subsidies to enable the removal of dangerous trees.

Before that point, however, the trees and the forests containing them make an important contribution to the environment of the area, so we can hope that as many as possible will be preserved.

1 thought on “Big Trees”

  1. It does not escape me that humans are generally bad at end-of-life planning – for people, or for trees.

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