The article about sacred forests in the March 14th issue of Jinja Shinpō was, in a way, a sequel to the article the previous week. That article, which I talked about last time, covered the question of preserving sacred forests in a general sense, while the March 14th article was about two specific examples: bamboo, and deer.
The bamboo in question is mōsō bamboo, which was introduced to Japan from China during the Edo period (1600-1850ish). It can be used in manufacturing a wide range of goods, and the shoots are edible, so it was planted widely in the mountains around villages as a resource for the people who lived there. This was fine while people still harvested it constantly, but as times changed, and particularly after WWII, a lot of the bamboo was just left to grow.
This can be a problem, because it can shoot up to a height of fifteen metres, in dense stands, and it is evergreen. This means that it can crowd out almost anything, blocking the light to the forest floor. Bamboo groves are quite pretty, but it’s less good if they are the only thing you have, and mōsō bamboo does tend to be invasive, and crowd out almost everything else. (It’s an invasive plant introduced in the premodern period by the indigenous people of a non-European country. Human beings: messing up their own environment since forever.)
A specific example was discussed of an affected sacred forest, at Hino Jinja in Hyōgo Prefecture. The sacred forest was designated as a prefectural natural monument in 1971, but a stand of mōsō bamboo had been planted in one corner of the jinja precincts, and had started spreading into the sacred forest. In 2009, volunteers started working to cut it back, and now the sacred forest is clear of bamboo. Even though the sacred forest was a natural monument, it still needed human intervention to preserve its “natural” state.
The other example concerns Japanese deer. These have been increasing in numbers across the country in recent years, partly because rural depopulation means that people do not keep them under control, and partly because the elimination of the Japanese wolf some time ago means that they have no animal predators anymore. Deer are even harder to deal with than the bamboo, because you can’t have volunteers come on a weekend and clear the deer out of a sacred forest. Well, obviously, you can, but the deer just come back when the volunteers have gone home. The Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries has a policy of trying to reduce the numbers of deer (and boar) by half by next year, but jinja also need to look at measures such as putting fences around their sacred forests to protect them.
The most interesting part about the deer, however, concerned part of the sacred forest at Kasuga Taisha in Nara. The deer are the sacred animal of the kami there, and at one time harming them carried the death penalty. They are still there, and famous for bowing to tourists in return for deer crackers. The sacred forest on the sacred mountain (Mt Mikasa) behind the jinja is a natural monument, as a forest of nagi, Asian Bayberry. This woodland is unusual, and the deer seem to be responsible. The deer roamed freely in the area, even if people were not allowed to enter, and it seems that they do not eat nagi trees or their fruit, but do eat the other trees that naturally grow in this area. Thus, over time the deer transformed the forest into a nagi forest.
Obviously, there is no need to do anything about this particular case, because the sacred forest at Kasuga Taisha now is a nagi forest, and a natural monument, but it is evidence of how much the deer can change a forest if they are not controlled. It also raises interesting questions about what “natural” means, but those are far too large for this blog post.