Forestry biz boom
Jun. 1, 2017
Japan's export market continues to revolve around cars and electronics. But demand for wood is also increasing. Exports of it have more than doubled in the past few years. About 80 percent of the logs shipped abroad are from the southwestern island of Kyushu. We report on how the region is able to pull this off.
Kyushu's once-thriving forestry industry has struggled amid slowing demand for Japanese timber and cheaper imports.
But it is bouncing back. One of the reasons is its proximity to markets like China and Korea.
There’s a mountain of 140,000 logs at the port of Shibushi in southern Kyushu. It exports more timber than any other port in Japan.
One buyer from China, Wang Aijun, is at the port. He runs a trading company in Shanghai.
"We don’t have enough Japanese wood imports," Wang says. "We want more."
He bought an astonishing 50,000 logs. A week later, they arrived at a port in Shanghai.
They were taken to a wood processing facility. The logs are used to make packaging material to transport machinery and home appliances. Demand for such wood has increased rapidly in China along with the popularity of online shopping.
"Japanese wood doesn't get moldy, so we switched over from New Zealand-grown wood," says one person at the processing facility.
Behind this rapid growth in exports is Tsukasa Douzono, chief of the Shibushi Forest Cooperative Association.
When Japan’s domestic demand for timber declined, the cooperative started exporting to other countries in Asia.
But it faced an unexpected setback. There was huge demand, and buyers needed a stable supply of large quantities.
Douzono’s association was unable to meet buyers’ demands at first.
“There was a big gap between their demands and what we were able to supply, which meant that we were only able to make one-off sales,” says Douzono.
They decided to cooperate with their former competitors from neighboring Forest Associations. They formed a joint committee with 4 forest associations in southern Kyushu. It was the first collaboration of its kind in Japan.
By working together, they built a supply system that could handle the demands of overseas markets.
They also decided to ship solely out of Shibushi to cut costs and boost efficiency.
“China wants as much as we can supply,” Douzono says. "We can also expect to expand our markets into India and Vietnam.”
Efforts are also underway to sell more expensive, higher quality wood to countries such as South Korea.
The wood can be used to construct traditional Korean buildings known as hanok, which have been gaining popularity.
A hanok is built without any nails or screws. It’s put together by making complex, interlocking joints in the wood. The method takes a long time and is expensive.
“It takes 2 months for carpenters to carve enough wood for a 100 square-meter home,” says Choi Won-cheol, who works at a South Korean construction company.
A lumber mill in the city of Miyazaki might have a solution. This company has developed its own machine, which enables it to cut patterns in lumber.
“No one else can do this type of milling,” says Izumi Kawakami, who is from a lumber-milling cooperative.
The machine can easily make specialized joinery cuts to connect posts and beams. It can cut down the time required to prepare the wood from 2 months to 3 days.
Korean construction firms are eager to import such processed lumber.
“As far as Korean architecture is concerned, the Japanese have the best milling techniques in the world,” Choi Won-cheol says.
International expectations for Kyushu lumber are high. But the number of people engaging in this industry is on the decline. Now, the challenge remains of fostering a new generation of foresters who can adopt new technologies.
Yusuke Goto started a lumber business 7 years ago. Goto has turned to the latest technology to manage his business efficiently. He is using a drone to measure the trees’ growth from above.
“Determining where to cut trees requires some investigation," Goto says. "But if you use the drone, you can do it in less than an hour.”
Goto is also working on a new shipping process. It has always been standard practice for a producer to sell all his timber to one buyer, even when it consists of different varieties and sizes.
But Goto divides the timber into 6 groups, according to the species, thickness, straightness, and other factors. He then ships them out accordingly.
“Our precise classification is our main selling point,” he says.
He thinks that shipping the timber according to its usage, such as for pillars or plywood, will lead to more profit.
“The price of lumber is stagnant," Goto says. "The profit margin is small, but we want to do our very best to reinvigorate the lumber industry.”
Across Kyushu, efforts are being made to train talented people like Goto who can lead the lumber industry with cutting-edge technologies. To achieve further growth, the industry is depending on future leaders like him.