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Thread: Japanese cities' lack of seasonal balance due to a man-made biodiversity

  1. #1
    Twirling dragon Maciamo's Avatar
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    Post Japanese cities' lack of seasonal balance due to a man-made biodiversity

    EDIT : title modified due to inappropriate wording.

    During my years in Japan, I was told hundreds of times about the 4 seasons of Japan, that the Japanese seem to be so proud of. The Japanese also compliment themselves on their closeness to nature. I never really understood what the fuss was about. Don't misunderstand me, I love nature, and since my childhood I have been able to recognise numerous trees just by their leaves, or made a point to distinguish a mouse from a long-nosed shrew or a stout vole. I gave up studying species once I reached teenagehood, so my knowledge is still pretty superficial, but probably better than average.

    What I mean here is that the Japanese only seem interested in nature and the seasons, but usually don't know much about either of them. And indeed Japan is far from exceptional for its nature and seasons, which is my second criticism.

    It is now 10 months that I have returned to Europe, and during this time I paid particular attention to the passing of the seasons compared to Japan. Here are my observations.

    Biodiversity

    Here in Belgium, when I go to the park I can find dozens, and sometimes hundreds of kinds of trees and shrubs. In Japanese cities you always find the same few trees everywhere : cherries (along the main roads and canals, and in parks), plums (esp. around temples and shrines), gingko (along many of Tokyo's roads), and momiji (esp. in mountains and gardens) + a few conniferous like the Japanese cedar (sugi) and the pine (matsu). Hardly ever do we see oaks (kashiwa), beeches (buna), elms, maples (kaede, apart from momiji), lindens (shina), chestnuts (kuri), walnuts (kurumi), willows (yanagi), birches (shirakaba), poplars (popura), etc. Yet most of these trees are also native of Japan, as the Japanese names (and kanji) indicate.

    Trees in cities and parks are the reflection of human selection. I understand that the Japanese mania of cherry blossoms has led them to plant chery trees everywhere, but unfortunately to the demise of other species. My wife, who has always lived in Tokyo, has no idea what most of the above-mentioned trees look like, eventhough she has heard of their names.

    Seasons

    Autumn is slowly arriving in Belgium (although we've still had over 25'C recently). The first leaves have been falling since late August, and will continue to fall until late October to mid November. The great diversity of trees means that the "autumn leaves" (koyo) seasons is much longer in Belgium than in Japan, as each varity of tree sheds its leaves at a different time. Instead of having 2 weeks of "koyo" like in Japan, we have about 3 months. This feels like a real season (3 months is exactly the lenghth each season should be, to be perfectly balanced).

    This summer was particularily hot and sunny in July (and September). My image of summer was always that of the sun and long daylight. Sun rises around 5am and sets around 10:30pm in late June and early July. Still now, a few days from the Autmumn Equinox (21 September being the official first day of Autumn here), we still have longer days than in Japan in June. Summer in Kanto is so rainy and cloudy (and dark) that the only thing that make it feel like summer is the heat. For me, a typical Japanese summer is not summer. It's a strange season reminding me more of tropical countries. In fact, this semi-tropical climate starts around May and continues until October in Japan. So almost half of the year is tropical, hence the term "semi-tropical".

    Of course Japan is not homogenous when it comes to seasons. Normal as it streches over 3000km, as far as from England to Turkey, across all continental Europe ! Hokkaido and the Tohoku region are much colder and snowier in winter and do not get so hot and muggy in summer. Their climate are more similar to Eastern Europe. Okinawa has no real seasons. So I will concentrate on the heart of Japan, between the Kanto and Kyushu (where 90% of the Japanese live).

    Even Spring, Japan's most "sacred" season thanks to the cherry blossoms, is hardly a season by European standard. Cherries only blossoms for 1 or 2 weeks, and once it is gone there are rather few flowers and blossoms to remind you that you are still in Spring. In Belgium, we also have cherry blossoms (some neighbourhoods also have streets lined with blossoming cherry trees), but so many other blossoming trees and shrubs (white, yellow, pink, red, orange...), and so many flowers on the balconies, in the parks or elsewhere, that it really does feel like Spring until leaves grow all over the trees and the temperature rises to reach Summer.

    Here is a typical flowerbed found in a Belgian city in Spring (here in front of a train station) - and this is nothing compared to the Netherlands :

    Last edited by Maciamo; Sep 23, 2006 at 07:02.

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  2. #2
    Banned Mike Cash's Avatar
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    I work outside and consequently am well aware of the passing of the four seasons in Japan (or at least my little corner of it).

    I can understand not encountering much biodiversity in Tokyo. Sad to say, even out here in the Gunma boondocks I have to make a conscious effort to walk on grass every now and then....seems there's never anything but concrete or asphalt underfoot.

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    Setting aside the great Belgian story, gingko's hisotry is very interesting.
    It was everywhere on the earth tens of millions years ago, but mysterically it all became extinct except southern part of China.
    Then the samurai ruling class in the Kamakura adopted Zen and Ginko from China, so the tree became a sort of symbol of newly ruling class, samurai, after the Heian era.
    Imagine if no ginko had been introduced to Germany, what poem had Goethe written for his young partner. You don't have to write a nice poem like him, but your partner would highly appreciate your kindness if you pick up ginko nuts for her to eat there.
    FYI: The easiest way to cook the nuts is to put them in a paper envelope and heat them in a microwave oven.

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    Junior Member DoctorP's Avatar
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    I would add that the lack of biodiversity (as you put it) in cities is due to lack of creativity. Japan has many different species of trees, however you will be hard pressed to find them within city limits. Venture out into the countryside and you will notice the difference.

  5. #5
    puzzled gaijin
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    CC1 is probably right, though I have still been hard pressed to see colorful autumns here unless I travel to some special area. Contrast this with New England in the US, where driving to work brings you in direct contact every day with a colorful landscape.

    The seasons thing in Japan is another one of those mysteries of naiveness!

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    Tubthumper JimmySeal's Avatar
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    Japan has shiki - four seasons - spring, summer, fall, summer, as any Japanese person will be delighted to teach you.

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    Danshaku Elizabeth's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by CC1 View Post
    I would add that the lack of biodiversity (as you put it) in cities is due to lack of creativity. Japan has many different species of trees, however you will be hard pressed to find them within city limits. Venture out into the countryside and you will notice the difference.
    If I remember correctly, the exact number in Japan is a grand total of more than 5,000 species of trees and shrubs, herbs and grasses (higher plants) which comes to around a quarter of the US total.

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    Twirling dragon Maciamo's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Elizabeth View Post
    If I remember correctly, the exact number in Japan is a grand total of more than 5,000 species of trees and shrubs, herbs and grasses (higher plants) which comes to around a quarter of the US total.
    If you are looking at all plants, including the rare ones and imported ones, it is easy to reach impressive numbers. The National Botanic Garden of Belgium (just outside Brussels) has over 18,000 species of plants ! In comparison, Tokyo's Jindaiji Botanical Garden (the biggest in Japan ?) ha sonly 4,500 species of plants. Let alone Koishikawa Shokubutsuen, near the Imperial Palace, which has maybe less plants than a regular Belgian park (or some personal backyards).

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    Junior Member DoctorP's Avatar
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    Japan also doesn't allow for a lot of different species to be imported for fear of overpopulation.

    Too bad other countries didn't do this with Japan...Kudzu has taken over in many places of the US!

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    Regular Member taehyun's Avatar
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    I think this is little bit complicated and we shouldn't judge only from one point of view. It is absolutely correct that the trees and all other plants (and animals) are connected with some kind of belief, are worshied and traditional part of the Japanese landscape.
    Behind this, however, is the way Japanese are used to see the nature. It is not just the nature, it is a friend, a partner or an enemy, it is alive and it is a kind of society itself, only it follows rules and order different from ours.They are deities, they transform into humans and contact humans, marry them, kidnap them, protect them.
    Japanese want to know and to be in contact with their nature, not just to watch it or use it...They have smaller amount of plants, because they want to know every type, for it is a living creature.
    And as for the 4 seasons...The climat changes all over the world.
    Wanna walk like a normal human being again

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    Quote Originally Posted by gaijinalways View Post

    The seasons thing in Japan is another one of those mysteries of naiveness !
    Someone never missed a chance in unmasking Japan's artifical uniqueness.

  12. #12
    Twirling dragon Maciamo's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by taehyun View Post
    Behind this, however, is the way Japanese are used to see the nature.
    More than Europeans or Americans ? 1/4 of the Japanese live in the Greater Tokyo, and another fourth in other big cities of over 1 million inhabitants. Parks are much scarcer in Japanese cities than in Western cities. Tokyo is only concrete as far as the eye can see (even from the top of a tower). I really don't think that modern Japanese are more used to see nature, or are closer to nature than almost any other people in the world. It is a bit ironic that Japan's native religion (Shintoism), which is all about the relation between humans and nature, has resulted in Japan being one of the country the most alienated from nature.

    Japanese want to know and to be in contact with their nature, not just to watch it or use it...They have smaller amount of plants, because they want to know every type, for it is a living creature.
    One of my complaints was that my wife and a good deal of the Japanese I met had very little knowledge of plants and animals. I was asked by educated adults whether deer ate rabbits ! (no kidding) When some of my Japanese students started talking about cherry blossoms, I asked them whether they prefered yae-zakura, somei-yoshino-zakura, ookan-zakura, chidare-zakura, or othe varieties, and quite a few of them weren't sure what was the difference between them (although it is pretty obvious).


    And as for the 4 seasons...The climat changes all over the world.
    What is that supposed to mean ? Japan did not have 4 seasons before ? Does it not have 4 seasons now because of climate change ? Do other countries aquire 4 seasons ? I really don't think that any of those are true (except over millions of years, but not since the beginning of human civilisations).

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    Quote Originally Posted by Maciamo View Post
    More than Europeans or Americans ? 1/4 of the Japanese live in the Greater Tokyo, and another fourth in other big cities of over 1 million inhabitants. Parks are much scarcer in Japanese cities than in Western cities. Tokyo is only concrete as far as the eye can see (even from the top of a tower). I really don't think that modern Japanese are more used to see nature, or are closer to nature than almost any other people in the world. It is a bit ironic that Japan's native religion (Shintoism), which is all about the relation between humans and nature, has resulted in Japan being one of the country the most alienated from nature.
    I guess you've travelled a lot around Japan, but not Tokyo. If your wife was from Okutama, western part of edit: TOKYO, you might complain how boring Tokyo life is.
    And forest coverage ratio...
    Tokyo>Your country (of course, this is only Tokyo, does not include kanagawa, saitama or other neibouring cities)
    But, population density in Tokyo and your country...
    So how many Belgians think biodiversity includes your great Botanic Garden?
    For me, a botanic garden is just a garden.
    Last edited by pipokun; Sep 18, 2006 at 20:32. Reason: okutama is in tokyo

  14. #14
    Twirling dragon Maciamo's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by pipokun View Post
    So how many Belgians think biodiversity includes your great Botanic Garden?
    For me, a botanic garden is just a garden.
    No, that was just an example in response to Elizabeth's post. The actual number of plants in a country does not mean much, because nowadays species are imported from numerous countries. That is why it becomes difficult to say which species is native and which is not. How long does it take for a species to become "native" ? Cherry trees were imported from China to Japan. Are they native ? If yes, why not a import from 100 or 50 or 20 years ago ? My point was that there are few different kinds of trees in Japanese cities, because Japanese people like to have a lot of the same trees (e.g. gingko, cherries...) rather than a lot of diversity. I guess it matches the Japanese concept of harmony through homogeneity.

    The 2nd point of this thread was that Autumn in Japanese cities was very shortlived (only about 2 weeks of "koyo") because of this lack of diversity in trees, while in Belgium the "koyo season" matches almost exactly the 3 months of Autumn. This is also true for flowers and blossoms in Spring. Therefore, Belgian (and most other European) seasons are more clearly marked than in Japan. Therefore, why do the Japanese think of their 4 seasons are more clear-marked ?

    If I were Chinese I would ask the Japanese government for a public apology for having taught its people lies about the seasons which have deeply offended trees in my country, because the spirit of the trees in the parks heard Japanese tourists say that Japanese trees had more colourful leaves in autumn.

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    puzzled gaijin
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    Actually the Great Kanto Plain covering from Tokyo to Hiroshima and something like 85% of the population of Japan. I hardly see much nature in that big metro spread. Luckily though, there is quite a bit of small gardens in Tokyo, but as Maciamo related, very little open park areas (some 18% compared to London/NYC at about 60%).

    Add to that the Japanese consideration of nature includes the sentiment that artifical nature in arranged gardens is somehow nature made better! Uh sure, many areas in Europe and the US are reforested farmland in some cases, but these areas aren't ridgely planted in symetrical rows as well bending branches to make nice shapes. Natural indeed.

    taehyun posted
    Japanese want to know and to be in contact with their nature, not just to watch it or use it...They have smaller amount of plants, because they want to know every type, for it is a living creature.
    Uh, they hardly seem to know them, so in what sense are you referring to? Some Japanese do seem to enjoy going out in nature, though others are dreadly afraid of it, insects, etc. Remember some Japanese consider living in an urbanized suburb to be living in inaka!

    By the way Maciamo, personally, I wouldn't worry too much about comparing gardens as that doesn't support your main points as well. Remember, man-made gardens are hardly 'natural'.

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    Junior Member DoctorP's Avatar
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    I feel sorry for you and Maciamo as your view of Japan seems limited to the cities. The two of you should get out more and view the countryside.

    It is true that places like Tokyo are poorly planned and now mostly concrete, but there are truly beautiful places too that have a full Autumn and many beautiful colors.

    It pains me that most every comparison on this forum goes back to Tokyo. Japan is much more than that!

    Importing different species to your native country to improve its diversity isn't a good thing. On the surface it may seem like a good idea, but it isn't always. Some species become intruders, actually choking off life to other species. Maybe if you don't like the diversity in Japan you shouldn't hold the Japanese people directly responable, but rather Mother Nature...she ultimately decided what species would grow where.

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    i think the important thing is the mind that feel four season.
    then it is how we must express the season in the cocreat jungle like festival, food , ceremony, fashion........

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    Twirling dragon Maciamo's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by CC1 View Post
    I feel sorry for you and Maciamo as your view of Japan seems limited to the cities. The two of you should get out more and view the countryside.
    It is true that places like Tokyo are poorly planned and now mostly concrete, but there are truly beautiful places too that have a full Autumn and many beautiful colors.
    It pains me that most every comparison on this forum goes back to Tokyo. Japan is much more than that!
    But Okinawa is hardly Japan. Most Japanese live in big cities, not in the countryside. I don't care at all what Japan looks like, I care about what most Japanese people say and feel about nature and the seasons. Why the hell would I criticise the way nature is in a specific part of the world ? What matters is how humans interact with it and control it. The Japanese cut their beautiful forests to plant "sugi", then put concrete on every mountain, hill, river bank or coast that can come into contact with people, then they claim they have a deep respect and admiration for nature because of Shintoism and appreciate the passing of the seasons more than anybody else. This is what bothers me. It's like if they said that were vegetarian but ate meat everyday anyway. It's like saying that they love democracy but nobody cared about politics or bothered to vote at elections.

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    Regular Member taehyun's Avatar
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    Thank you for your reply.
    I mixed things a little bit and caused misunderstanding
    Traditionally, form 8th century till the beginning of 20th,when the "father "of the folkloristic studies in Japan ,Yanagita, did his research and collected all that stuff, yes ,there has been knowledge about nature ...plants ,animals ,anything.
    But the economical boom in the 60ties , which turned Japan into the biggest consumer society in the world whiped out any knowledge, and any will of apprehension - cherries are to eat them and to drink a lot under the tree, plums are for jam, etc...And all this results in the tragicomical situations Macciamo described.
    I read about the view on the nature in books, based on researches made 100 years ago, when still the traditions were alive, and Japanese hadn't cut their roots with their own hands

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    Junior Member DoctorP's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Maciamo View Post
    But Okinawa is hardly Japan.
    I have lived in many areas of Japan. I, myself, do not refer to Okinawa as Japan, I will call it Okinawa. It is much different than the rest of Japan. You are the one whose view has been limited to a confined area.

    Most Japanese live in big cities, not in the countryside.
    Actually many have homes in both areas. They live in the city during the work week and escape during the weekends!

    Why the hell would I criticise the way nature is in a specific part of the world ? What matters is how humans interact with it and control it. The Japanese cut their beautiful forests to plant "sugi", then put concrete on every mountain, hill, river bank or coast that can come into contact with people,
    I think that the concrete you refer to is used to prevent soil runoff, and damage to the environment (at least in the countryside). You say that they cut their forests, but I know of many forests that have never been touched.

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    Twirling dragon Maciamo's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by CC1 View Post
    It is much different than the rest of Japan. You are the one whose view has been limited to a confined area.
    Are you pretending to know better than me which places I have been to in Japan ? I can tell you that among all the cities I have seen in Kyushu, Chugoku, Shikoku, Kansai, Chubu, Kanto or Hokkaido, almost all fit the description I made of Tokyo regarding the lack of diversity in trees, and the lack of nature within the city in general compared to European cities of the same size. Naturally a town of 100,000 inhabitants will be greener than Tokyo, but never as green as in Europe. Even Japanese villages tend to have all houses concentrated around the centre (usually around the station), with no or very small gardens/backyards for each house. In Europe, even in the big cities like London people have a backyard (and/or frontyard), with trees, flowers, little birds... No wonder most Japanese are clueless about plant names beyond the few "nationalist symbols" like sakura, ume, fuji, kiku or tsutsuji.

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    Junior Member DoctorP's Avatar
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    again, I wasn't referring to cities, I referred you to the countryside. Sorry that you missed that.

  23. #23
    Twirling dragon Maciamo's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by CC1 View Post
    again, I wasn't referring to cities, I referred you to the countryside. Sorry that you missed that.
    And I mentioned the towns and villages that make up the countryside. Sorry you missed that.

  24. #24
    Junior Member DoctorP's Avatar
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    I didn't miss it...many of the areas that I chose to live in, the homes were about 1/2 km apart from one another with farmland everywhere and quite a few forests and wildlife...it was actually quite peaceful and a lot like home.

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    Twirling dragon Maciamo's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by CC1 View Post
    I didn't miss it...many of the areas that I chose to live in, the homes were about 1/2 km apart from one another with farmland everywhere and quite a few forests and wildlife...it was actually quite peaceful and a lot like home.
    That is not the point of this thread. I am talking about the influence of Japanese people on the biodiversity (mostly in cities), resulting in a poor knowledge of native species of Japan (e.g. inability to recognise a beech or an oak from the leaves).

    I don't give a damn about your living around farmland. Please stay on topic.

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