Seeing the forest for the trees

Seeing the forest for the trees

 Office of the Dean May 21, 2020

UCI historian's new book explores the complex history of Japan's forest management in Korea

The blooming of cherry blossoms in parks across South Korea invites more than just awe; it also raises complicated questions about the environmental legacies of Japan's colonial occupation of Korea. These are the focus of Seeds of Control: Japan’s Empire of Forestry in Colonial Korea (University of Washington Press, 2020), an environmental history by David Fedman, assistant professor of history at the University of California, Irvine. Through archival research and frequent trips to both Japan and South Korea, Fedman pieces together the story of how Japan’s interventions in Korean forests during colonial times played out, and how that legacy lives on even today. 

Here, we discuss with Fedman the impetus for his book and the surprising ways forests can become political subjects.

How did this book project come about?

While a case could be made that this project originated on my grandfather's pecan farm, the seeds were actually sown on a hillside in the outskirts of Seoul. There, nearly a decade ago, I encountered a group of Korean retirees systematically uprooting trees they considered the residue of Japanese colonial occupation. I'll spare you the details (so as not to spoil the introduction to the book), but—suffice to say—my conversation with the group left me with more questions than answers. Once I got back into the archive, I realized that a fascinating story could be told about how Japan, a society with a rich tradition of forest management, exploited, reclaimed and controlled the woodlands of its colonial empire.

Where did your research take you and did you have any surprising discoveries along the way?

My research took me to archives, libraries and forests across Japan and South Korea. Along the way, I was fortunate to get to know a great group of researchers in both countries, whose influence and guidance is imprinted deeply in the book. I suppose one of my discoveries was that, contrary to prevailing narratives in both Koreas of absolute exploitation under colonial rule (1905-1945), Japanese forestry officials were deeply invested in planting trees during their occupation of the peninsula. I began this project expecting to conduct a damage assessment of sorts: calculating the degree of resource extraction and the toll inflicted on the Korean landscape by ax-wielding colonists. What I soon discovered, however, was a much more complicated story about the uneven consequences and power dynamics of colonial conservation. Driven by utilitarian concerns with scarcity and fears of cascading environmental degradation, colonial officials implemented tree-planting programs of all sorts—seed farms, erosion control projects, school forests and so on. This, at least, was the case until 1937, when the outbreak of war with China ushered in a harvest of sylvan resources.

In a basic sense, the book is an attempt to restore some complexity to firmly entrenched narratives of unambiguous forest plunder under Japanese colonial rule. These narratives, while powerful, largely obscure how forestry in general and silviculture in particular functioned as instruments of social control. The book, in essence, relates a story about a darker shade of green: a project of forest regeneration laced with exploitation, displacement, and bodily suffering.

We would all be familiar with imperialism as a topic but perhaps less so with “imperial forestry.” What is this generally and how do we see this play out specifically in Korea?

Imperial forestry describes a shared set of practices, convictions and institutions that bound Japanese forestry professionals into a network that spanned the Japanese empire itself. At one level, the book describes the process through which Japanese woodsmen (with a venerable forestry tradition all their own) came to terms with Western notions of natural resource management and "scientific forestry." It shows how Japanese foresters tailored European ideas about ecology, sustainability, and industrial development to the particular needs of the Japanese empire and the different biomes it encompassed.

While the book is focused on Korea in particular, it also makes a number of claims about the Japanese empire as a whole. One of its central propositions is that Japan has played an outsized role in the management and control of Asia's forests. To understand how Japan has maintained such verdant hillsides at home, I argue, we need to more fully appreciate its control of sylvan landscapes abroad—be they in the colonial empire before 1945 or in Southeast Asia thereafter. Japan's presence in the forests of Asia did not suddenly vanish with its defeat in 1945. To the contrary, Japanese corporations, often working through subcontractors and local proxies, have stood at the center of the postwar processing and export of Southeast Asian tropical timber for domestic and global consumption. The book, as such, tries to take a long view of the ecological shadows cast by Japan across the Pacific Rim. It suggests that we ought to place tenant farmers in colonial Korea and shifting cultivators in Kalimantan in the same analytical frame. 

What are some of the ways can see the impact of Japan’s imperial forestry in Korea today?

The most obvious legacies are material: flora introduced during colonial occupation that still grow in Korea today. One of the more interesting and complicated examples of this is the cherry blossom. As part of a campaign to supposedly "beautify" the Korean landscape and inculcate Korean subjects with "forest love," Japanese settlers planted Yoshino cherry blossoms along streets, in squares, and within parks across Korea. While Koreans made every effort after liberation in 1945 to replace these trees with varietals native to the peninsula, cherry blossoms nonetheless offer a reminder of the traces of colonial forestry. In fact, Japanese and South Korean scientists are currently locked in a "blooming row" over the bio-geographical origins of the cherry blossom, with South Korean botanists claiming the Yoshino blossom actually came from Cheju Island. This is just one example of what I call "sylvan nationalism" in East Asia.

Another impact can be found in the forestry institutions founded during colonial rule. The flagship Forestry Research Station established by the colonial government, for example, only grew after liberation, becoming a hub of agro-forestry research that underpinned South Korea's economic take-off under Park Chung-hee. Many of the architects of South Korea's so-called "forest miracle"—the wildly successful project of reforestation in the 1960s and 70s—were trained in colonial scientific institutions. This is not to suggest that the dense forests that today blanket South Korea are somehow due to colonial rule. Reforestation under Park was born of markedly different circumstances—its Cold War context, authoritarian rule and energy portfolio. But that doesn't mean that foresters on either side of 1945 weren't united by the same sets of anxieties and aspirations. What I try to bring to the fore in the book is a set of abiding concerns that have animated forest conservation measures across the full sweep of the tumultuous twentieth century in Korea.

You’ve studied the ondol stove and its importance in the Korean household. What role did it play in Japan’s imperialism?

I never thought I'd end up reading or writing so much about domestic heating technology, but references to the ondol (the radiant heated floors conventional to Korean dwellings) are everywhere in the forester's archive. Japanese woodsmen quickly marked the ondol and its associated lifestyle as ground zero of deforestation. By the 1920s, forestry officials had launched an ambitious campaign to gain control over the energy consumption patterns of the home—a crusade on caloric inefficiency that furthered the reach of the colonial state into the domestic sphere. In this sense, the ondol provides an illuminating lens through which to examine how forestry touched the lived, even bodily, experience of colonial rule in a sometimes bitterly cold environment. This is especially true of the civilian experience of the Asia-Pacific War in Korea, a period of fuel scarcity that resulted in draconian programs of caloric control.

The ondol proved such a rich topic that I actually ended up cutting a lot of material from the book and publishing it as a stand-alone article, which you can read here.

What do you hope readers take away from your book?

Three things spring to mind. One is that we have much to gain by looking beyond the boundaries of the islands of Japan to write its environmental history. Understanding the tree-smothered hillsides of the so-called "green archipelago" requires that we pay close attention to its material linkages with the rest of Asia. It demands that we track commodity chains, supply lines, and resource politics across the Pacific.

A second key point is that forestry reveals a new face of colonial officialdom in Korea. Far from omnipotent actors or paragons of technocratic efficiency, Japanese forestry bureaucrats in Korea were routinely forced back to their drawing boards. They pivoted, caved and re-grouped as they reckoned with geopolitical, market and natural forces often well beyond their control. In this respect, the book develops arguments about the nature and limits of state power. It establishes a timberline view of colonial society in order to better understand how colonial officials tried and sometimes failed to control the unruly uplands of the peninsula.

Lastly, the book underscores the simple but easily overlooked point that the greening of landscapes is not always a singularly good thing. Although we tend to positively associate "greenification" with investment and renewal, reforestation can also operate as a tool of expropriation and exploitation. At a time when scientists and activists are calling for massive tree planting schemes to combat climate change, we'd be wise to think carefully and critically about what this breakneck regeneration looks like on the ground for local residents, human and animal both.

Officially out on July 23, 2020, Seeds of Control: Japan’s Empire of Forestry in Colonial Korea is available for pre-purchase now.

Follow Fedman on Twitter @dfedman.