"My Neighbor Totoro" Ecosystem Declining in Japan

Julian Ryall
for National Geographic News
December 9, 2008

For birds, dragonflies, and maybe even forest spirits, Japan's agricultural ecosystem known as satoyama is a place where humans and nature have coexisted for centuries.

In addition to supporting villages and small farms, satoyama serves as key habitat for thousands of native wildlife species.

But for the past few decades the pressures of modernization and Japan's aging population have seen rural landowners giving their farms over to developers, and satoyama habitat has been on the decline.

(Related: "Farming Decline Threatens Ireland's Orchid Oasis" [June 24, 2003].)

"There are some really quite dramatic changes in many areas as farmers abandon portions of the landscape, especially rice paddies that are small and inefficient," said Kevin Short, a professor of environmental education at the Tokyo University of Information Sciences (TUIS).

Since the 1960s an increasing percentage of ancient satoyama landscape has been transformed into golf courses, factories, and housing—threatening many species.

Conservation groups have been rallying to save satoyama, and a popular campaign featuring the titular forest spirit from the animated film My Neighbor Totoro has helped raise awareness.

Still, experts fear that Japan's rapidly aging society will impact satoyama's future.

"As farmers are becoming older, there are fewer young people coming to work the land," Short said, "so [aging farmers] are keen … to reduce the amount of labor they need to put in."

Nature vs. Nurture

Literally translated, satoyama is a carefully managed border region between arable land and the mountains that represents development of the Japanese countryside over centuries of agricultural use.

Initially satoyama meant community-managed forests, with fallen leaves collected to use as fertilizer for the rice paddies and fallen branches or harvested trees taken for building, cooking, and heating.

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