TOKYO -- Japan's forestry sector is vastly understaffed, leaving lumber resources planted decades ago in danger of going to waste, according to a survey by The Nikkei.
Some 93% of the forest owners' cooperatives polled reported being short-staffed, including 43% that said the number of forestry workers was "insufficient," 41% calling labor "somewhat insufficient" and 9% that claimed a shortage of workers was affecting business. The Nikkei reached out in January to 393 cooperatives and builders of wooden homes, 306 of which responded.
Nearly 30% of Japan is covered in man-made forest, much of it consisting of conifers planted after World War II to meet anticipated housing demand. More than half of those trees are now mature and ready for harvest. But there are not nearly enough workers to take them in: Japan's forestry sector employed fewer than 50,000 people in 2015, compared with more than 140,000 in 1980.
Shrinking lumber demand and the resulting plunge in log prices is behind this decline. Some 78% of co-ops cited low prices as a problem for the industry. The shortage of workers was mentioned by 57%, and slim demand for Japanese lumber by 43%.
Cedar and hinoki cypress logs with diameters between 14cm and 30cm averaged 20-30% of their 1980 peak price in January, according to the Forestry Agency. Declining prices over the years have discouraged production of such lumber, pushing workers out of the sector. Better wages and benefits are necessary to solve the current labor pinch, according to 90% of co-ops and 74% of homebuilders.
Homebuilding can no longer support the lumber market as Japan's population declines. Expanding the nonresidential use of lumber is necessary to stoke demand, according to 57% of co-ops and 65% of homebuilders.
Some 84% of all respondents pointed to public facilities as a promising application for Japanese lumber. Though legislation promoting the use of wood for such projects was enacted in 2010, the Forestry Agency reports that just 10% of public buildings completed as of fiscal 2014 were made of wood, leaving ample room for growth.