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Forest history and the Great Divergence: China, Japan, and the West compared

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  01 November 2009

Osamu Saito
Institute of Economic Research, Hitotsubashi University, Kunitachi, Tokyo 186-8603, Japan E-mail:


This article surveys changing interrelationships between humans and the earth's forest cover over the past few centuries. The focus is on the interplay between population increase, deforestation, and afforestation at both ends of Eurasia. Through the consideration of long-term changes in population and woodland area, Japan is compared with Lingnan in south China, and the East Asians with two European countries, England and France. Based on East–West comparisons and also on somewhat more detailed intra-Asian comparisons with respect to market linkages and the role of the state, the article examines the proposition made by Kenneth Pomeranz that, although both ends of Eurasia were ecologically constrained at the end of the early modern period, East Asia's pressure on forest resources was ‘probably not much worse’ than that in the West.

Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2009

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1 See, for example, Richards, John F., The unending frontier: an environmental history of the early modern world, Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2003.Google Scholar

2 Pomeranz, Kenneth, The Great Divergence: China, Europe, and the making of the modern world economy, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000Google Scholar. See also Pomeranz, ‘Political economy and ecology on the eve of industrialization: Europe, China, and the global conjuncture’, American Historical Review, 107, 2, 2002, pp. 425–46.

3 One notable exception is Paul Warde, ‘Fear and the reality of the woodland in Europe, c.1450–1850’, History Workshop Journal, 62, 2006, pp. 29–57. Although his article is not meant to be a critique of the Pomeranz thesis, Warde does pose the question of whether early modern Europe was approaching an environmental bottleneck.

4 Kumazawa Banzan, Daigaku wakumon (Dialogues on learning), cited in Saito Osamu, ‘Jinkō to kaihatsu to seitai kankyō: Tokugawa Nihon no keiken kara (Population, development, and the natural environment)’, in Kawada Junzo et al., eds., Chikyū no kankyō to kaihatsu (Global environment and development), Tokyo: Iwanami Shoten, 1998, pp. 140–1.

5 Kume Kunitake, comp., The Iwakura Embassy 1871–73: a true account of the Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary's journey of observation throughout the United States of America and Europe, vol. 3: Central Europe, 1, trans. A. Cobbing, Richmond, Surrey: Curzon Press, 2002, pp. 209, 270, emphasis added.

6 John Richards, ‘Land transformation’, in B. L. Turner II et al., eds., The earth as transformed by human action: global and regional changes in the biosphere over the past 300 years, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990, p. 160.

7 Mark Elvin, ‘Three thousand years of unsustainable growth: China's environment from archaic times to the present’, East Asian History, 6, 1993, pp. 7–46.

8 Christian Fruhauf, Forêt et société: de la forêt paysanne à la forêt capitaliste en pays de Sault sous l’ancien regime, vers 1670–1791, Paris: Editions du CNRS, 1980 (I am grateful to Jean-Pascal Bassino for this reference); D. B. Henderson-Howat, ‘Great Britain’, in UN Economic Commission for Europe, Long-term historical changes in the forest resource, Geneva Timber and Forest Study Papers, 10, Geneva and New York: United Nations, 1996, pp. 23–6; and Alan Grainger, ‘Reforesting Britain’, The Ecologist, 11, 2, 1981, pp. 56–81. See also Richards, ‘Land transformation’, p. 160.

9 Wrigley, E. A., Continuity, chance and change: the character of the industrial revolution in England, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

10 Radkau, Joachim, Nature and power: a global history of the environment, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008, p. 216Google Scholar; Thomas, Keith, Man and the natural world: changing attitudes in England 1500–1800, London: Allen Lane, 1983Google Scholar; Williams, Michael, Deforesting the earth: from prehistory to global crisis, Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2003, p. 274Google Scholar. It is often argued that it was environmental ideas and policies developed and worked out in colonial places such as British India that shaped much of today's environmentalism. See Grove, Richard H., Green imperialism: colonial expansion, tropical island Edens and the origins of environmentalism, 1600–1860, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995Google Scholar; Kenneth Arrow et al., ‘Economic growth, carrying capacity, and the environment’, Science, 268, 28 April 1995, pp. 520–1. For an econometric investigation into this relationship, see Andrew D. Foster and Mark R. Rozenzweig, ‘Economic growth and the rise of forests’, Quarterly Journal of Economics, 118, 2, 2003, pp. 601–37.

11 Totman, Conrad, The green archipelago: forestry in preindustrial Japan, Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1989Google Scholar. Masako Osako's interpretation is that the shift was due ‘primarily to coercive measures imposed on the peasantry and self-regulation within the village community’: ‘Forest preservation in Tokugawa Japan’, in Tucker, R. P. and Richards, J. F., eds.Global deforestation and the nineteenth-century world economy, Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1983, pp. 129–45Google Scholar.

12 Williams, Deforesting, p. 241. He adds that the degree of forest degradation in southern Europe was comparable to that in western Europe, while northern Europe acted as a great supplier of timber.

13 Richards, Unending frontier, p. 622.

14 Pomeranz, Great Divergence, ch. 5.

15 Ibid., p. 236.

16 UN Economic Commission for Europe, Long-term historical changes. Not surprisingly, their margins of errors are wide: for example, even the government statistics for England in 1871 may not be very accurate. As for 1688, a recent work suggests that the correct value could have been as high as 1.6 million hectares, a substantial upward revision from Gregory King's estimate of 1.2 million, although this new calculation is derived from a bold assumption of income elasticity of 1. See Gregory Clark, ‘The price history of English agriculture, 1209–1914’, Research in Economic History, 22, 2004, p. 55.

17 Marks, Robert B., Tigers, rice, silk, and silt: environment and economy in late imperial China, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Pomeranz, Great Divergence.

18 G. W. Skinner, ‘The structure of Chinese history’, Journal of Asian Studies, 44, 2, 1985, pp. 271–92.

19 Cited in Totman, Green archipelago, p. 70.

20 Ibid., and Saito, ‘Jinkō’.

21 Saito Osamu, ‘Dai-kaikon, jinkō, shōnō keizai (Large-scale land reclamation, population, and the peasant economy)’, in Hayami Akira and Miyamoto Matao, eds., Keizai shakai no seiritsu (The emergence of economic society), Tokyo: Iwanami Shoten, 1988, pp. 171–215; Saito, ‘Jinkō’, pp. 143–4.

22 Isoda Michifumi, ‘17 seiki no nōgyō hatten o megutte: kusa to ushi no riyō kara (Agricultural progress in the seventeenth century: with special reference to the use of grass and oxen)’, Nihonshi Kenkyū (Studies in Japanese History), 402, 1996, pp. 27–50. See also Tokuji, Chiba, Hageyama no kenkyū (A study of bald mountains), enlarged and revised edn, Tokyo: Soshiete, 1991Google Scholar; Mizumoto Kunihiko, ‘Kinsei no shizen to shakai (Nature and society in early modern times)’, in Rekishigaku Kenkyūkai and Nihonshi Kenkūkai, eds., Kinsei shakai-ron (Early modern society), Tokyo: Tokyo Daigaku Shuppankai, 2005, pp. 161–92.

23 Osamu, Nishikawa et al., Atorasu Nihon rettō no kankyō henka (An atlas of environmental changes on the Japanese archipelago), Tokyo: Asakura Shoten, 1995, pp. 4, 78–9Google Scholar.

24 Reported in Matao Miyamoto, ‘Quantitative aspects of the Tokugawa economy’, in Akira Hayami, Osamu Saito, and Ronald P. Toby, eds., The economic history of Japan 1600–1990, vol. 1: Emergence of economic society in Japan 1600–1859, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004, p. 38. My own unpublished estimates are quoted and compared with other attempts in Wayne Farris, W., Japan's medieval population: famine, fertility, and warfare in a transformative age, Honolulu, HI: University of Hawaii Press, 2006, pp. 165–71Google Scholar.

25 Warde, ‘Fear’, p. 34.

26 Williams, Deforesting, p. 279.

27 Totman, Green archipelago, ch. 3.

28 Williams, Deforesting, p. 285. Areas most intensively reforested were in the lowlands of the north, while in the uplands a slow degradation was still taking place throughout the century (p. 284).

29 This change of tempo in deforestation is not well captured by Richards’ estimates of world forest areas, 1700–1980 (‘Land transformation’, p. 164). According to his table, the rate of decrease in forest cover was −2.3% per decade between 1700 and 1850 while it was −2.8% per decade from 1850 to 1920.

30 Buck, John Lossing, Land utilization in China: atlas, Shanghai: The Commercial Press, 1937, p. 45, map 12Google Scholar. In the vast plain north of the Yangzi it is difficult to find ‘areas where a considerable proportion of the land is occupied by forests’, while in the south the areas in Lingnan had suffered more deterioration than in Fujian (where ‘a good deal of the forest area is under regular forest management’).

31 Marks, Tigers, pp. 158, 280.

32 Nef, John U., The rise of the British coal industry, London: Routledge, 1932, vol. 1, pp. 156–64Google Scholar. According to Clark's recent estimates, the relative price index of wood products did increase for about a hundred years from the late sixteenth century (‘Price history’, p. 53, figure 5).

33 For an excellent survey of the ‘reality of the woodland’ in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century European states, see Warde, ‘Fear’. Radkau remarks that state authorities’ claims and accusations against other forest users ‘should always be taken with a grain of salt’ (Nature, p. 214).

34 Warde, ‘Fear’, p. 38. The Netherlands was also anomalous, for its use of peat.

35 G. Hammersley, ‘The charcoal iron industry and its fuel, 1540–1750’, Economic History Review, 26, 4, 1973, p. 606; Rackham, Oliver, Trees and woodland in the British landscape: the complete history of Britain's trees, woods and hedgerows, revised edn, London: Dent, 1990, chs. 4–5Google Scholar. See also Williams, Deforesting, pp. 186–93, 291–3.

36 Williams, Deforesting, pp. 196–201, 293–301.

37 Rackham, Trees, p. 97.

38 G.-A. Morin, ‘France’, in UN Economic Commission for Europe, Long-term historical changes, p. 19.

39 Warde, ‘Fear’, especially pp. 46–8. Radkau, Nature, pp. 136–41, 212–21. For a contrast between England and Germany in this respect, see Radkau, Nature, p. 140.

40 Totman did make such a suggestion: see his Green archipelago, pp. 174–7.

41 See notes 22 and 23 above.

42 Radkau, Nature, p. 140.

43 See note 13 above.

44 Nishikawa Zensuke, ‘Ringyō keizaishi-ron: mokuzai seisan wo chūshin tosite (A treatise on the economic history of forestry: with special reference to timber production)’, Ringyō Keizai (Forestry Economics), 134, 135, 137, 138, 1959–60, pp. 4–13, 15–30, 15–31, 6–27; Nishikawa Zensuke, ‘Ringyō keizaishi-ron: ryōshuteki ringyō chitai (A treatise on the economic history of forestry: districts of feudal forestry)’, Ringyō Keizai, 148, 149, 151, 152, 154, 1961, pp. 1–12, 7–23, 28–44, 12–21, 12–21; and Kato Morihiro, ‘Kinsei no ringyō to sanrinsho no seiritsu (Early modern forestry and the emergence of forestry manuals)’, in Sato Tsuneo et al., eds., Nihon nōsho zenshū (Collection of Japan's agrarian manuals), vol. 56: Ringyō (Forestry), 1, Tokyo: Nōbunkyō, 1995, pp. 3–31.

45 Osako, ‘Forest preservation’, p. 137.

46 Totman quotes a local trade statistic of timber, which shows that the number of pieces shipped down the Tenryu declined drastically during the eighteenth century (Green archipelago, p. 72, reproduced in Williams, Deforesting, p. 241). He interprets it as indicating how serious timber depletion was in central Japan, but this Tenryu evidence is more likely to have reflected the effect of prohibitive measures, not a general trend in timber output of the daimyo sector at large.

47 Fujita Yoshihisa, Nihon ikusei ringyō chiiki keiseishi-ron (Regional development of afforestation in early modern Japan), Tokyo: Kokin Shoin, 1995, p. 81, map 2.2.12, reproduced in Totman, Green archipelago, p. xxii.

48 Izumi Eiji, ‘Yoshino ringyō no hatten kōzō (The development and structure of Yoshino forestry)’, Ehime Daigaku Nōgakubu Kiyō (Bulletin of the Department of Agronomy, Ehime University), 36, 2, 1992, pp. 305–463. See also Fujita, Nihon ikusei ringyō, ch. 3.

49 Oishi Shinzaburo, Nihon kinsei shakai no shijō kōzō (Market structures and society in early modern Japan), Tokyo: Iwanami Shoten, 1975, appendix 2 to ch. 3.

50 Osaka-shi Sanjikai, comp., Osaka-shi shi (A history of the city of Osaka), vol. 1, Osaka: Osaka-shi Sanjikai, 1913, pp. 769–79.

51 Kato, ‘Kinsei no ringyō’, pp. 11–16. In this respect, a recent econometric work on post-war community forests (iriaichi) is suggestive. By comparing an ‘individualized’ with a ‘collective’ management system of the iriaichi in sixty-one settlements in a post-war Japanese prefecture, the authors have found that clear definitions of rights and shares that village members are entitled to hold are conducive to timber-tree replanting. See Yoko Kijima, Takeshi Sakurai, and Keijiro Otsuka, ‘Iriaichi: collective versus individualized management of community forests in postwar Japan’, Economic Development and Cultural Change, 48, 4, 2000, pp. 867–86.

52 Yoshitami, Fujita, Kinsei mokuzai ryūtsūshi no kenkyū: Tanba-zai ryūtsū no hatten katei (A study of the history of early modern timber distribution: the case of Tanba timber), Tokyo: Ohara Shinseisha, 1973, pp. 145, 151–2Google Scholar.

53 Foster and Rozenzweig, ‘Economic growth’.

54 Totman, Conrad, The origins of Japan's modern forests: the case of Akita, Honolulu, HI: University of Hawaii Press, 1985, p. 61Google Scholar.

55 Yasukuni Ryoichi, ‘Besshi dōzan no kaihatsu to sanrin riyō (Mining development and forest utilization: a case study of Besshi copper mine)’, Shakai Keizaishigaku (Socioeconomic History), 68, 6, 2003, pp. 663–74. After the 1880s, Sumitomo switched from charcoal and firewood to coal, but at the same time the firm started a large-scale afforestation project in order to prepare for an increase in timber use in the mine.

56 This is the recent consensus: see Kato Morihiro, ‘Ringyōshi kenkyū no hōhō (Methods in the study of forest history)’, in Kinsei sansonshi no kenkyū: Edo jimawari sanson no seiritsu to tenkai (A study of early modern mountain villages: the formation and development of Edo's hinterland forestry), Tokyo: Yoshikawa Kōbunkan, 2007, pp. 262–3.

57 Osamu Saito and Tokihiko Settsu, ‘Money, credit and Smithian growth in Tokugawa Japan’, Hitotsubashi University Hi-Stat Discussion Paper Series, 139, 2006. See also discussions by Jan Luiten van Zanden, ‘The road to the Industrial Revolution: hypotheses and conjectures about the medieval origins of the “European Miracle”’, Journal of Global History, 3, 3, 2008, pp. 342–4.

58 Izumi, ‘Yoshino’, pp. 420–2. For some quantitative evidence of labour input in the transport stages, see Totman, Conrad, The lumber industry in early modern Japan, Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 1995, ch. 3Google Scholar.

59 For the background of this proto-industrial success, see Hiroshi Shimbo and Osamu Saito, ‘The economy on the eve of industrialization’, in Hayami, Saito, and Toby, Emergence, pp. 337–68. During the 1854–65 period, the trend was reversed. In 1859, the country was forced to enter world trade, finding an unexpected, unprecedented increase in demand for raw silk from overseas markets. It changed the supply–demand balance completely. In other words, the sudden rise in the relative price of raw silk after the 1850s was demand driven.

60 Bozhong Li, ‘China's national markets, 1550–1840’, paper presented at the symposium on ‘Multiple paths of economic development in global history’, University of Kyoto, 8–9 November 2008, p. 35.

61 Li Bozhong, ‘Ming Qing shiqi Jiangnan de mucai wenti (The timber problem in Jiangnan in the Ming–Qing period)’, Zhongguo Shehui Jingji Shi Yanjiu (Studies in Chinese Social and Economic History), 1, 1986, pp. 86–96. I am grateful to Thomas Rawski and Yuki Umeno for this important Chinese-language reference.

62 Li, ‘Ming Qing’, pp. 88, 92; Marks, Tigers, pp. 319–20.

63 Menzies, Nicholas K., Forest and land management in imperial China, Basingstoke, Hants: Macmillan, 1994, p. 99CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

64 See three chapters in Christian Daniels, Yan You-geng, and Takeuchi Fusaji, eds., Kishū Byō-zoku ringyō keiyaku monjo waihen, 1736–1950 nen (Old forestry contracts of the Miao in Guizhou, 1736–1950), vol. 3, Tokyo: Tokyo Gaikokugo Daigaku Ajia-Afurika Gengo Bunka Kenkyūjo, 2003: C. Daniels, ‘Seisui ryūiki no Byō-zoku ga shokurin o kaishi suru made: ringyō keiei e karitateta sho-yōin (The origins of Miao afforestation in the Quingshui-jiang valley: factors leading to the creation of a forestry business)’, pp. 9–48; Aihara Yoshiyuki, ‘Shin-dai Chūgoku Kishū-shō Seisuikō ryūiki ni okeru ringyō keiei no ichi-sokumen (An aspect of forestry business in the Quingshui-jiang valley, Guizhou, in Qing China)’, pp. 121–63; and Kishimoto Mio, ‘Guizhou no sanrin keiyaku monjo to Huizhou no sanrin keiyaku monjo (Guizhou's forestry documents, Huizhou's forestry documents)’, pp. 165–90. See also Aihara Yoshiyuki, ‘Shin-dai chūki Kishū tōnanbu Seisuikō ryūiki ni okeru mokuzai ryūtsū kōzō: Caiyun Huangmu Andu no kijutsu o chūshin ni (The distribution mechanism for timber in the south-eastern Guizhou Quingshui-jiang valley during the mid Qing period: an analysis of Caiyun Huangmu Andu)’, Shakai Keizaishigaku, 72, 5, 2007, pp. 547–66.

65 Menzies, Forest, ch. 8.

66 Stephen C. Averill, ‘The shed people and the opening of the Yangzi highlands’, Modern China, 9, 1, 1983, pp. 84–126; Anne Osborne, ‘Highlands and lowlands: economic and ecological interactions in the Lower Yangzi region under the Qing’, in Mark Elvin and Ts’ui-jung Liu, eds., Sediments of time: environment and society in Chinese history, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998, pp. 203–34; Leong, Sow-Theng, Migration and ethnicity in Chinese history: Hakkas, pengmin, and their neighbors, Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1997, ch. 8Google Scholar.

67 Kishimoto, ‘Guizhou’.

68 Aihara, ‘Shin-dai Chūgoku’, pp. 135–6, and Kishimoto, ‘Guizhou’, p. 172.

69 Menzies, Forest, p. 133.

70 Kishimoto, ‘Guizhou’, pp. 187–8.

71 Menzies, Forest, pp. 76–7.

72 Wrigley, Continuity, ch. 2.

73 See a passage from a county gazetteer quoted in Osborne, ‘Highlands’, p. 210.

74 Mark Elvin, ‘The environmental legacy of imperial China’, The China Quarterly, 156, 1998, pp. 733–56; and The retreat of the elephants: an environmental history of China, New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2004, pp. 81–5.

75 Menzies, Forest, p. 87.

76 Ibid., pp. 91–2.

77 Perdue, Peter C., Exhausting the earth: state and peasant in Hunan, 1500–1850, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1987, ch. 3CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

78 Richards, Unending frontier, p. 185. See also Osako, ‘Forest preservation’, p. 144.

79 Totman, Green archipelago, especially ch. 7.

80 Ibid., pp. 163–5. For detailed accounts of local practices, see Shioya Tsutomu, Buwake-bayashi seido no shiteki kenkyū: buwake-bayashi yori bunshū-rin heno tenkai (Historical studies of the shared-forest system: the development from shared forest to divided forest), Tokyo: Rinya Kōsaikai, 1959, parts 3 and 4.

81 Shioya, Buwake-bayashi, p. 101. Despite this tendency, the most common of all observed cases was a fifty-fifty share, closer to that found for the rice tax level in farming.

82 E. Elena Songster, ‘Cultivating the nation in Fujian's forests: forest policies and afforestation efforts in China, 1911–1937’, Environmental History, 3, 3, 2003, pp. 452–73. As I am no specialist in Chinese history, I simply await further research by experts in this field.

83 Kume, Iwakura Embassy, vol. 3, p. 209.

84 Ibid., pp. 270–1.

85 Nishio Takashi, Nihon shinrin gyōseishi no kenkyū: kankyō hozen no genryū (A historical study of forest administration in Japan: the origins of environmental protection), Tokyo: Tokyo Daigaku Shuppankai, 1988, pp. 108–9, 138–40.

86 For the movements of relative prices for 1879–1939, see Kumazaki Minoru, ‘Ringyō hatten no ryōteki sokumen: ringyō sanshutsudaka no keisoku to bunseki (1879–1963) (Quantitative aspects of forestry development: estimates and analysis of forestry production, 1879–1963)’, Ringyō Shikenjō Kenkyū Hōkoku (Proceedings of the Forestry Research Institute), 201, 1967, p. 57.

87 Fujita, Nihon ikusei ringyō, chs. 4 and 5.

88 Kumazaki, ‘Ringyō hatten’, p. 25.

89 Taniguchi Tadayoshi, ‘Zairai sangyō to zairai nenryō: Meiji-Taishōki ni okeru Saitama-ken Iruma-gun no mokutan jukyū (Traditional industry and traditional fuel: demand for and supply of charcoal in the Iruma district, Saitama prefecture, in the Meiji–Taisho period)’, Shakai Keizaishigaku, 64, 4, 1998, pp. 521–46.

90 Nishikawa et al., Atorasu, pp. 4, 8, 10, 12.

91 Chiba, Hageyama, p. 104.

92 Totman notes that, since the climax of a natural succession in a temperate climate of the Japanese archipelago is broadleaved forest growth, ‘even where governments vigorously promoted afforestation, and except in plantation stands, mixed forests came to dominate the mountains of Tokugawa Japan’ (Green archipelago, p. 182). Given what happened after Meiji, however, this is too optimistic an assessment.