The Guardian Forest : sacred trees and ceremonial forestry in Japan

University essay from SLU/Dept. of Forest Ecology and Management

Abstract: Forests have played a major role in the development of human society across the world. It is therefore no surprise that a natural resource which is such an integral part of human life gave rise to religious beliefs, superstition and notions of the supernatural in connection to trees. In the Shinto religion in Japan it is believed that kami (“spirits” or “gods”) reside within forests and in nature in general, therefore almost every Shinto shrine has a forest surrounding it. The overarching aim of this project was to study forests and forest management at Shinto shrines in Japan, both in detail but also in a broader comparative perspective. For this study I interviewed three researchers who work with shrine forests and two Shinto priests who work at shrines through questionnaires. A comparative analysis method was used to compare the answers from the four study sites to discuss and draw conclusions. Forests are an integral part of a Shinto shrine. The term Chinju no Mori (lit. “guardian forest”) pertains to the sacred forest within and surrounding the shrine complex. Closeness to nature ensures closeness to the divine, hence why nature is so important in Shinto. Shrine forests are generally well preserved as they are objects of worship in which the kami dwell, and thus cutting such trees is avoided. Forests at shrines are often protected via designation as natural heritage or national treasures, and trees are often designated as historic monuments. It was found that the most important aspect of the shrine forest is that it provides a sacred ambience which emanates from the feeling of closeness to nature. Forest management at the studied shrines was light (influenced by the forest’s location, an urban shrine forest has more intensive management), and the main goal was to keep the forest safe for visitors and for nearby infrastructure. Planting was found to be done for restorative purposes where parts of the forest has been destroyed by fires or similar. Recently management and planting has begun to be done for increasing biodiversity in the forest and directing it to a natural old-growth state. In was found that since shrine forests are exempt from cutting, are either left to grow undisturbed and/or are lightly managed, they tend to have much higher biodiversity than other non-shrine forests. Shrines also keep large old trees which have been shown to be important repositories of biodiversity by providing refugia for many insect and bird species. While many Japanese visit shrines, many visit not out of faith in the kami but rather for tradition. Many visitors also cite the natural environments at shrines at the most important reason for visiting a shrine. I conclude that Japanese Shinto shrine forest has three distinct values: 1) Religious value as sacred forests for the religion, 2) Culturo-historical value as a focal point for the local community and cultural traditions, and for preserving old buildings and art, 3) Ecological value for preserving old large trees, high biodiversity, rare species and being part of the larger ecological landscape, both urban and rural. Finally, I discuss the results and what the future could look like for shrine forests. In a broader international perspective, I think there is a lot to learn from the management of Shinto shrine forests, and it is possible that the management approach utilised in Japan could be partially applied in other countries to create old-growth forests with high ecological and cultural values.

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