2. Japanese Cedar

Cryptomeria japonica: Japanese Cedar

Cultural Significance

Japanese cedar (Cryptomeria japonica) was extremely important in ancient Japanese society, both as a source of building material and for its spiritual aspects.  Traditional Japanese culture places high value on natural items, and this attitude persists to the modern day.  The ancient Japanese religion of Shinto represented a connection between man and nature and tall trees had a special significance.  Japanese cedars are found at the center of many Shinto shrines.  Japanese cedar, known as “sugi” in Japanese, is the national tree of Japan.

Native Ecosystems

Japanese cedar is an evergreen tree that is native exclusively to the islands of Japan.  Almost immediately after Japan opened relations to the western world, this species was imported in many countries, including the United States.  Commonly known as Japanese cedar, this tree is a shapely and valuable pine, which makes up a significant portion of Japanese forests.  The cultivar “Yoshino” is regularly used as an ornamental in the United States, but these dwarf-versions barely resemble the native variety.

In 1639, Japan chose to expel all foreigners from the island nation.  Previous to this date, Western naval powers such as the Dutch and the Spanish had trade relations with Japan, but their attempts to exploit the Japanese people and land combined with unwanted Catholic conversion missionaries, compelled Japan to close itself off to the vast majority of outsiders.  This era came to an end with the infamous landing of American Commodore Mathew Perry’s expeditionary force.  Beginning in 1853, Japan slowly began to trade with western countries again.  Fearing that their country would be forced to open its ports by military intervention (as was the case with China), Japanese delegates signed treaties with the United States and European countries in order to avoid war.  By 1860, Japan had an official embassy in the United States.  The very next year, 1861, is the year credited with the introduction of Japanese cedar to western forests and tree collections. 

Beneficial Uses

The wood of Japanese cedar is considered fairly soft, with a tendency toward knotting.  While the wood was used in ancient and medieval periods for housing and structures, the cedar-wood fell out of favor for foreign woods, mostly imported from Canada or Finland.  The uses of Japanese cedar have been more structural than medicinal.  As revealed by an excavation in the Fukui prefecture, Japanese cedar was used to create many objects in ancient Japan.  At the site, elements of housing, ships, buckets and wagons fashioned from the tree were recovered.  Dating these artifacts puts the site at 3500 BCE.  Until Japan opened its ports to the western world, Japanese cedar was the most useful and most revered tree in the entire country.  Recently, the Japanese cedar has been used extensively by craftsman as a source for furniture wood.  While the wood fell out of favor due to its knots and soft texture, some Japanese companies have embraced the flaws in the wood to create highly individualized and purely Japanese products. 

Biological Characteristics

This cedar is a very large tree, growing over 100 feet tall, reaching a trunk diameter of ten feet.  Japanese cedar can live over 300 years and perhaps as much as 2,000 years, though these claims are speculative.  While these statistics are impressive, it should be mentioned that these heights and lifespan are rare outside of Japan.  Due to a difference in growing conditions, imported Japanese cedars rarely achieve the same heights and spreads that the native trees do.

One attribute that is similar among all Japanese cedars is its attractive bark.  The trunk is defined by the rusty-brown bark, which has thin layers peeling away from it.  This gives the bark an artistic, unique appearance that almost seems to be created by hand.  Japanese cedar is not a true cedar at all.  It is a cypress, and belongs to the Family Cupressaceae. Japanese cedar is more closely related to the Giant Sequoia than other cedars and expresses cypress traits.  Like other cypress, Japanese cedar has a “whorled” branching system, meaning branches are arranged in a corkscrew fashion around a central axis (trunk).  The leaves of the Japanese cedar are needles, although they are distinct from other pines.  The needles are short, green and glossy, arranged in a spiral formation.  This gives the branches a soft, fur-like appearance, which begs to be touched.  The needles generally give off a light pine-scent.  In the winter, the needles take on a rusty-copper color, adding to its aesthetic appearance.

Japanese cedar is a monoecious conifer.  In its second year, Japanese cedar produces an extreme amount of pollen from pollen cones (male), which floats along in the breeze.  Generally, male cones appear in the second year but female cones do not appear until the fifth year.  Japanese cedar has the ability to self-pollinate or cross-pollinate.  The pollen produced by the male cones has become a problem in Japan.  Japanese cedar pollen produces many cases of “pollinosis,” known as hay fever or allergy in the Japanese populace.  This common allergy has caused some backlash against the tree in Japan.  The level of discomfort created by pollinosis caused the Japanese government and industry to reconsider this tree as a source of lumber simply to control the amount of pollen in the air.

Despite the discrepancy between the massive and ancient native Japanese cedars and their continental representatives, Cryptomeria japonica is a beautiful, individual tree, which serves as a point of comparison to our native conifers.