Taking Root: Failure and Success for the Great Forest Wall of Tōhoku

Updated: Sep 15

Today's political zeitgeist gives rise to a relentless focus on walls: their construction and their deconstruction, their ‘how’s and their ‘why’s. Such barriers exist primarily to control the movement of people. However, the patterns of demographic migration which sparked this geopolitical trend are increasingly caused by the realities of large-scale climate change.

Against such a backdrop, ‘green walls’ stand out. Any living barrier of trees or other vegetation which plays a protective role in the surrounding environment qualifies as a green wall. Rather than limiting demographic movement, green walls push back against the effects of climate change itself. The language used by proponents of green walls largely focuses on transnational ecological consciousness, regeneration and community empowerment.

Green wall projects exist across the globe, taking root in areas as diverse as Sub-Saharan Africa, North China and Japan. Three of the most well-known recent projects are the ‘Great Green Wall’ on the southern edge of the Sahara; the ‘Three-North Shelter Forest’ program in China; and Tōhoku’s community-led ‘Great Forest Wall’ in Japan. The Great Forest Wall was designed by Dr Akira Miyawaki in response to the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami. Through community tree-planting projects, Miyawaki’s goal was to create a natural sea wall, re-greening the coast in devastated areas, and generating a natural defence against future disasters.

Each of these green wall projects initially bloomed from the unique needs of local communities. In North China and the Sahel, desertification around the Gobi and the Sahara led to soil erosion and dust storms. The land became arid and uninhabitable, and populations were forced to migrate elsewhere, leading to widespread poverty and displacement. Both regions imagined the growth of a green wall as a chance to halt the damage and revitalise the areas' economies.

I was drawn to focus on Tōhoku’s green wall because it broadened my perceptions of what such walls could do: the Great Forest Wall is unusual among the examples above in that it stands against an ocean rather than a desert. However, it shares a number of characteristics with other green walls globally, both in the challenges it faces and the opportunities it creates. The implementation of other green walls can help us understand the material and symbolic potential of the Great Forest Wall for Japan’s North-Eastern prefectures, as well as the various difficulties which hindered its construction.

Calls for a Japanese green wall emerged after concrete breakwaters proved woefully insufficient in preventing devastation from the 2011 tsunami, as did the groves of non-indigenous, ornamental pine trees which previously lined much of the coast. The tsunami left the area in desperate need of ecological regeneration. Large-scale tree-planting projects gained traction due both to their symbolic resonance, and to hopes of future economic dividends generated by coastal recovery.

However, as Miyawaki’s Great Forest Wall moved from concept to reality, problems began to emerge. Diverse parties, from local community members to municipal officials to ecological scientists, began to dispute the exact form the project should take. Was the Japanese preference for native species over more recent imported tree varieties based in science, or a nationalist rhetoric which reinforced essentialist barriers between Japan and the rest of the world? Should the demands of a central planning body take precedence over those of the local communities? In the long term, would the science of a green wall actually stand up?