Collaboration among locals and settlers that creates new Satoyama livelihoods in Atsuma, Japan



AEON Environmental Foundation


Institute for Global Environmental Strategies (IGES) 








Larch forests; The 2018 Hokkaido Eastern Iburi Earthquake; Local Venture School


Hideyuki Kubo, IGES 

Summary Sheet

The summary sheet for this case study is available here.

1. Background

Atsuma Town is located on the west side of the Hidaka range in the south-central part of Hokkaido (see Figures 1 and 2). The main industry is agriculture, especially paddy rice cultivation. Forestry and fishing are also thriving. Atsuma has the largest cultivation area of the Haskap (Lonicera caerulea) in Japan, a small tree that bears small black fruits. There are a wide variety of products in Atsuma, including wheat, beans, and beets as field crops; cattle, pigs, and chickens as livestock; larch plantation as forestry; as well as fishing for Sakhalin surf clam, shishamo, and flounder.

Figure 1: Hokkaido and Atsuma Town (Source: Modified from Digital National Land Information 2022)
Figure 2: Atsuma Town spreads from mountain to coast (Source: Modified from Digital National Land Information 2022)
The town has an area of over 40,000 hectares, 70% of which is covered by forests. Of the forests, 60% are privately owned and 40% are owned by the government of Hokkaido Prefecture. Government-owned forests are located at relatively high elevations in the northern part of the town, and are dominated by Abies sachalinensis. On the other hand, privately owned forests are distributed at relatively lower elevations from the southern edge of the government-owned forests to the coastal area, and are dominated by larch. Atsuma is considered suitable for planted larch forests and has been actively engaged in timber production through clear cutting. For this reason, forest roads located in the planted forest area are densely covered, and the foundation for timber production is well established.

Like many towns and villages in Japan, Atsuma has experienced a significant population decline, peaking at 10,597 in 1958, and continuing to decline, reaching 4,452 in 2020. For this reason, fostering new members in the forestry sector is an important policy issue for the town.

Atsuma has been using the government’s Green Employment System and the Local Vitalization Cooperator System to revitalize the forestry industry. In 2016, the town government established its own local venture school project and has been encouraging motivated people to get involved in forestry activities. As a result, the number of new members in the forestry sector has increased, and cooperation among people who want to do businesses utilizing forest and natural environment in Atsuma has become more active.

The 2018 Hokkaido Eastern Iburi Earthquake registered an intensity 7 in Atsuma town. This caused large-scale landslides, resulting in the deaths of 36 people in Atsuma. The landslides occurred over 4,302 ha in Hokkaido, of which about 75% occurred in Atsuma (see Figures 3 and 4). Landslides also caused extensive damage to the forestry infrastructure, including the destruction of forest roads. To cope with this damage, the governments of Atsuma Town and Hokkaido Prefecture as well as other related organizations have been taking measures since the earthquake, including prevention of sediment runoff, countermeasures against heavy rainfall, and restoration of forest roads. In addition, the Atsuma Reforestation and Reconstruction Study Council was established to examine the medium- to long-term state of the forest, and has been discussing issues such as forest zoning and the creation of new relationships between the natural environment and local residents.

Despite the severe damage caused by the earthquake, the enthusiasm of people who want to revitalize the forestry sector in Atsuma and develop businesses that make the most of Atsuma’s forests and natural environment has not waned. Local people who have been involved in forestry and forest industry for many years and new members who have moved to Atsuma are working together to develop new activities. In addition, there has been a continuous in-flow of people who want to start new businesses in Atsuma.

Figure 3: Landslides caused by the earthquake (Source: Author)
Figure 4: State of land four years after the landslide (Source: Author)

2. Paradox: Revitalizing the forestry by moving away from forestry

2.1 The challenge for Atsuma

“If we think only about forestry, we will not attract people. By addressing the sustainability of the town from a broader perspective, we can meet new people.” These are the words of a staff member in charge of forestry at the town government. Atsuma Town has been attracting new employment in the forestry sector through the launch of the local venture school project, but there has been a major shift in thinking and action to reach this point.

Local Vitalization Cooperator is a national program under which residents of urban areas move their residency to rural areas to engage in agriculture, forestry, fisheries, or the development of regional brands and local products. Each cooperator is supported by the program for three years. The program is expected to bring about benefits to local communities and local governments in addition to cooperators. For local communities, they can be stimulated by fresh perspectives, enthusiasm, and energy brought by cooperators. Local governments can obtain flexible ideas for regional revitalization that have never existed before. And cooperators can engage in activities that make the most of their abilities and pursue their ideal lifestyle and purpose in life.

In Atsuma, more than 20 cooperators have been engaged in agriculture, forestry, product development, marketing, and other activities, and most of them have remained in Atsuma after the completion of their activities as a local vitalization cooperator. However, in the beginning, not many cooperators decided to settle in Atsuma. The reason for this was that the town government was in charge of deciding the content of cooperators’ activities, and there were cases of people who “joined for employment motives” or “joined even though it was not what they really wanted to do.” Therefore, the town government made a 180-degree turnaround in its stance, supporting applicants to do what they really want to do. They also decided to collaborate with a group of entrepreneurship specialists to provide support to applicants from the perspective of entrepreneurship development.

This new scheme in Atsuma is known as Local Venture School (hereinafter referred to as “LVS”). In LVS, local venture candidates submit their business plans to the town government, and then receive advice from experts to brush up their plans. Candidates then present their polished plans to the town government, and their acceptance or rejection for participation in the LVS is determined. Since the LVS began in 2016, businesses in various fields such as trade, forestry, beauty therapy, design, breeding of service dogs, and lumber manufacturing have been active. A series of activities by the town government led to the securing of seven new forestry professionals. Considering that Atsuma has only about 15 forestry professionals, it can be said that a significant change has occurred in the forestry industry of Atsuma. We can see that Atsuma has realized the revitalization of the forestry sector by moving away from the idea of finding and training human resources specialized in the forestry sector, and to switching to a policy of supporting those who truly want to do something with Atsuma’s local resources.

2.2 Horse logging as a local venture and local vitalization

In Atsuma, there is an entrepreneur who has established a horse logging business. Horse logging, in which timber harvested in the forest is transported by a horse, is a traditional technique of carrying out timber that has supported Japan’s forestry industry since ancient times (see Figures 5 and 6). Since the mid-Showa period, mechanization of the logging work has led to a significant decrease in the number of people carrying out horse logging operations. Horse logging can remove trees even from steep slopes where heavy machinery cannot enter, and does not require the construction of a large-scale forestry road. It is a low-cost and environmentally-friendly forestry technology. On the other hand, because it is small-scale, it is not possible to transport a large number of logs at once, and the horses must be taken care of on a daily basis, requiring specialized training.

Figure 5: Horse logging is small scale, but can transport lumber anywhere (Source: Nishino Horse Logging 2022)
Figure 6: Horse logging on a steep slope (Source: Nishino Horse Logging 2022)

A horse logging business in Atsuma, launched as a local venture, is already on track. This is partly because forest roads in Atsuma are densely covered so that the horse logging operations can be carried out efficiently, and both a forestry cooperative and a local forestry company are actively working together with a horse logging business in order to vitalize the forestry industry in Atsuma. As the horse logging work became widely known, the horse business began to receive new requests such as plowing in wine yards, and interaction activities at school children’s clubs and kindergartens (see Figures 7 and 8).

Figure 7: Plowing in a wine yard (Source: Nishino Horse Logging 2022)
Figure 8: Interacting with children (Source: Nishino Horse Logging 2022)

Effects of the horse logging business are not limited to requests for horses. As the staff of the town government said, “By working on the sustainability of the town from a broad perspective, we can meet new people,” a variety of people from all over Japan have come to Atsuma to visit the horse logging business. These include young people interested in horse logging operations and rural life, local governments and companies looking for training sites for human resource development, and the media covering horse logging. Encounters with such new people also lead to the development of new activities in Atsuma.

3. Development of new socio-ecological landscape

3.1 Converting degraded landscape into socio-ecological landscape that nurtures Wagyu culture

From the late 1980s to the early 1990s, Japan experienced a bubble economy with rapidly rising land and stock prices. At this time, golf courses and other resort development projects were undertaken throughout the country. In Hokkaido, forests were cleared to make way for resort areas. As the bubble economy collapsed, many golf courses and resorts went bankrupt. Hokkaido had the largest number of golf course companies that went into legal liquidation.

At this time, a golf course was also constructed in the northern hills of Atsuma Town by clearing natural forests. This nine-hole golf course was temporarily opened in 2000, but due to its remote location and poor accessibility, it was closed in 2002 without completing the rest of the course. Forest vegetation never recovered on the former golf course site, leaving the clay layer exposed (see Figure 9).

Figure 9: Former golf course site with exposed topsoil (Source: AEON Environmental Foundation 2015)

Concerned about the negative impact of soil degradation on agriculture and fisheries and river flooding, the government of Atsuma Town, with the support of the AEON Environmental Foundation, began a trial reforestation project on a former golf course site, planting a total of 17,000 trees over three years from 2015 as shown below. The trees planted included local species such as yachidamo (Japanese ash), alder, doronoki, Japanese elm, and red spruce, and a total of 1,830 volunteers participated in the planting (see Figure 10).

Date of planting     Number of trees planted     Number of participants

June 2015                        5,400                                              530

July 2016                         6,000                                              600

July 2017                         5,600                                              700

Figure 10: Trees were planted with the participation of local people (Source: A photo taken by AEON Environmental Foundation)
Although the former golf course site did not recover forest vegetation in its natural state, after planting, fences were installed to prevent feeding damage by deer, and broadleaf planted trees began to take root and grow in the devastated area (see Figure 11). However, most of the fences collapsed due to the 2018 Hokkaido Eastern Iburi Earthquake, and the planted trees were exposed to feeding damage by deer.

Figure 11: Planting area fenced to prevent feeding damage by deer (Source: Author)

In 2020, the government of Atsuma agreed to partner with a livestock venture that operates extensive grazing in Aso, Kumamoto Prefecture, to reclaim this degraded land as pasture for Wagyu (Japanese cattle producing tender, marbled beef), and to proceed with a “Wagyu Maison” project. Maison is a concept that emerged from an experience in the Champagne region of France, where the work process of vineyard soil preparation, cultivation, harvesting, fermentation, and champagne bottling is expressed as a worldview that encompasses the natural environment and climate of the region, and the entire process is made into a coherent product. The Wagyu Maison in Atsuma is an attempt to put this into practice with Wagyu that are grazed extensively in the natural environment of Atsuma. It will be a stay-at-home type ranch, where visitors can enjoy the natural environment of Atsuma where Wagyu are nurtured, while watching Wagyu graze on the pasture grass and cultivate the soil. There, broad-leaf forests that are the natural ecosystem of Atsuma will also be integrated. Such a project cannot be created overnight, and “Wagyu Maison” aims for a grand opening in 100 years.

3.2 Cherry tree planting in Yoshino community

Thirty-six people were killed in Atsuma during the 2018 Hokkaido Eastern Iburi Earthquake, 19 of which were victims of the landslide that occurred in the Yoshino area (see Figure 12). The history of Yoshino community dates back to 1891, when four families from Otaru, Hokkaido, settled in the area. They converted the wetlands along the Atsuma river into rice fields, and built houses against the hill to shelter them from the wind. Before the earthquake, the community consisted of 13 households and 34 people. The mountains in the Yoshino area were dotted with Ezo-yamazakura cherry trees, known as “Yoshino cherry trees,” but they have disappeared due to the collapse of the hill.

Figure 12: Landslide occurred in the Yoshino area (Source: Takeshi et al. 2018)

In April 2019, a professional group in Nara prefecture which has continued cherry tree preservation activities in Mt. Yoshino of Nara, donated seedlings of a preserved cherry tree to Atsuma Town in a gesture of remembrance. In May 2021, the government of Atsuma Town held a tree planting event with residents and bereaved families to plant these cherry seedlings. The town government plans to make the Yoshino area a place where cherry trees are in full bloom again, just as it was in the past. In November 2021, cherry trees were planted again with the support of the AEON Environmental Foundation. In addition to the Ezo-yamazakura cherry trees that had originally bloomed in the Yoshino area, Yaezakura cherry trees were also planted (see Figure 13). Activities to revive the Yoshino area as a famous cherry blossom viewing spot are steadily underway.

Figure 13: Cherry trees planted in the Yoshino area. They are well protected from deer (Source: Author)

Dealing with the collapsed lands due to the 2018 Hokkaido Eastern Iburi Earthquake is a major challenge for the future relationship between people and nature in Atsuma. The Atsuma Reforestation and Reconstruction Study Council pointed out specific measures such as implementation of reconstruction work in the collapsed area that requires immediate attention; afforestation in areas that can be expected to become timber plantation in the future, formulation of utilization plans for damaged trees, and creation of new relationship between forests and residents through tree planting and forest recovery observation events. Those measures requiring immediate attention are already being addressed (see Figure 14).

Figure 14: Forest road rehabilitation project in collapsed areas – Before (left) and after (right) construction (Source: Miya and Nishi 2021)

On the other hand, collapsed lands that can be expected to produce timber in the future are basically areas where soil has been deposited due to landslides (see Figure 15). It is not realistic at this time to plant trees and expect tree growth in slope areas where lands have collapsed and clay layers have been exposed.

Figure 15: Collapsed soil and forest trees are deposited along the valley (Source: Miya and Nishi 2021)
The area where landslides occurred in Atsuma covers more than 3,000 ha, of which more than 400 ha is considered to be promising as future timber production areas due to the accumulation of collapsed soil. Therefore, for the time being, the project will focus on this 400 ha area, removing and utilizing forest trees, preparing the area for afforestation, and proceeding with afforestation work. In carrying out this work, it is important not only for the government to cooperate with businesses and research institutions in various fields to promote forestry recovery, but also to create opportunities for the people of Atsuma to actually see this recovery process, learn about the situation, and think about the future of forests in Atsuma. While the large-scale landslides have kept people away from the forests, it is important to share the reality in order to rebuild the relationship between people and nature for the future. To create such opportunities, the town government holds events in which Atsuma residents can participate when planting trees in collapsed areas where safety can be ensured (see Figure 16).

Figure 16: Tree planting event in a collapsed area conducted in cooperation with an elementary school (Source: Miya and Nishi 2021)
In addition, the government of Atsuma town is collaborating with researchers for the experimentation of restoring vegetation in areas where slopes have collapsed and clay layers have been exposed. The proposed method is to utilize fungi in the soil that symbiotically coexist with plants. Specifically, it is an attempt to find fungi that strengthen the roots of larch trees in Atsuma, and produce larch seedlings symbiotic with these fungi. These seedlings are then planted in collapsed areas.

4. Looking to the future

Larch forestry has thrived in Atsuma town under a relatively mild climate and clear-cutting operations have been carried out with well-developed forest roads. Besides, a new trend is emerging. It is a trial-and-error process to find diversity in the way people relate to the forest and reflect it in the way they make a living. The horse logging business offers a different value than the efficient clear-cutting by heavy machinery. Rather than cutting down all trees, people are beginning a trial-and-error process to carefully cultivate and use forests by taking care of trees and understanding species, thickness, and condition of each piece of timber one by one. In addition, a movement to create Wagyu culture that coexists with forests over the next 100 years, and to transmit it from Atsuma to the rest of the world, is also gaining momentum.

While the aging of those engaged in forestry is a concern throughout Japan, the number of young forestry professionals is increasing in Atsuma, partly due to the success of LVS. In addition, a generational shift is taking place in local forestry companies, and mid-career staff members are playing a central role in policymaking at the town government. The younger generation of forestry professionals is gathering together and sharing ideas for new challenges.

One young manager from a local forestry company said, “Even if you talk about forestry in one word, no one is doing the same thing. Everyone is different. Talking with others naturally motivates me to come up with ideas, and I start to think about things that I normally can’t work on. Ten years ago, it felt like we were running the forestry business individually, but now I feel that we are connected, and there is a sense that we are all working together to improve the forestry in Atsuma.” He welcomes the new movement. Another young person who moved to Atsuma as a new member of the LVS is now engaged in activities with a vision of creating a natural hardwood forest of about 2 hectares in the near future, producing high-quality large-diameter timber, processing and using it in various ways, and connecting with consumers in Tomakomai and Sapporo. With their own challenges, they are working together to improve Atsuma as a whole through competition and cooperation. Atsuma is heading toward a new era.


We thank Mr. Hisashi Miya, Mr. Masatoshi Nishino, Ms. Tomoko Nishino, Mr. Hideki Nonomiya, Mr. Tomohiro Niwa, Mr. Shohei Sakano, Mr.Yohei Watanabe and Mr. Masaki Hanaya for their generous cooperation to our study. We also thank the AEON Environmental Foundation for its support in conducting the survey.


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