By Asami Nagai (Daily Yomiuri Staff Writer)
NAGAOKA, Niigata−During class breaks or after school hours, primary
school students usually head for the playground. But students
at Kawasaki Primary School have another option: Kawasaki no Mori,
a small woodland on the grounds of their school in Nagaoka. About
12 years ago, the school's newly appointed principal led an effort
to have a tract of land next to the school building planted with
about 400 young trees which have since grown to provide visitors
with a shady sanctuary.
At break times, students swarm to the area to relax, play with
friends or even do class assignments.
"There are no forest near my house," lamented a third-year
student who, with her two friends, was looking for acorns, which
she described as "cute." Then a group of fourth-year
students selected spots among the trees to sketch them for their
The now retired principal, Giichiro Yamanouchi, hoping to enhance
the students' fascination with the trees, told some to put their
ears to the trunks. "You can hear water flowing through
them," he said.
With a population of 200,000, Nagaoka enjoys a much more natural
setting than most urban areas. Still, Yamanouchi thought students
would benefit considerably from the on-campus woods when he was
appointed principal in 1986.
The idea came to him while the school was undergoing renovations.
He realized that after the construction ended, there would be
some open space next to the building and wondered how best to
He was concerned about accessibility to nature, because he felt
this played a beneficial role in a person's formative years.
With this in mind, he settled on the woodland project. The idea
stemmed from an experience. Yamanouchi had in 1974, when he became
a principal for the first time.
"I was in an position to manage a school for the first time,
and I had no idea how to run things," he recalled.
While resting along a mountain road as he tried to collect his
thoughts, he found himself pondering the numerous terraced rice
fields that dominated the landscape. It occurred to him that
the terraces held within them the history of the village and
its people, that the surroundings had had a profound impact on
the character of the villagers. He decided that children should
be raised with an appreciation of their surroundings.
And so, a decade later, he settled on tree planting for the largely
concrete environment at Kawasaki Primary School. While talking
with a professional landscape gardener, he realized that this
would require more work than he thought. However, the neatly
manicured landscape the gardener proposed was not what he had
He consulted Takashi Kohinata, 60, a teacher at a nearby middle
school who had studied ecology on a graduate course under the
ecology expert Akira Miyawaki. He advised Yamanouchi to design
a woodland with indigenous trees because they would last a long
time and would require little care.
"I also hoped students would be able to learn in a natural
woodland setting, where various species live in a way that benefits
each other and the group," Kohinata said.
Yamanouchi persuaded an initially reluctant meeting of parents
and alumni to back the plan. Then Kohinata set about studying
the trees in the area to determine which species would be most
In the end, the students, parents and teachers planted 81 different
species −412 trees in total−on the 600-square-meter tract at
a cost of \3 million. Thus, on March 27, 1988,
Kawasaki no Mori was born.
Even today, Hideo Kanai, who was chairman of the PTA group that
finally approved Yamanouchi's plan, visits Kawasaki no Mori a
few times per month. "Teachers will eventually leave the
school," he said, "So we residents have to check on
Kanai said the adults involved in the project had learned something
as well. The grove, with its different kinds of trees growing
together, reveals how a typical workplace can function despite
"The jobs of some people are overlooked−like roots, they
remain hidden from our view," he explained. "But without
them, we would be in trouble, just as a tree will wither without
"Once we realize that we are all interrelated, just like
the trees, we will no longer neglect others."
The project's immense success has led other schools to follow
Children in Kawasaki no Mori
More woodlands springing up
Educators from foreign countries have shown a keen interest in
Kawasaki no Mori. A Japanese book on Yamanouchi's work published
in 1992 was later translated into Korean and English, with the
title, "School With Forest and Meadow." This year,
he published an essay in Encounter, a U.S. journal on holistic
The most surprising result of Yamanouchi's work, however, was
that the mayor of Seoul declared his intention to create similar
woodlands in the South Korean capital. Under a four-year plan
to plant 10 million trees, which started in 1998, about one million
will be planted on school grounds. "South Korean educators
told me that there is little space in Seoul for planting trees,
except for in school enclosures," the 70-year-old Yamanouchi
South Korean educators began contacting Yamanouchi in 1993, when
a kindergarten director who read the Japanese book visited Kawasaki
Primary School and a few other schools with woods on their campuses.
Last year, a group of South Korean teachers visited Japan to
learn more about the reforestation projects. Yamanouchi himself
was invited to speak to the group.
Domestically, woodlands in the style of Kawasaki no Mori are
also appearing in such places as day centers for the elderly.
Yumiko Kawase, who directs a day center for the elderly in Sanjo,
Niigata Prefecture, was trying to determine a suitable setting
for senile dementia patients when she heard a radio program featuring
Yamanouchi. She opened the Kashi-no-Mori day center in 1996.
"In the radio program, Yamanouchi-san was describing how
children's minds were more receptive in the woods and how they
learned many things that teachers were unable to teach,"
she recalled. "We face a similar situation with the aged.
There are so many issues humans cannot solve but that nature
might be able to."
"We talk about the flowers, leaves and branches in every
season, regardless of the weather. And the clinic staff, who
spend the whole day in the air-conditioned rooms, come here for
"I'm positive about the benefits of the woodlands, even
though they may be hard to determine statistically. I'm afraid
we only realize their true importance when they are gone."
With more and more people determined to establish their own woods
within cities, Kohinata cautions that, if they are not careful,
their efforts may be counterproductive.
"In some cases, landscape gardeners uproot mountain trees
to replant in the city. This is not the way it should be done,"
he said. He encourages members of a wild herb collectors' club
he organizes to plant acorns and raise the trees for three years.
These saplings are then used for projects like Kawasaki no Mori,
so that the creation of these woods will not come at the expense
of the surrounding environment.
Kanai, who is also a member of the club, allows members to raise
the saplings on a plot of land he owns, saying he views the whole
project as a gift for future generations.
"We were so happy when we saw how our children were so mesmerized
in Kawasaki no Mori," he explained. "We have accomplished
something that will still be here long after we are gone."