At present, Japan depends on foreign countries for about a quarter of its wood consumption. The principal consumption demands are in construction followed by the pulping one. The outstanding increases in construction amount to about 40 percent of our Japanese timber production.
An original characteristic of traditional Japan was its wooden houses. Nowadays, the number of fireproof or wind-proof buildings, that is those built of reinforced concrete or steel-frame, is rapidly increasing, especially in large cities, but in regard to the usual home, such buildings are few. Except for large cities, almost all buildings have been made of wood, and the rate of use of wooden buildings in Japan is expanding by 10 percent every year.
The woods used in the framework of Japanese houses traditionally has consisted of “Sugi” (Cryptomeria Japonica), “Hinoki” (Chamaecyparis obtusa), “Matsu” (mostly Pinus densiflora and P. thunbergii) and others which are the representatives of our domestic softwood species. But the resources producing these softwood timbers are now being altered, for the most part, to secondary forests, and the diameters of the timbers produced are growing smaller. From olden times the hardwoods grown in Japan have mainly been used for interior works, furniture, or other articles.
The total production of timber in Japan already exceeds the annual increments of our own forest resources and, accordingly, the timber price is rising gradually. Thus, the amount of timber imported from such places abroad as the U.S.A., Alaska, Canada, the U.S.S.R. and other countries is conspicuously increasing under the present free trade.
In Japan, the words “Nanyō-zai” (South-sea timbers) or “Nanpō-zai” (southern timbers) are commonly used for tropical wood, because most tropical wood comes from the south, especially from the Philippines. Recently the importation of Philippine timbers has fallen both in total amount and in quality. Taking its place are timbers from other parts of Southeast Asia, especially those from Sabah and Sarawak. Some is even being imported from Africa and South America.
The increasing amount of imported timbers is essentially due to the expansion of wood consumption in Japan since World War II. Almost half of this is occupied by tropical wood, which is to be compared to the production from the National Forests covering 67 percent of Japanese forest lands.
Imported tropical woods are chiefly appropriate for interior work and the detail of buildings or for plywood and furniture manufacturing. The so-called “Karaki” (the precious foreign wood group) including “Shitan” (Rosewood : Dalbergia spp. etc.), “Kokutan” (Ebony : Diospyros spp.), “Tagayasan” (Ironwood : Cassia sp. etc.) etc. have been imported from ancient times and are very famous and suitable for precious furniture and decoration. Teak, Mahogany, and others have been welcomed for ship-making and construction, as well.
On the other hand, Lauan (Meranti : Shorea spp. etc.), one representative of an imported tropical wood in Japan, was always treated as a rather low grade timber before the War. But, with the remarkable growth in Japanese plywood exportation, the intensive promotion of wood-based materials and newly perfected wood-based products, and the increase value of wood due to new uses, it is mainly by the merits of Lauan (used for the above) that forest products have come to play an important role for gaining foreign currency.
Along with the sudden general increase in tropical wood demand, there is a trend to use more tropical woods which are rich in ornamental effects for interior decoration and furniture than are the usual domestic species. Another reason for this increase lies in the current trends for western styles of living in Japan.