|Railway sleepers in Japan used to be made of chestnut and other hardwoods but have been
switched to concrete today; one would be hard pressed to find any natural materials now used
for building railways. It is no overstatement to say that railways rely on artificial materials for
everything from rolling stock through track beds to station buildings. From the perspective of
utilizing nature directly, only railway forests remain and they got their start from forests planted
by Nippon Railway* in 1893 along the Tohoku main line from Iwate to Aomori prefectures. The
purpose was to prevent snowdrifts and avalanches. Later, railway forests were planted across
Japan for other purposes, such as protecting tracks from strong side winds and drifting sand.
The acreage of mostly cedar and other evergreens peaked in 1961 with 17,500 ha managed
As urbanization spread, the area of railway forests declined rapidly but JR East, which
now owns 4200 ha has reassessed the value of railway forests and their major role in disaster
prevention and environmental preservation. As a result, the company is actively promoting
forestation in conjunction with its forest development campaign.
It is interesting that the company is increasing the number of tree species and planting
diverse, multilevel forests that are more ecologically sound, when analysis of the function of
railway forests shows a need to heighten their disaster prevention function. The idea is to
come as close as possible to a more natural ecology fitting the region. Expectations are high
with ideas like bird boxes as a means to help in nature conservation encompassing the whole
*Nippon Railway was Japan’s first private railway company established in 1881. It operated lines from Tokyo
through the Kanto and Tohoku regions and was nationalized in 1906.