A Japanese Man’s 30-Year Quest to Green a Chinese Desert

A Japanese Man’s 30-Year Quest to Green a Chinese Desert


Working with locals, Takami Kunio helped plant more than 19 million trees across the Loess Plateau.

Editor’s note: The Sept. 29, 1972, signing of the Japan-China Joint Communiqué normalized diplomatic relations between the two countries. In commemoration, The Paper, Sixth Tone’s sister publication, partnered with the China Public Diplomacy Association to launch “50 Years, 50 People,” a series about the movers, pioneers, and memorable figures in Sino-Japanese relations since the rapprochement.

In the winter of 1992, Takami Kunio, a Japanese citizen in his 40s, arrived in Hunyuan County in Datong, in the northern heartland of Shanxi province. He came alone, empty-handed, and penniless.

From near penury, he then worked alongside locals to help plant more than 19 million trees, spearheading cross-border green projects for 30 years. In all that time, he experienced anti-Japanese sentiments and rued over and overcame initiative failures.

But he also saw the apricot trees bear fruit, and the first college student from a small town here.

As the vice president of the Green Earth Network (GEN), a non-profit organization based in Osaka, Japan, Takami led group after group of Japanese volunteers to the Loess Plateau to plant trees. Now, villagers call him “Lao Gao”, an endearing reference to the Chinese pronunciation of the first kanji in his name.

Now 74, Takami travels little between China and Japan. His team maintains the projects in Datong while extending their reforestation efforts to Zhangjiakou, in the neighboring Hebei province.

Mostly reticent, he grows effusive when talking about his work in China. He says: “It’s not just planting trees. You might even say we went to learn about China — or to reacquaint ourselves with Japan by learning about China.”

This is his story, as told to The Paper.

Left: Takami Kunio in Datong in 1990s. Courtesy of the interviewee; Right: Takami Kunio in Japan, 2022. The Paper

Deep in coal country

I remember it was the summer of 1991; the first Earth Summit was about to be held in Rio the following year. Though everyone knew we had to deal with global warming, governments clashed over exactly who and how to take responsibility. So I started thinking if it was possible to deepen mutual understanding between different societies.

Back then, China was the archetype of developing countries, so I mulled over the best course of action for Sino-Japanese cooperation. I eventually chose reforestation.

It’s the fastest in terms of environmental cooperation, and it allows ordinary people to participate. Plus, tree planting offers the impression of down-to-earth, physical labor.

In November 1991, I went to Beijing to conduct research and also visited agencies like the National Forestry and Grassland Administration and the China Green Foundation. Asked about my budget, I could only say, “I don’t have money or personnel, but I want to start the work here and now.”

Initially, there wasn’t much interest, until I later came across the All-China Youth Federation. In late 1991, they told me that I could take on green projects in Hunyuan County.

I gladly accepted and went there in January 1992. At the time, people said Datong was a great place with a passion for sustainability, not to mention a history of beautiful women and good wine. It sounded like heaven to me.

A view of the Hunyuan County in 1990s. Courtesy of the interviewee

Though Hunyuan was only 60 kilometers away from Datong, the trip took most of a whole day due to the deplorable roads. I was shocked when I arrived and thought I had been cheated.

At 40th parallel north, the altitude was over 1,000 meters, while the hills and mountains suitable for vegetation sat at about 1,200-1,500 meters above sea level. Given that it was January, the temperature had dropped to as low as minus 20 degrees Celsius when I went to check on potential planting sites.

As a coal producing region, Datong used coal for heating and cooking, which led to smog hovering over the streets, stinging throats and eyes. Locals wore military coats back then, all but stripping the streets of color.

I was stunned, especially with temperatures of minus 20 to minus 30 degrees Celsius, but I was just getting started and could hardly back out, so I decided to put in 100,000 yuan ($18,150 at the time) at first. Needing to promote the program and get people to join, I returned to Japan and traveled extensively doing publicity.

When I visited the Japan-China Friendship Association, they pointed out that Osaka was known as the “concrete jungle,” compared to the lush greenery of China, so “why go to China to plant trees?”

At the time, Japanese tourists tended to visit places like Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou — big cities greener than the rest of the country. For example, in Beijing, the roads from the airport into the city were lined with dense poplar trees.

Others wondered how they would plant trees in China when they couldn’t even tell plum and cherry blossoms apart. To all my numerous invitations, the responses were tepid. With no other means of promotion, I started pleading with acquaintances to come.

It was incredibly difficult. We first invited Ishihara Chuichi, the head of a Japanese reforestation observation group, to Datong, but he warned that the project needed at least 20 years to succeed.

Mulling it over as the secretary-general of the team, I recall thinking to myself, “We have no personnel and no money; it wouldn’t be surprising if things fell apart tomorrow.” But what Mr. Ishihara said motivated me: only long-term persistence would be meaningful, and we had to commit wholeheartedly.

Local Datong officials designated Xutuan for the project. Nestled amid hills and a reservoir along the border of Hunyuan, the town had an eroded valley from rainwater that was suitable for planting apricot trees.

The local party secretary was very enthusiastic about the idea, and I figured at the time that our success would change the living standards of all its 5,000 residents. It would also help promote the project, allowing Japanese visitors to see for themselves.

Trees planted by Takami Kunio and others. Courtesy of the interviewee

In 1994, we started planting apricot trees. With government encouragement, local residents joined but lacked experience and confidence. The apricot trees bloomed the next spring, but then a drought in the third year slowed development. When I later went to the site, fewer than a tenth had actually survived, and those that did had to be transplanted.

It was agonizing, but I learned a lot. First, I came to understand the farmers’ thinking: that it would take about four years for the trees to show any potential of bringing in income. During that time, pesticides and pruning are all pure investments. Troublesome and expensive. And it required space meant for other crops.

We also learned that trees wilted because wild hares gnawed on the saplings in early spring, followed by aphids in the summer.

Another major factor was personnel changes. The official who initially shepherded the initiative was transferred away, replaced by someone who didn’t know much about it. In the long run, frequent transfers are a hindrance.

The local staff and our team concluded that we needed to first experiment on a small scale and gain experience before expanding. The Xutuan experiment may have failed, but the apricot grove in Wucheng township — planted at the same time — succeeded.

It became harvestable in the fourth year and has continued to grow, now reaching 350 hectares with 250,000 apricot trees.

People plant trees in Datong, Shanxi province, 1990s. Courtesy of the interviewee

Digging in

When I first arrived in 1992, I only knew four Chinese phrases: “hello,” “thank you,” “goodbye,” and “where’s the bathroom?”

Local officials told me that I need to understand the area if I wanted to run a green project. So I traveled extensively, occasionally helping the farmers harvest corn and other grains. Worth mentioning is the importance of having a good relationship with the children, who let me know who owns menacing dogs and which houses to avoid.

Once while out on a walk, I ran into Wen Zengyu, then director of the Hunyuan County forestry agency. We hadn’t talked in a while because technically, the liaison for our project was the Communist Youth League, but the lack of communication nonetheless had upset him.

After that encounter, I started going to his house every morning for breakfast. Sometimes, it was millet porridge; sometimes, fried potatoes. He always had guests coming and going, all looking to talk to him about all sorts of things, so I just felt that he was trustworthy.

Having never studied forestry or horticulture, I often asked him to identify different trees. He told me their names in Chinese, and then I’d go home and look it up in Japanese. This way, I learned a lot.

We didn’t know Datong’s wartime history before going there and only learned about Japanese atrocities from Chinese researchers. I was stunned. Had I known beforehand, I probably would not have gone there. Our Japanese team members were all eager to learn and had even asked the locals to recount their wartime stories.

There was a photographer named Hashimoto Hiroji who, interested in our green projects, traveled to the nearby Tianzhen County with three DSLR cameras dangling around his neck.

The locals knew at a glance that he was Japanese. Hashimoto was stopped and questioned by an old man, but the only Chinese he knew was “beer,” making the old man think that he was being made fun of.

As he started scolding the photographer, a crowd gathered. It was not until a guide intervened and translated that the old man’s story came to light: he had been orphaned by the invading Japanese army during the war. Upon learning that, Hashimoto openly apologized.

Once the old man understood what we were trying to do there, he stuffed our pockets with homemade melon seeds. After that, Hashimoto sought him out whenever he went to Tianzhen, and likewise, the old man asked about Hashimoto whenever Japanese visitors came to town.

I even took a picture of the two with Hashimoto’s camera. Sadly, the old man passed away last year.

I had a similar experience when I traveled solo to the Xiliucun township in Hunyuan County, where an old man called me a “Japanese devil.” But when he learned that we were there to plant trees, he apologized for his poor language and asked me over for a drink. I have lots of similar stories.

A farmer uses donkeys to plough land in rural Datong, Shanxi province, 1990s. Courtesy of the interviewee

Taking root

While recruiting Japanese volunteers, I invited them to join our tour groups and visit. That way, on seeing the barren mountains, they understood the need for the green project.

Once they had planted their own trees, they started tracking its progress and looked forward to seeing the saplings. Someone even traveled to Datong almost two dozen times to plant trees. Another person came 14 times. Still healthy today, he tells me that he wants to visit Tianzhen County again.

We have many Chinese volunteers too, who were overjoyed at seeing the saplings and felt resigned when they withered. United in these emotions, Chinese and Japanese volunteers felt a connection.

In the 1990s, we proposed building an orchard for the local elementary school, thus making children part of it too. It was wonderful to see everyone bringing buckets, basins, and cups and then watering the saplings. They would ask their friends and families to help out too. The orchard’s profits partly go to the farmers who manage it, and the rest helps support local education.

Children plant trees in Datong, 1990s. Courtesy of the interviewee

That idea sprang from a visit once to Lingqiu County, where I had gone with an official from Datong to check a planting site there. Then he mentioned plans to visit another place where he planned to rebuild an elementary school through Project Hope — a decadeslong national public service project aimed at building schools in poverty-stricken rural areas.

He agreed to let me accompany him. So we set out the next day for an impoverished village in Lingqiu and toured the elementary school, whose walls were made of stone and clay. The roof was a mere layer of tiles, and the beams had rotted.

Some children didn’t even have access to this, but had to work with their parents in the fields. When I asked them why they didn’t attend school, some of them quietly cried, while others said they wanted to and then ran away.

The official said afterward, “I don’t really feel like having a drink today.” To say that we’re planting trees for the sake of the earth seems out of place. I started wondering if I could do something for the children, and that’s when I came up with the idea of the orchard.

The Communist Youth League of Hunyuan County immediately jumped on board, hoping it would bring a steady stream of income for the school and pay off the building costs.

The locals were initially repulsed when they first heard that the proposal had come from a Japanese person but changed their minds after the Communist Youth League cleared the air.

The head of the village reflected that it used to be hard for people to finish even elementary school. “But thanks to the apricot trees, we now have college students and even a grad student next year. Having people go into college will inspire children to learn, and that’s thanks to all of you Japanese,” he said.

To date, we have planted 19 million trees with the locals, covering more than 6,000 hectares in and around Datong. We learned from our mistakes along the way, and the Chinese side have acknowledged the contributions of Japanese experts in the process, especially with planting techniques.

Let’s call it what it is: it’s not just planting trees but getting to know China and learning about Japan anew vis-à-vis China. That mutual understanding is paramount. Without it, both sides stand to lose if a conflict arises.

Reported by the features team of “50 Years, 50 People.”
A version of this article originally appeared in The Paper. It has been translated and edited for brevity and clarity, and published with permission.
Translator: Katherine Tse; editors: Zhi Yu and Apurva.
(Header image: Jonathan Evans/Getty Creative/VCG)


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