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from Gifu vol. 31 2007.01.15 Balancing environment and economics with compressed cedars - Hida Sangyo's challenge

Cedars compose approximately 13% of forests in Japan. Many of them were planted after the war. Some have grown to be quite large, but we have been unable to find a good use for them, so cedar forests have been left unattended. Today, many people suffer from the pollen that enters the air in overabundance come spring, therefore cedars have undeniably been regarded as nuisance. But there is a furniture manufacturer that has made us realize anew that these cedars are an effective resource. Hida Sangyo is located in Hidatakayama, a region surrounded by mountains of cedars. We went to Hidatakayama in early winter to learn more about furniture made from these trees.

Hida Sangyo:
(Japanese only)

Back to Table of Contents Hidatakayama and Hida Furniture

Hida, located in northern Gifu Prefecture, is a region where you will find numerous mountains towering over 3,000 meters tall above sea level, such as the Ontakesan, Norikuradake, and Hodakadake. Forests cover 3,097 square kilometers of the entire 3,330 square meters of the Hida region; the rate of forestland amounts to 93% (as of year 2000). Moreover, the cumulative area that "cedars" make up of the entire forested region including both man-made and natural forests equals 8,529,000 cubic meters, which means that cedars make up 20% of the forests in the Hida region. These figures reveal that this region is surrounded by rich forests and that many cedars are growing in these forests.

It takes 2.5 hours by train from Nagoya to Takayama on the Takayama Honsen (Takayama Central) Line. We saw magnificent mountains cloaked in cedars from the window of the train. Mountains of cedars like these may be found in various regions of Japan. The scientific name for cedars is "cryptomeria japonica," which means a "hidden Japanese heritage." Perhaps it is now the time to reexamine their value.
Photographs provided by: Hida Sangyo.

Moreover, Hida region played an important role in creating the cities of Heizei and Heian; it is an area that prides in the tradition of "master artisans of Hida," which gave rise to the golden age of Japanese architecture. "Hida Furniture" has carried on the skills and techniques of such wood craftsmen, while taking initiative in incorporating the latest wood processing technologies.
The "Chuo Mokkou (Central Woodcrafts) K.K.," the predecessor to the "Hida Sangyo" who first focused on wooden furniture using beech from the native forests. Established in 1920, its devotion to bentwood furniture began, learning from the bentwood techniques developed by from Austria's Michael Thonet. By 1935, it initiated the first export of Japanese furniture to the United States. Since then, it has continued to grow as a manufacturer of export furniture.
Following in the footsteps of Chuo Mokkou, many furniture manufacturers established themselves in the region, making "Hida furniture" renowned nationwide. Today, the Hida region is known as one of the leading furniture manufacturing regions next to Okawa Furniture of Fukuoka, Shizuoka Furniture of Shizuoka, and Tokushima Furniture of Tokushima.


Hidatakayama is referred to as "Hida's little Kyoto." The townscapes of castle towns and merchant towns from the Edo period has been preserved, and many tourists flock to enjoy these old townscapes.

Back to Table of Contents The Current State of the Japanese Forests and Cedars

The forests on the mountains of Japan were originally composed of a mixture of beech, Japanese chestnut oak, and oak to name a few. But after the Second World War, the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry planted huge quantities of cedars, which grow rapidly and without difficulty, in the forests that suffered from the war. In 1957, the ministry established a plan to enhance the productivity of national forests, and began to cut down natural forests of broad-leaved trees as building materials and undertook an alternation of species focused on "cedars." Hida's forests were no different. The composition of cedars gradually increased.

Cedars are indigenous to Japan, a material, which has had a deep relationship with the lives of the Japanese people. It used to be used for various products such as housing, ships, pails, and large carts. However, as Japan's economy grew rapidly and the yen appreciated against foreign currencies, non-Japanese timber began to be imported in massive quantities. As the lifestyles of the Japanese people became westernized, traditional Japanese homes were replaced by western architecture, and the use of cedars as building materials decreased. The prices of domestic timber began to struggle, and the financing of the timber industry worsened. As a result of disorderly deforestation, the cultivation of forests was pushed to the sidelines, and the mountains became desolate, thereby entering a vicious cycle.

If the forests continue to be neglected, the trees will grow too densely together, blocking sunlight, and causing the vitality of the forests to wane. The environmental issues such as mudslides, destruction of rivers, increase in pollen, and changes in the ecosystem that occur today are sure signs that the forests are weakening.

Here are some interesting figures. Forests cover 67% of Japan's land, and 13% of this are cedar forests. Although there is such an abundance of forests, the rate of self-sufficiency of timber remains stagnant at 18%. Japan imports approximately 1.1478 trillion yen per year (9.901 billion dollars according to the figures from 2003, Ministry of Finance, "Trade Statistics"). We can easily imagine that the self-sufficiency ratios of timber for Canada and Finland are prominently high (Canada 303%; Finland 126%), however, even United Kingdom, which has fewer forests, has a higher self-sufficiency ratio of 25%. These figures highlight Japan's inability to manage the use of its resources and reliance on other countries.

We should make better use of domestic timber. This means that we must help the forests grow and this will lead to protecting the environment. Mr. Sanzo Okada, the president of Hida Sangyo stood up to this challenge, explaining, "We can make use of the overabundant cedar trees."

Back to Table of Contents Hida Sangyo's Activities 1 - Compressed Cedar

Mr. Okada, the president of Hida Sangyo. He has had a keen interest in environmental issues from before. When he used to run a home center, he had all products that used CFCs ejected from his store.

President Okada used to manage a home center in the Chubu region, but he moved on to become involved in the management of Hida Sangyo in 2000.

Looking back, he said: "I had assumed that because this area was surrounded by forests, it was using local wood to make furniture. But it turned out that 90% of the wood used was imported. And what is more, the parts with knars or sections were treated as being defective. Even if you avoid using the pieces with knars, you may find some more as you process the wood. Of course not only is using such wood as fuel is a wasteful use of resources, but it didn't make business sense either. It all started when I began to ask people internally whether furniture with knars was completely out of the question."

It seems that back then it was common knowledge in the furniture industry that "wooden furniture cannot have knars." If there were knars, the product was often returned. This was something the staff onsite had experienced many times before.

"But I convinced them that knars were a figurative art created by nature, and because it is not uniform we could position it as being unique or 'one and only'."

That is how the "Voices of the Forest" series made of white oak was developed. Contrary to most people's expectations, the series created a great sensation upon its launch.

"I was able to ascertain that awareness among the Japanese people for nature-oriented thinking and ecology was becoming more pronounced. I thought then that may be people will also understand the values cedars bring. As I have been concerned about the issues related to cedars from before, I began to feel more strongly about making furniture out of cedars."


『森のことば』シリーズThe "Voices of the Forest" series highlighting the knars. As the name indicates, these pieces make us feel as though the trees in the forests are conversing with us. Since its market introduction in 2001, it has become a leading produce of Hida Sangyo. When looking at the furniture today, it is hard to understand why knars have been avoided until now.
Photographs provided by: Hida Sangyo.

Because conifers like cedars are supple, the general opinion was that it was not well suited to make furniture. And the knars of cedars are especially noticeable. But from the success of the "Voices of the Forest" it became clear that knars weren't a problem, so what remained was how to overcome its softness.

That is when President Okada chances upon the "tree compression" technology.
"The technology back then couldn't be applied to furniture yet. But as we continued with our research, we realized that this technology actually was on the same plane as our company's bentwood technology.

With bentwood technology the curvature is applied to wood after softening the wood structure and placing it under high water content, high temperature conditions (steam). That is to say, it is as though you are compressing the inner portion and fastening it in the shape you wish for it to take. Based on this technology, if you compress the surface of cedars using the press, condensing the gaps of the cell structure, you are left with a highly dense wood material. Therefore, you can improve the durability and processing performance of wood. Moreover, if cedar is heated to a certain temperature while being compressed, we discovered that it can be processed so that it will permanently keep its form. This was a innovative technology for mass production, next to bentwood.

Furniture parts waiting to be bent. Bentwood technology is applied on various parts such as the back of chairs, seats, and legs.

On the top you will see the cell structure of cedars before compression. On the bottom is after it has been compressed. The wood is always compressed by sandwiching the cross-grain of the wood from top to bottom. If you press straight-grain the fiber will be destroyed in the process.
Photographs provided by: Hida Sangyo.

It is extremely difficult, however, to procure funds to invest on facilities and equipment if acting alone. That is why Hida Sangyo has taken the lead in getting together 4 other companies, namely Kasahara Mokuzai, Hida Sokki, Okuhida Kaihatsu, and the Hidatakayama Forest Cooperative to form a Hida Cedar Research and Development Cooperative. They welcomed Professor Mitsuhiko Tanahashi, from the Gifu University Faculty of Applied Biological Sciences as their advisor. Research is still underway at the cooperative. On the day that I visited Hida Sangyo, they had just received a new test machine. The installation of this new machine will greatly shorten the time it takes to compress the wood, significantly increasing the production volume.

"Compression technologies are enhancing the possibilities of cedars. I feel as though we will be able to think of many other interesting applications outside of furniture" says President Okada.

This technological research undertaken by an academic-industrial cooperation is not only beneficial for Hida Sangyo. The technology is already being offered to people who have requested to use it for roofs thatched with flat wooden panels, and to compress cedars to use for elementary schools.

The signage for the Hida Cedar Research and Development Cooperative.

Compressor found at the cooperative.

Samples of compressed cedar, starting from the left you will find the original board, and boards that have been 30% compressed, 50% compressed and 70% compressed. Cedars that have been compressed about 25-30% are well suited for furniture. 10% compression doesn't provide the necessary durability, and if you compress it to 50%, the surface strength will be equal to that of beeches, however, the good qualities of cedars will be lost. As you continue to compress the cedar, it tans as if it was placed in a toaster.

Back to Table of Contents Hida Sangyo's Activities 2 - Collaboration with Enzo Mari

Actually, the compression technology developed by the Hida Cedar Research and Development Cooperative not only enhances the durability of cedars. In addition to compression of flat and curved surfaces it can compress and process the wood into various shapes, such as in non-uniform and laminating compression. This enables production of furniture skipping the cutting process necessary in the past. This not only cuts costs, but also widely broadens the design possibilities.

Compressed from top and bottom with the press. Compressing the wood while bending it using this machine is a technology unique to the Hida Cedar Research and Development Cooperative. By making use of the mould used for compression, they can now compress and shape the wood into the desired shape.

While continuing with the research for applying cedars for furniture, a lecture by an internationally renowned Italian designer, Enzo Mari, was held as part of the industrial revitalization project of the Gifu Prefecture, "Oribe Institute of Design." He has created more than 1600 pieces so far, with 29 pieces added to the permanent collection of the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art. President Okada explains how much he was inspired by Mari's speech.

"Enzo Mari, who has such an incredible portfolio is still pursuing the 'right design.' He said that he still doesn't know what design is. I was quite inspired by his sincere and earnest attitude."
President Okada told us that he raised his hand without hesitation when the participants were asked, "Who would like to collaborate with Mari?" after the lecture. He said that at that time, he had simply thought, "May be we will ask him to design a chair for us."

Enzo Mari and the designers of Hida Sangyo who listen to him intently. Each time Mari comes to visit, the employees listen to him with all seriousness so as not to miss a single word.
Photographs provided by: Hida Sangyo

People who have read his interview in magazines may know this, but Mari is not only a designer, but he is also a thinker and philosopher. He praises the French Revolution and condemns inequality. He always talks about the relationship between society and design, and continues to communicate his thoughts through his designs. Perhaps it may be better to say that Hida Sangyo's collaboration with Mari began by first understanding his cognition.

"When Mari first saw our showroom, he saw how much of it was western in style and became angry saying, 'The Japanese sword is an example of supreme beauty, and Katsurarikyu is the finest architecture built by mankind. You should treasure your own beauty more.' It gave me great pleasure that he esteemed Japanese beauty so much. That is why I came to sincerely wish to have Mari design furniture made of Japanese cedar, a resource unique to Japan."

But the project faced some complications. For one, timber was scarce in Italy, so Mari had the preconception that "using wood would be destroying the environment."

"Of course in an age where trees are becoming scarce, there are some regions where we shouldn't cut down any more trees. For example, if we were to cut down a coniferous tree in the tundra region in Russia, the trees would never grow back. This is also true for south-sea woods; we know that cutting these trees down would lead to desertification. But Japanese cedars are different. Even if you cut them down, they grow back again. Furthermore, using cedars actually contributes to protecting the forest. We could also try to return the areas where we cut the cedars down to its natural state, a forest with a mixture of different trees. It takes 50 years for the cedars to grow big enough to be of use. We just have to think of it as a farmland with a 50-year cycle."

President Okada flew to Italy himself, to explain the current state we find Japanese cedars in, and succeeded in convincing Mari.
"Mari finally said, 'Let me be the face of the cedar project.' He began to feel a sense of mission. One of the reasons why this collaboration became possible was his interest in the compression technology we have been working on.

This is how "Enzo Mari's 10,000 times 10 million Japanese cedar" project began. After 2 years of labor, the "HIDA" series came to life. Twenty or so items fully featuring cedars. It is as though the audaciously displayed knars are trying to tell us something. It was introduced at the Milano Salone in Italy in 2005; many architects and designers all over the world admired the new series, drawing much attention.

President Okada described his meeting Mari as being "fate." Mari has also said on many different occasions, "the encounter with Hida Sangyo was an excellent one." For Mari, this happenchance was an encounter with forests, and an encounter with craftsmen.

President Okada told us that Mari did not mask his surprise that "the spirit of manufacturing that no longer exists in Italy is still alive at Hida Sangyo." Perhaps this episode is revealing that the project was only made possible because of the excellent combination of technology and design and the passions of both President Okada and Mari, but also because Hida Sangyo is a company that has cherished the craftsmen's skills.

The showroom bearing the logo of the "HIDA" brand. The logo, too, was of course designed by Enzo Mari; he has expressed the sun rising from Hida.

Furniture designed by Mari may be found in the showroom, a renovated warehouse.

As legs of chairs require durability, there are some chairs with legs of steel and beech. All the furniture seem as though they would naturally blend in with the Japanese lifestyle; perhaps this is an indication that Mari had put a lot of thought into the Japanese lifestyle when creating his designs.

Although furniture is an industrial product, having toured the factory, I understood that Hida Sangyo's furniture is handcrafted by people. These cannot be created without the skills of the craftsmen. The "HIDA" project was made possible because their attitude towards manufacturing stirred the emotions of Mari, who had always respected craftsmen's work. President Okada said, "We want to be a manufacturer whose craftsmen's faces people can see." You can take a tour of the factory.


Back to Table of Contents Balancing Environmental Conservation and the Economy

There was one thing President Okada said that I especially wanted to note.
"The society will not change so easily without economic activity."
Economic activities act as an accelerator in directing society towards good change.

Hida Sangyo created a new technology from the traditional technology it has acquired over time. This is a great feat in itself, but with the help of the world famous designer, Enzo Mari, it succeeded in causing an even bigger sensation. It is the first time in history that Mari has produced so many designs for and with a single manufacturer. It is not surprising that manufacturers and designers all over the world have taken notice of this project with some astonishment.

President Okada says, "I first wanted people to realize that cedars are amazing materials, that they may be use in such a wonderful way." Its ability to successfully draw attention is a sign that economic activities will soon follow.

The furniture made form compressed cedars do not feel as soft to the touch. But they look quite soft and warm. And by choosing to use this furniture, you can contribute to environmental conservation. It may even warm the hearts of the people using the furniture. As I left Hidatakayama I thought, may be I will start with a chair myself.

Ari Sugimoto - Brief Biography
After graduating from college, I worked in a publishing company before moving to Italy to study interior design. I learned during my time in Italy that design and lifestyle are deeply related. I report and write about themes "lifestyle" and "design," i.e. eco design.
Some of my published work includes: "Italia Hitori Aruki Note (Memos from a Solitary Stroll in Italy)," "Italia Hitori Gurashi Note (Memos from Living on My Own in Italy)" (Daiwashobo), "Firenze Shikiwo Irodoru Shokutaku (Florence, Cuisine of the Four Seasons)" (Tokyo Shoseki), "Yuru Raifu No Tameiki (Sigh of Contentment from a Relaxed Lifestyle)" (PHP Interface), etc.

Report and original Japanese text written by: Ari Sugimoto
Translated by: Yuri Morikawa (oxygen inc.)
Photographs: Soichi Ueda {Think the Earth Project)



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