Walking through a nice stand of old growth forest in Japan makes it hard to believe there are over 125,000,000 people and is only 377,000 square kilometers of land in the small island nation. However, the nation holds some fantastic diversity, and overall has done an excellent job protecting large areas of forest.* A strong network of parks and a large culture of “outdoorsy” people, help protect vast swaths of forest. Additionally, various traditional Shinto traditions (the endemic religion of Japan) have fostered a higher intrinsic value of natural areas compared to most places in the world. Shintoism is largely animistic, meaning the belief that nearly everything in the natural world has a spiritual essence. Rocks have a spirit. Big trees have a spirit. People have a spirit.
Shintoism does not draw a highly distinct line between humans and the rest of nature (like most western monotheistic religions). Rather, humans are connected to the natural world and are simply caught up and a part of the complexity of both the spirits in animals and natural objects as well as the more abstract spirits in the forces of nature, such as waves, wind, or fire. This weaving together and essentially an ‘ecology’ of the spirit world is quite appealing to many biologists. Sometimes spending long periods in nature makes you feel a very real spiritual connection to the natural world around you.
This is definitely true in Japan. Just nosing through some forest snapping some pictures (the results below), it is easy to imagine how people over a thousand years ago would start fomenting the lose traditions, beliefs and folklore associated with Japan.
*note* The Japanese have a less than admirable record of forestry outside of Japan. Some Japanese logging companies have a down-right miserable record of logging other country’s resources with little benefit to local people and catastrophic environmental degradation. Give it a google, much of Southeast Asia is plagued by couple Japanese logging companies desperately trying to destroy some of the last stands of old growth forest.