Activity Report

The University of Tokyo’s Presidential Endowed Chair for “Platinum Society”
Cross-industry collaboration and challenges facing Japan, seen through the case of Tanegashima

“The coast along the southern tip of Tanegashima. The space center can be seen in a distance.”

The hum of the engine grew lower as the propeller wound down its rotation, and the aircraft swerved gently southward, bringing Tanegashima island into the view of the left hand window. The aircraft continued to reduce speed, gliding along the length of the narrow island, then swerved sharply, dipping its left wing down towards the ocean. When it righted itself again, we were headed straight towards the island. Cutting through the clouds gathered around mountaintops, we could soon see Tanegashima airport, situated right around the center of the island. The aircraft drifted down as though it were being pulled into the runway and made a soft landing on the tarmac.

Tanegashima is an island with lush nature situated 34km south of the banks of Kagoshima prefecture, with an area of 445㎢ and population of 31,574 people (2011 census). It is known for Tanegashima Space Center as well as various tourist spots such as Cape Kadokura, said to be the spot where the first rifles arrived in Japan, brought by the Portuguese. Aside from tourism, key industries of the island are in the primary sector, the main ones being cultivation of sugar cane and ocarina, and livestock farming. Food and beverage manufacturing is also active on the island, starting with the production of sugar, shochu and starch using the raw materials grown locally. However, this sequence of industries is easily affected by outside factors such as weather or the government¹s agricultural policies, and is said to be a weak and vulnerable industrial structure. 1)

We braced ourselves against the strong wind as we disembarked the plane, and hurried over to the terminal building. This wind is actually said to be the reason that vegetation on Tanegashima is so different from that of the neighboring much larger Yakushima island, which is home to the highest mountain in Kyushu prefecture, Mt. Miyanoura. In comparison, Tanegashima is only 12km wide, and its mountains only about 200m high so that the wind from the ocean blows right over them. The island¹s location being at the southern-most latitude where artificial cedar farming is possible is another factor that makes it very difficult for the forestry industry to develop on this island. Even if cedar trees are planted, they do not grow very high (they are said to be 10m shorter than those planted on the mainland), and quality is often compromised due to insect damage that is inevitable with the warm climate. A further problem for forestry on the island is that land is divided into various uses as farmland, roads, and bamboo groves, and a quite complex situation of land ownership has made cedar forests planted only in small patches, which is very inefficient. Nevertheless, the ratio of land covered by forest on Tanegashima is no less than 53% of its total land area2), and in this regard, it is an important task for Tanegashima to find ways to overcome the challenges to rejuvenate its forestry industry.


Cedar trees on Tanegashima (left) and timber (right).
(provided by The University of Tokyo Presidential Endowed Chair for “Platinum Society”)

Sugar canes on Tanegashima island.
(provided by The University of Tokyo Presidential Endowed Chair for “Platinum Society”)

Driving around Tanegashima, sugar cane fields are a common sight. As mentioned, sugar cane is one of the main industries on the island, along with sugar manufacturing. 1) There may be an image of sugar cane being a crop for warm climates, but high quality sugar cane actually requires some period of cold weather for the sugar to accumulate in the stalks. Climate-wise, Tanegashima, the Amami islands, and the Okinawa islands are considered to be good places for the sugar cane crop. However, problems for Tanegashima include limitations to the land area that can be cultivated, and lack of labor due to aging population, which is an issue that all regional areas of Japan have in common. An additional problem is that the sugar processing factories are in operation only during certain times of the year depending on the sugar cane harvest, and left idle during the rest of the year.

Heading into the town of Nishinoomote,buildings gradually start appearing on the landscape, as well as signs for gasoline stands. The price per liter appears to be about 15~20 yen higher than the mainland. Needless to say, the most limiting factor of life on remote islands is logistics. Whatever that cannot be produced on the island must be shipped or flown in, making the price of all goods and services higher due to the added cost of transportation. Gasoline and fuel for farming and forestry equipment and diesel for power generation are no exception. The extra cost added to retail prices depends on the item, but coming from the mainland, one definitely gets the impression that gasoline is significantly more expensive.


In light of these circumstances, Professor Okubo and Kikuchi¹s group in The University of Tokyo Presidential Endowed Chair for “Platinum Society”3)is undertaking the “Tanegashima Project,” an initiative to study efficient cross-industry collaboration by focusing on the sugar cane and sugar processing industries of Tagemashima 4). Participating in the project are the municipal governments, major industries, and various organizations from the island, as well as several other universities. Sugar is made from the syrup pressed from sugar cane, and bagasse (the pulp of the cane left after pressing) has been used on the island to power for sugar processing and to make compost. The Tanegashima Project sees a new possibility for bagasse to be used as fuel to generate power for the whole island, and to replace the diesel that is currently being used. Bagasse is plant-based, and unlike fossil fuels, does not increase the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere and is thought to be an environmentally friendly source of energy. Waste material from timber mills and forest thinnings are also thought to be possible sources of fuel. Further, the Project is studying the possibility of supplying the vast amount of exhaust heat emitted during power generation and sugar processing to other industries or for civilian use. If such cross-industry collaboration can function well, it will set an example for a new industrial structure in which the agriculture, forestry, and food processing industries are horizontally integrated. These studies on maximizing industrial efficiency under the constraints of a remote island can be seen as contributing to the rejuvenation of rural areas of Japan, and addressing serious social problems for the world at large.

Indeed, the case of Tanegashima can very well be compared to the broader situation of Japan in the world. Seen from the West, Japan is a remote island country in the very Far East. It hardly has any fossil fuels, and is dependent on imports for 96% of its primary energy (2012). 5) Especially since the nuclear power plants were halted, Japan has been racking up a huge trade deficit every month from importing natural gas. Even though 69% of Japan¹s land area is covered by forest, the forestry industry in Japan is declining, and biomass from forest thinnings, a potential energy resource, is not being utilized. Aging population and low birth rate is also happening rapidly, and the population of Japan is forecast to fall below the 100 million mark in 2048. 6) Efforts to find solutions to the problems faced by a remote island - energy supply, efficient consumption, minimization of cost, rejuvenation of industry, aging population - are all directly tied to solving the issues that Japan as a whole faces, which are in fact, issues that all developed countries in the world will face in the future. The KAITEKI Institute is participating in the University of Tokyo¹s Presidential Endowed Chair for “Platinum Society” as part of our ongoing efforts to find ways to make Japanese society more sustainable, which we hope will also contribute to solutions for the rest of the world.

October 22, 2014