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The origins of forest bathing

by Timber Press on June 28, 2018

in Natural History

You’ve probably seen some of the many articles being published on Shinrin-Yoku, the Japanese art of forest bathing. But this meditative practice isn’t just the latest trend in health and wellness—to understand the origins of forest bathing, we must understand how Japanese culture and the Japanese aesthetic support a unique relationship to nature. Yoshifumi Miyazaki, one of the leading experts in the field, shares a brief history from Shinrin-Yoku: The Japanese Art of Forest Bathing.

One New Year’s Day in Japan, a discussion took place on television between the flower arranger Toshiro Kawase and the biologist Toshitaka Hidaka (my biology teacher at university). During the discussion, Kawase mentioned the difference between the Japanese approach to flower arranging and the European approach to flower arranging. In the Japanese tradition, the arranger offers thanks to the flowers once they have been arranged, by performing a bow. This custom does not exist in European flower arranging and Kawase said that this bow of thanks given to the arranged flowers in Japan indicates equality between the person and the flowers.

In reply, Hidaka recalled how he had once praised a flower arrangement in a French home. When he was asked what he liked about it, he did not know how to explain his feelings. He felt the appeal of the flower arrangement as a whole, including his own personal relationship with the flowers, so he struggled to analyze it when asked. Hidaka felt that this showed the special way Japanese people view nature. The Japanese do not see people as having a special place above nature; rather, people and the natural world exist as equals.

Personally, I was fascinated at how they expressed the same thoughts about the relationship between people and nature, despite coming from two completely different fields – one a scientist, the other a flower arranger.

There is a similar sentiment in a book by the Japanese writer Isamu Kurita called A Flower Journey. He notes that, “In the West people look at flowers. In Asia, they live with them.” This idea of a close bond between Japanese people and nature is not new. In many ancient poems, like those by Ki no Tsurayuki and Ono no Komachi written around 1,000 years ago, the lives and appearances of the poets are identified with those of the flowers.

Masao Watanabe, an Emeritus Professor at the University of Tokyo, expressed his thoughts on how Japanese people see nature in a 1974 edition of Science.“According to the Christian religion, which has been followed in Western society, all in heaven and earth is the creation of God. Within that, Man alone is a special creation and a sharp line is drawn between Man and the rest of creation,” he wrote. “We might say that Man’s, and only Man’s, place as a special creation above the rest of creation lies at the root of the West’s view of nature. Also, in the West Man stands opposed to nature, but in Japan Man is part of nature.”

In the same essay, Haruhiko Morinaga looks at the issue from the perspective of Western absolutism vs Eastern relativity, and uses the following example to illustrate these deep cultural differences. Someone asks: “A whale is not a fish, is it?” A Japanese person would reply, “Yes, of course, it is not a fish,” to agree with the speaker. A person from the West, however, would simply answer “No, it is not a fish.” The Westerner’s answer is a simple statement of fact, while the Japanese person’s answer is relative to the question. This Western absolutism and Eastern relativity may also apply to the relationship Japanese people have with nature.

The Japanese aesthetic
Many commentators on Japanese culture observe the relationship between Japanese people and nature as part of the “Japanese aesthetic,” a set of philosophical ideas that link Japanese art and life. One common thread is an appreciation of beauty that is imperfect and impermanent, which for many poets and artists is embodied by nature.

In the oldest known anthologies of Japanese poems, emotions were often expressed in terms of nature. In his preface to the Kokinshu poetry anthology, the Japanese author and poet Ki no Tsurayuki explains, “Japanese poetry has the hearts of men for its seeds, which grow into numerous leaves of words. People, as they experience various events in life, speak out their hearts in terms of what they see and hear.” There are also classic symbols that link nature with emotions; falling cherry blossoms are associated with sorrow, and an autumn evening is often used to express loneliness.

In modern Japan, these ideas are still in use, particularly in architecture, which is designed to be in harmony with the natural surroundings, garden design, crafts and product design.

The study of nature therapy in Japan
It’s no surprise, given the country’s close bond with the natural world, in particular its forests and trees, that Japan is a leading player in research into nature therapies. Much of this work is backed by the Japanese government, which recognizes the need to reduce stress caused by the urban, artificial environment in which many Japanese people live. And why not look close to home for a solution? As we have seen, Japan is endowed with beautiful forests and wonderful natural spaces.

In 2004, we were able to acquire a large research budget of about 270 million yen (about 2.5 million dollars) for nature therapy research from the government, and an additional 200 million yen from the government’s supplementary budget. With this funding we were able to build a climate-controlled test room and rapidly move our research forward. During the last 15 years or so, Japanese manufacturers of physiological measuring devices have responded by developing the world’s most advanced equipment to measure brain activity and autonomic nervous activity. This has contributed greatly to the progress of our research in the field of nature therapy in Japan.


Yoshifumi Miyazaki is a university professor, researcher and the deputy director of Chiba University’s Centre for Environment, Health, and Field Sciences. He has published several books on the effects of forest therapy, and in 2000 Yoshifumi received the Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries Minister Award for clarifying the health benefits. He is also the winner of an award from the Japan Society of Physiological Anthropology.

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