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An interview with Yoshifumi Miyazaki of Shinrin-Yoku

by Timber Press on June 28, 2018

in Natural History

Yoshifumi Miyazaki is one of the world’s leading experts on forest bathing, or shinrin-yoku, the Japanese practice of connecting deeply with nature. Here, Miyazaki shares his journey from an inquisitive child to the renowned educator and researcher he is today.

I would like to explain how I came to be a forest therapy researcher, starting with my early life. I was born in 1954, and from my earliest memories I have always loved nature. When I was nine years old we moved to a house with a garden and I came into contact with soil for the first time. My father loved plants and I can remember helping him with jobs in the garden, such as replanting trees. I also remember wondering why my body felt so relaxed when I came into contact with soil, flowers and trees.

When I did my university entrance exams I decided to study agriculture – I’m not completely sure why, but perhaps that question from my childhood still remained. As a child I wasn’t an able student. I was bottom of the class in the first year of elementary school and never achieved a score of more than 20 per cent in tests. Looking back, I don’t think I understood the concept of test questions and answers, and didn’t know what to write in the answer column. I was that kind of child.

Today, I am a professor at Chiba University. Yet when I applied to study at the same university all those years ago, I failed the entrance exams twice. I couldn’t get into Chiba University as a student, but eventually I became a professor here. Things have worked our rather strangely.

Although I failed to get into Chiba University, I did eventually manage to secure a place to study at Tokyo University of Agriculture and Technology. However, I neglected my studies and spent all of my time playing sports and looking after my tropical fish. Because of that, I scraped through my exams with the minimum grades to achieve a pass. I made no effort to find a job and had no option other than to continue in education and progress to a masters course.

Until that point, the university only accepted ten students each year on its masters course, but that year the number was increased to twelve. I was the twelfth student, again only scraping through. I finished my masters course and once again I hadn’t thought about looking for any work. However, a position suddenly appeared for an assistant professor in the Faculty of Medicine at the Tokyo Medical and Dental University. My professor at the time told me that he didn’t know whether I could do it, but it would be a waste not to try.

I got the job and started on the winding road of my research career. As I didn’t have any medical qualifications, I faced various difficulties working in a medical department, but at the same time I had the chance to learn about research techniques. The Tokyo Medical and Dental University has one of Japan’s leading faculties of medicine, and my tutor was able to teach me the basic skills of research.

I realized that I would need to get a PhD if I wanted to continue working as a researcher, so I gritted my teeth, achieved a PhD in medicine and spent a total of nine years working in the department. In 1988, I was employed by Japan’s Forestry and Forest Products Research Institute (FFPRI). This was the start of my shinrin-yoku research. At the institute we were free to choose our research topics, so I focused on forests, timber and relaxation. I wanted to find answers to a question that had interested me since childhood: “Why do we feel relaxed when we encounter nature?” However, as I was still very young I couldn’t get the research funds I needed.

Luckily, I received a request from NHK, Japan’s national broadcasting company, who wanted me to work on a programme about Yakushima, an island in Japan known for its cedar forests. This stroke of good fortune led to the world’s first physiological experiments on shinrin-yoku: research into the effects of Yakushima cedar on stress hormones in the human body.

This work led, in 2004, to a large research budget from the Japanese government and the start of proper forest therapy research. After spending 19 years as a researcher at the FFPRI, I moved to the Center for Environment, Health and Field Sciences at Chiba University.

I had worked in the Faculty of Agriculture, as an assistant professor in the Faculty of Medicine, as a team leader at the FFPRI, then finally became a professor at the university. My research career has bridged the fields of environmental protection, medicine, forestry and health science, and has had plenty of twists and turns. But all the different fields of research have greatly benefitted the forest therapy research I am doing now, and have shaped the way I work.

 

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