Japan: Would you pay $2 million for a dead tree?

Rikuzentakata’s “Miracle Pine” stood for hope and perseverance when it became the sole surviving tree of the Takamatsubara pine forest, after last year’s devastating tsunami. Given Shintoism’s strong connection with nature, it seemed even more important that this centuries-old tree – not a man-made structure – could face up against the 8 metre high waves that swept through the city.

So it was heartbreaking to hear earlier his year that the towering tree was dead. But now, as it slowly deteriorates, its 150 million yen ($US 1.9 million) preservation costs are dividing the community.

While saltwater has rotted the tree’s roots it still stands, although according to Rikuzentakata City, severe weather threatens to destroy it, at any moment. To protect the tree, Rikuzentakata City plans to cut it down, treat it with preservatives, insert a metal core and replace it as a “Tree of Hope” monument and symbol of reconstruction.

Of course, plans of such scale require money – something towns up and down the Tohoku coast are desperately short of. So instead, the city has set up a fund seeking donations to help cover the costs of the preservation process. A Facebook page was even made to gain global interest. With 145 ‘Likes’ the page is a simple way for people around the world to help contribute and find out more.

Futoshi Toba, Mayor of Rikuzentakata writes on the Facebook page: “This tree that has given us so much hope can no longer stand on its own, but we want to leave it as a symbol as we work towards recovery. We would be most grateful for your assistance.”

However, Jiji Press reports there has been some controversy about this “assistance”. Some have said they wonder if the donated money could be put to better use, restoring the town.

“I’m pleased that the pine tree will be preserved as it is a symbol of hope. But I wonder if the money should be used for other purposes,” Hitomi Miyoshi, a 55-year-old care worker, told Jiji.

Another elderly woman who declined to be names suggested that the tree has served its purpose, and that it was time to move forward.

“The lone pine tree has already been impressed on our minds, so I think it has fulfilled its role,” she said.

So what to do about this tree?

Since the beginning of the month, when fundraising for the tree began, roughly 3.5 million yen ($US 45,000) has been donated to Rikuzentakata City.

Call me cold and a pragmatist but there is no denying that while the whole community fights to rebuild itself, that extra money could be put to use elsewhere. I want to say “better” use, but no one can say what is “best” in this situation.

Had this tree continued to live on its own, it would truly be a miracle. And in that case, I think any amount of upkeep and preservation – be it regular examinations by horticulturalists or some supporting scaffolding to protect it from further earthquakes – would be justified.

Often in Japan very old trees, particularly large or unusually shaped boulders or trees that have continued to grow after being struck by lighting are covered in shide – zig-zag shaped strips of paper – which in Shinto religion recognise the object as a sacred site.

But if the tree it to be preserved through human intervention, it takes the magic away. As the elderly women told Jiji, the tree has “fulfilled its role”. Perhaps it’s more appropriate to make a smaller, less-expensive memorial. One that not only reflects on the past, but also encourages the locals to move forward and see what opportunities lie ahead of them. 150 million yen is an awful lot of money for one dead tree. I think it’s time to move on.