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CONSTRUCTION : Wood Is Ingrained in Japanese Homes

January 22, 1994|Associated Press

Roughly the size of California, Japan enjoys forest reserves on 68% of its land, yet the country imports 70% of its wood supply.

The imports satisfy the market for specialty woods beautiful enough to use in time-honored Japanese construction styles.

Even with today's emphasis on technology and concrete-and-steel construction, the tradition-minded Japanese who can afford a wood home insists on sugi, a cedar, and hinoki, a cypress, for interior millwork and trim. The specialty woods can't be hurried to maturity.

To create the poles of polished, figured sugi that define the tokonoma (place of honor) in a Japanese household, foresters wrap 20-year-old trees in colored plastic or with bamboo poles and elastic cords.

This eventually imprints shibo, a crinkle figure, in the wood grain and makes the wood more desirable at harvest. Such a post measuring 4-by-4-by-13 feet may be worth as much as $7,000.

To satisfy less wealthy buyers, sugi is sliced into thin veneer and then applied to imported Douglas fir or pine timbers. The Japanese prefer even a veneer of their favored wood over a solid timber of any imported species.

To replace the native hinoki, once represented by vast forests felled during World War II, the country imports a similar cypress species from Taiwan and Southeast Asia.

Other species have their historic place, too. There's keyaki, a hardwood that looks like elm, for cabinets and house construction. Tsugu, a yellowish spruce, dominates home frameworks. For roof beams, carpenters look to akamatsu, a red pine. Kashi, an oak, becomes cabinets and household implements.

Purely decorative elements, such as trim, can be made of momiji, a maple. Kiri, called royal paulownia in the United States where it has become naturalized, has always been made into boxes for storing precious belongings. That's because it swells airtight in the island nation's dampness.

And finally, there's kuwa, a mulberry that's hard, durable and perfect for handles and door pulls.

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