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Japan’s declining softwood imports

Japan’s predominantly wood-based housing sector has historically been a strong market for the world’s softwood lumber exporters, but with an ageing population, demand is declining. However, the government is supporting green building with pro-wood policies, and tall timber buildings are on the rise, potentially opening up new opportunities. Source: ResourceWise

In the last six years, Japan’s imports of softwood lumber by volume have fallen by 48%–an average decline of 8% per year with just a 1% uptick between 2021 and 2022. Lumber imports in 2023 dropped by almost 33% compared with 2022 to 3.2 million m3.

Between 2017 and 2023, Canada accounted for almost 27% of Japan’s total softwood lumber imports, but volumes from Canada have fallen by 60% in that timeframe. In 2023, Canadian lumber accounted for 758,000 m3, a year-over-year decline of 19%.

In February 2024, Japan’s lumber imports from Canada amounted to 60,818 m3, which was almost on a par with imports from Finland (57,057 m3). The average price of imported lumber from Canada in February was $396 per m3. The average price of Finnish lumber was $284 per m3.

Japan’s softwood lumber imports from Finland and Sweden in 2023 both declined by more than 30% year-over-year.

Japan’s softwood lumber imports from Russia have also declined in recent years, and in 2023 were down 40% year-over-year to 467,000m3. However, despite its invasion of Ukraine, Russia’s share of Japan’s lumber market barely changed in the last five years, to the surprise and disapproval of European forest industry organizations.

Several of Japan’s main softwood lumber suppliers saw an upturn in exports in 4Q 2023–Canada’s 4Q exports to Japan were up 33% year-over-year and 37% compared with 3Q. But with Japan’s softwood lumber import volumes closely tied to the housing market, a long-term upward trend seems unlikely. In 2021, wooden buildings accounted for 91% of Japan’s single-family homes, but Japan’s declining birthrate suggests demand—particularly for owner- occupied homes–is likely to wane in the future, according to Japan Lumber Journal (JLJ).

In 2023, housing starts decreased by 4.6% year-over- year to 819,623 units, and owner-occupied housing fell by 11.4%. The Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism, on announcing the annual data in January, said consumers had been concerned early in 2023 about the likely impact of the Ukraine war on material prices. The number of prefabricated housing starts declined by 8.1% to 103,403 units and the number of two-by-four houses declined by 0.5% to 90,792 units.

Therefore, softwood lumber suppliers cannot, pin their hopes on a dramatic future rebound in Japan’s traditional residential construction market. However, there are signs of emerging opportunities to increase wood-use in the non-residential sector.

The Law on the Promotion of Wood Use in Buildings for Contributing to the Achievement of a Decarbonized Society came into effect in October 2021. The revision to this law expanded its scope beyond public buildings to include buildings in general, JLJ reported. The law also encourages the use of forest plantations planted after the Second World War, and the government is offering subsidies towards construction and timber procurement costs.

According to Japan’s land ministry, 36 applications were filed in 2022 for the construction of wooden buildings with four or more floors above ground— more than double the number of applications the year prior.

Port Plus in Yokohama, at 11 stories, is Japan’s tallest timber building. It now houses construction contractor Obayashi Corp, which is an advocate of greater use of timber in Japanese buildings. According to Australia’s Wood Central, Mitsui Fudosan Co. and Takenaka Corp. plan to erect a 17-story office building in Tokyo by 2025, and Sumitomo Forestry Co. aims to construct a 350-meter high-rise with 90% of the structure made from lumber in 2041 at the earliest.

Tall wood buildings might be new to Japan, but their appeal as a “natural climate solution” to aid in the decarbonization of the construction sector is undeniable. Obayashi estimates that carbon dioxide emissions from Port Plus are a quarter of those of a comparable building made from reinforced concrete and half of those of steel-frame buildings.

Also, Japan’s existing building codes and policies have set the stage for taller wood buildings. No stranger to earthquakes, Japan enshrined building safety and resilience standards in its Building Standards Law in 1981. Revisions made in 2000, after the 1995 Great Hanshin Earthquake, tightened the requirements further, focusing on the resilience of wooden buildings and overall structural integrity.

Japan recently revised its Building Standards Law further to encourage the use of domestic timbers such as cedar to manufacture building products including veneer, plywood, and panelling. The country also has domestic production of engineered wood products such as glulam and LVL.