Rural regeneration from a sawmill

Tohsen Co., ltd., a leading Japanese sawmill company, works to make the fullest possible use of wood as a resource. It’s good for business, good for the environment, and good for the local economy.

September 30, 2020

Tochigi Prefecture on Honshu is famous for the world-famous Nikko Toshoguu Shinto shrine, delicious strawberries, hot springs and high-quality domestic lumber. Tochigi has 350,000 hectares of forest, covering 54% of the prefecture’s area, of which 120,000 hectares consist of coniferous plantations. Timber production is an important industry in the prefecture, totalling around 490,000 m3 annnually, of which 90% is processed into board and beam lumber in sawmills. Tohsen Co., ltd. and its enterprise group operate almost 30 sawmills in eastern Japan and has 340 employees.

It processes over 330,000 m3 of timber a year, the third largest amount of any company in Japan and the largest in terms of domestic timber. The management at Tohsen is committed to making the fullest possible use of wood resources, and recognized the synergies between forestry and energy generation before any other company in the region.

Success through a unique strategy
In 1964, Mr. Seigo Tohsen established Tohsen Sawmill Company Limited with just one sawmill. His son Seiju Tohsen is the current Managing Director of Tohsen Co., Ltd., and even as a high-schooler assisted his father in managing the young company. The Tohsen Sawmill was a late arrival in an era when the sawmill business in Japan was flourishing, so creativity and effort were needed in order to source enough timber stock. Mr. Tohsen skilfully processed small-diameter and low-quality trees, and made his business profitable from the resulting wood chips and sawdust by-products. This strategy hasn’t changed to this day. In the 1970s, when price-competitive lumber from abroad started to arrive in Japan and put many domestic Japanese producers out of business, the strategy enabled Tohsen to survive and grow. Through mergers and alliances with struggling sawmills and other firms in the region, Tohsen developed its own business model. Smaller local factories do the parts of lumber production where they have special capabilities, and supply their semifinished products to Tohsen for further processing. This minimizes logistics costs, while securing a stable supply of timber. Tohsen also invested in kiln drying facilities in order to compete against foreign lumber.

The japanese biomass pioneer
As a careful observer of the biomass upswing in Austria and Germany, Seiju Tohsen anticipated and strategized for the forthcoming biomass era in Japan earlier than his competitors. The “Enerfore 50” concept, involving sawmill and cogeneration power plant not more than 50 kilometres apart, aims to achieve the fullest possible use of local forest resources for lumber production, electricity and heat generation. The highest quality trees are used for solid sawn lumber, the second quality ones are used for laminated wood, and the residue and bark are chipped for use as biomass fuel while the excess heat goes to greenhouses. In this way, each forest resource can be used with maximum efficiency. Tohsen takes in wood of any quality and utilizes it to the fullest benefit. The concept has been successful and business is growing. “But that is no reason to sit back and relax,” says Seiju Tohsen. “My work is interesting, and I love challenges. My goal is to increase the ratio of domestic over foreign timber, and to expand the philosophy of Enerfore.”

Investment in a sustainable wood economoy
Currently the company has five machines, which it sourced from Ryuokusan, the Japanese Komptech partner, including an Axtor 6010 and a Multistar S3. The chipper makes quality chips, while the star screen processes the bark. It removes contamination by bouncing the material along its screen deck, so the bark can be used as fuel.

In addition to modern machinery, Tohsen is investing in the sustainable use of forestry resources. It purchases and manages mountain woodland to secure it for future use. To impart the necessary knowledge, the company founded the Forest Business College to provide training and support for forestry workers. “We want to re-energize the local forestry industry and create new jobs,” explains Seiju Tohsen. “This can revitalize the entire region, and to accomplish that I am happy to devote not just my working hours, but also my personal time.”